Insights from 2012: Tour de France and Olympics

It has been a pretty busy month for the sporting world, with the Olympics coming to a close just last week and the Tour de France just last month.

I haven’t really been following the Olympics, only managed to catch the Men’s and Women’s Road Race and Individual Time Trials, together with some Track and occasional BMX and MTB action. I have followed the Tour de France much closer, and whenever I’ve the opportunity I would watch the live telecast, or at least the highlights of that stage. I have also been following the power meter data by a few riders, as well as the interviews of the different riders.

The domination of Team Sky at the Tour de France this year, and the attempted one at the Olympics, has definitely caused me to reflect and try to draw some insights on what contributed to their success, and their failure.

Here are the 2 main insights that I have gained from watching both the Tour de France and Olympics:

Know what the race demands, then train specifically towards those demands

We all saw the way Team Sky took the race by its horns and dominated it. They had the yellow jersey after the first week, which was a pretty risky thing because it was still quite far from the finish line in Paris and there were still a lot of tough mountain stages to go through. This was in contrast with the Tour de France in 2011, where the yellow jersey was only decided on the day before the last stage in Paris.

What was even more interesting to watch, was how everyone in Team Sky could just get to the front, and set the tempo on the mountain stages especially which made many riders crack, yet at the same time annul any attacks easily (e.g Nibali’s attacks). There was no sharp acceleration from them, just a steady pace and occasional rise in the tempo to bring back any attacks (mind you, it made the attacks out front look stupid). Froome and Wiggins were able to hold such a high tempo that they made everything looks so easy. What’s the reason, you may ask. Another doping scandal on the rise?

Dominating – Team Sky took the yellow jersey after the 1st week of the Tour de France and never gave anyone a single opportunity to steal it away from them. (Photo credits: Guardian news)

It’s obvious that such a high sustained tempo could only mean one thing, lots and lots of specific training. Specific training to get the Lactate Threshold to a certain wattage, such that they could hold that specific high tempo. Specific training to allow them to produce a high power output on the slopes of the Tour de France, yet able to Time Trial like a motorbike on the flats.

The only way to know what to train for, is to look at what the race demands from the rider, and Team Sky did a really great job at just that. They were able to analyse every single detail of what it took to win the Tour de France from past power data of their riders (Wiggins was 4th in 2009) from similar races and were able to put together what the race demanded from their riders. The concept is simple: If you’re able to replicate what happens during racing as much as you can during training, the higher your chances of doing well. Training should thus be specific to that big race/event that you are aiming for.

It’s not all about the numbers, but also about guts, panache, and aggressiveness

We also saw how Team Great Britain (well Team Sky in essence) didn’t manage to deliver Cavendish to the line in first place to win the Gold medal in the Olympics Men’s Road Race. To be fair, they were forced to do all the chasing and control in the peleton (they only had 4 men to do that, excluding Cav), which looked almost impossible to pull off. The peleton took full advantage of that, and a sizeable amount of riders were in the winning breakaway at the end. Even though Team Sky might have the men and the right ‘numbers’ to accomplish such a task, it proved that racing is also about using your head, and having the guts to be aggressive even when the chances of winning are slim. We saw how riders like Gilbert and Nibali shoot off the front even though they knew there was quite a big chance of getting caught back. Racing requires panache, and the guts to try even when you know the odds are against you. A fine example would be the newly crowned Olympic Champion, Alexandre Vinokourov, who did a gutsy attack with Uran within the last 5km, and made a cunning move on him and sprinted to claim the Gold medal.

Against the odds: Philippe Gilbert on the attack in the Men’s Road Race during the 2012 Olympics. (Photo credits:

Of course, it is important to have a fine – tuned engine when you race. It is important to be able to hit a certain amount of wattage and train specifically to your races. But it is also just as important to have the racing smarts and aggressiveness to be able to use your engine to it’s maximum capacity.

I leave you with these 2 insights, do feel free to comment in the box below! Happy riding!

Milan San Remo 2012 – Tactics explained

If you haven’t had the chance to watch the race, here’s the video highlights off youtube!

I’ve been hearing/reading people criticising the way the race turned out, like how Cancellera should have gotten the win instead, or that what Gerrans did was wrong. I thought it was a really fantastic race the way it was won, a good show of tactics, and a perfect example of how the strongest or fastest don’t necessarily win.

I know some people upon watching the video would probably have criticised Gerrans harshly for being “un – sportsman or ungentlemanly” and nipped Cancellera from a victory he deserves. It should have been Cancellera’s one to take after the amount of work he did on the front yeah? After all, if it weren’t for him, the breakaway wouldn’t have succeeded?

That might seem so on the surface, but look deeper and analyse their racing tactics.

1. Nibali definitely wouldn’t have worked because he has his team’s star sprinter – Peter Sagan who was capable of a victory in the chasing peleton.

2. Gerrans had his team leader – Matt Goss (last year’s winner) in the peleton too and didn’t have to pull a turn either.

3. Cancellera did the best he could. Despite being the ‘lousier’ sprinter compared to Gerrans, he had to give it everything to make the breakaway succeed. Here’s why:

  • If the breakaway didn’t get caught, he’d be guaranteed a place on the podium and have a shot at victory.
  • If the breakaway got caught, it’s a much lower possibility that he’d manage a podium finish because of the high calibre of sprinters in the peleton (what’s left of it), and he would probably have used up too much of his energy to sprint against the rest.

Cancellera had to take a gamble. A podium spot would definitely be a better choice than finishing top 10 even! Given his time trialling and descending capabilities, he knew there was a possibility of staying away to the finish and so the logical choice would be to give it everything he had in the break. Besides, that’s what happens when you’re one of the strongest riders.

Gerrans, on the other hand, showed played a really good tactical game:

1. He followed Nibali at the right moment. Was he marking Nibali? Or did he just happen to be on his wheel? Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. He was the only one who followed Nibali.

2. He played it smart by staying behind Cancellera most of the time to save energy and knew that he didn’t have to work if he didn’t want to because his team leader was behind in the peleton.

3. He was calm even though the peleton breathing down their necks and stayed behind Cancellera’s draft all the way till the last moment before shooting past, saving lots of precious energy.

4. He knew his body well and his capabilities, and made full use of it.

Why did Nibali attacked then?

1. To force other teams to chase him to the finish so that the finishing speed would be high for his team’s sprinter without having to use their own lead out train, especially after they have used up a few teammates on the earlier climbs.

2. He’s a good climber and one of the fastest descenders in the pro peleton … so … why not?

Ultimately, it was Cancellera’s race to lose if the breakaway was gobbled up by the chasing peleton. Nibali and Gerrans both had their designated team sprinters in the peleton, both well capable of winning, while there was none for Cancellera’s team.

Remember, in racing, it’s not about who’s the strongest or fastest, it’s about who’s the smartest and freshest at the end.

If you noticed, Gerrans only took 2 turns in total when in the breakaway: one when Nibali and him were on the attack up the climb, and one on the flat after the descend when Cancellera, Nibali, and him were together. He was the one who had to use the least energy ‘breaking’ the air in front of him.

All 3 of them played the perfect tactics given their circumstance, but there can ultimately be one winner.

Now that’s a real show of professionalism, tactical nuance, and skill.

Congrats to Simon Gerrans! Yet another dark horse win!