SAINT-AMAND-MONTROND, France (VN) — There is no question that Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) has one of the best tactical minds in cycling.
His dismantling of the seemingly solid Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) on the penultimate climbing stage of the 2012 Vuelta a España, to snatch away the leader’s jersey for good, was a textbook demonstration of how tactics can win a race.
Contador and his Saxo teammates put on another show in Friday’s windblown 13th stage of the Tour de France, catching out race leader Chris Froome (Sky) and reviving the Spaniard’s GC aspirations.
Contador laid a trap in the final hour of racing, surprising Froome as he and five Saxo teammates dropped the hammer in crosswinds that busted the peloton into pieces. Six Saxo jerseys drove home a winning 14-man move, taking back 1:09 on Froome.
“We didn’t expect to make so much damage,” said Contador, who moved to third, at 2:45. “There was a moment that we almost gave up. It was 10 seconds, 10 seconds, but they kept pushing the pedals. It’s an incredible demonstration of the strength of this team.”
Echelons are one of the most dramatic and explosive elements of racing. Saxo, under the guidance of Bjarne Riis, has a long history of using them to take big gains on unaware rivals.
The diagonal pacelines are a numbers game, and a test of strength, concentration, and sacrifice. But most important is the tactical wile and experience to know when to make the move.
As stage winner Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) said after the finish on Friday, “You’ve got five seconds or it’s over. You’ve got five seconds or you won’t make it.”
On Friday, everything stacked up in Saxo’s favor and for Froome, it was over.
Midway through the stage, the peloton was already broken in two. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was languishing in a group more than two minutes adrift after Belkin continued to push the pace when he suffered a broken rear wheel. Valverde had nearly all of his team to try to close down the gap, but there was no coming back. The Spaniard, who started the day in second place, would eventually forfeit 9:54, plummeting out of contention.
Belkin found help from Omega Pharma in setting a blistering pace when Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) were among the sprinters doomed in the Valverde group.
That pressure created another fracture, sending Sky’s Richie Porte out the back as the front group was reduced to about 75 riders. Froome only had Ian Stannard, the hobbled Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh, and Kanstantsin Siutsou. Kennaugh and Siutsou would do all they could before falling off the pace.
The yellow jersey was exposed. Saxo could smell blood in the water.
In sharp contrast to Sky’s relatively inexperienced roster, Saxo brought a Tour team loaded with wily, cagey veterans. Michael Rogers, Nicholas Roche, Matteo Tosatto, Daniele Bennati, and Roman Kreuziger all massed to the front, along with Contador.
Under gusting winds, the peloton was strung out single-file. Froome was back about 15 wheels when Saxo laid its trap.
Nicholas Roche recounted how it went down: “I said to Michael, ‘let’s do something.’ Mick looked back, and Alberto gave the nod. Then Michael said, ‘let’s go!’ And off we went. It was something that was decided in three seconds.”
In an instant, the six riders from Saxo pounced. There were no more words exchanged. No one waited for orders. No radio checks to the sport director. Everyone knew what to do.
“It was something completely spontaneous,” said Tosatto. “You cannot plan that. The conditions were optimum for a situation like this. When we started to pull, there’s no hesitation. It was full gas.”
Not everyone was caught out. Belkin’s Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) hitched a ride, along with Peter Sagan and Cannondale teammate Maciej Bodnar, as well as Cavendish, who had teammates Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra in-tow.
“We didn’t anticipate the [Saxo move], we didn’t anticipate it at all. They were there the whole day. I even asked Mick [Rogers] if they wanted to ride a little bit, and he said no, so we didn’t anticipate it at all,” Cavendish said. “But finally you could see how strong they were in the final, they really pulled us all to the finish, and took a minute on the next group, so chapeau.”
Saxo was teeth to the wind, riding as if it were a team time trial. Riders were taking short, powerful pulls, opening a gap to a flailing Froome, who tried to garner help in the bunch, but with little response.
It was hard to determine where the elastic snapped, but it appeared as if it were Froome who either could not follow the acceleration or perhaps chose not to. According to Stannard, he tried to pull the Kenya-born Brit across the gap immediately, but Froome was boxed in, unable to follow.
Seeing the gap, Contador was chattering into the race radio, encouraging his teammates to drive the wedge, “Venga! Venga!”
“We were focused. We were saying, ‘let’s stick together.’ It’s like what you’d say at halftime in a soccer match in the locker room. We were saying to each other, ‘come on, guys, let’s do it,'” Roche said. “Alberto was on the radio, encouraging us. As long as we saw the gap was growing, we gave everything we had, without thinking.”
There was no real organized chase from behind. Contador and co. had everything to gain, and found natural allies in the Belkin boys and Fuglsang. Froome seemed to accept his fate and the gap grew to 1:09 by the finish.
After the stage, Froome took a long view on how much time he lost.
“I’m just happy that I have an advantage of more than two minutes and I’m keeping in mind that this weekend we have a really difficult weekend coming up in the mountains,” Froome said. “Personally, I think there will be more time won and lost on a stage like Ventoux than in the last 20K of a today’s stage.”
The mood was jubilant at the Saxo bus as riders trailed across the line one at a time. Rogers clipped out of his pedals and literally had to crawl, using his hands, to climb the stairs to enter the team bus. He had helped drive a group that averaged better than 47 kph for the length of the stage.
“That was worse than a mountain day,” he said. “That was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had at the Tour.”
Contador was the first to thank his teammates. When he rode up to the bus, he stopped to hug Roche as the Irishman chatted with journalists.
“The decision was something that you make in the moment. We could see the wind blowing hard from the side. We could see riders lining up,” Contador said. “Bennati made an incredible kilometer, like he was a motorcycle, and that’s when we could make the important differences.”
The performance revived Contador’s chances and gave him a big boost of ever-important morale going into Sunday’s decisive climbing stage up Mont Ventoux.
“The Tour is far from over. A thousand things can happen on any day,” Contador said. “The team was extraordinary. I am very happy about today. Now I am a little closer to the leader.”
The Spanish climber has been on the back foot since the Tour started, losing time in the Pyrénées and again in Wednesday’s time trial at Mont Saint Michel, but he has said since the beginning the goal was to be hitting his peak for the final week.
That final week is about to begin, and Contador just shifted onto the front foot in the most dramatic way possible.