A Great Tactical Error

Since Johann van Summeren hoisted the winner’s cobble in the Roubaix velodrome on Sunday, much has been made of Garmin-Cervelo’s tactical approach to the problem that is Fabian Cancellara. Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters said well in advance of the race that the key to beating the big, strong Swiss is to attack with your whole team, to be involved in every phase of the race and to isolate him from his teammates. Obviously, that approach paid dividends in the North of France.

Much less has been made of Leopard-Trek’s tactical failings. When you have the strongest rider in the race (and will anyone argue that Cancellara is not head and shoulders above the rest?), your entire strategy should revolve around protecting him, keeping him out of the wind, covering breakaways, etc. The failure to win in either Flanders or Roubaix was not a result of Cancellara not being strong enough, but rather a product of Leopard-Trek’s complete inability to support their leader.

At Roubaix, the Leopards deployed Stuart O’Grady, himself a former winner, as their top liuetenant, and O’Grady did his job until a puncture with 50kms to go shook him out of the favorite’s group. From then on Cancellara was on his own while Garmin-Cervelo had four riders either with Cancellara or up the road. It was one-on-four, and Spartacus was still strong enough to take second place.

It’s fairly inexcusable to squander a talent like Cancellara’s. Looking down the Leopard-Trek roster though, you have to ask, who exactly, beyond O’Grady was the team counting on to do the Swiss’ dirty work?

In the schism that split the Schleck brothers from SaxoBank and Bjarne Riis, the main players initially were the Schlecks and Alberto Contador. It is unclear, to this writer, which happened first, the Schleck’s planning to leave, or Riis planning to bring in the Spaniard. Regardless, the symmetry of those moves seems to have worked fine for both SaxoBank and Leopard-Trek. Each has a grand tour contender and supporting cast built for putting that contender on the podium.

But where a squad like Garmin-Cervelo or even the new version of SaxoBank-Sungard have filled out their teams with guys who are useful in one day races, Leopard-Trek brought Cancellara over without ever securing him the help he would need to achieve his goals. The Swiss strongman has spoken of his desire to help the Schleck’s win the Tour de France, but what have you heard his teammate’s wanting on his behalf?

The tactical error, the one that seems to have cost Cancellara his shot at repeating the Flanders/Roubaix double this season, wasn’t his decision to sit up with 25kms to go on the road to Roubaix or his failure to see the threat Nick Nuyens posed at Flanders. Rather, it was his decision to leave a team with the talent and tactical nous to win a monument, and join a team whose vision was too narrowly focused to bring success to the strongest rider in today’s peloton.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International


  1. Souleur

    Thats a good point Robot, one a buddy and I were discussing, where was Spartacus team.

    Then again, as i look at it, it may also be acceptable to Leopard that this is the spring-classic team and that Spartacus is man enough to ride singlehandedly (is that a word?); as they opt for a GC oriented team. In the end, we will see, and if they bring home the maillot-juane or maglia rosa, i suppose it will all have worked out.

    so with that i hesitate to get too critical of Leopard

    without a doubt however, it was theirs to lose

  2. Jim

    Interesting. Generally, a racer is held accountable for working with what he has. I’m a sore loser if I make excuses for not having won a race. But we’re making excuses if Cancellara doesn’t win. Not sure I buy that.

  3. Champs

    Small wonder we make excuses for Cancellara when he nearly overcomes lousy team support, anyway. For the Schlecks’ sake, I hope they get better care.

    I’m not sure it’s any triumph of tactics to put a lieutenant in the break. Garmin and BMC rode the same race, but the latter would be praised if Van Summeren faded instead of Quniziato. Unloading a bunch of ammo and firing scattershot still seems like the Garmin strategy, and this time they finally hit the target.

  4. Author

    @Jim – I haven’t heard Cancellara make any excuses. As a fan (and an analyst), when the strongest rider doesn’t win, I want to identify the tactical reason. That’s all.

  5. veloduffer

    Fabian’s position is similar to what Hincapie experienced as a member of Lance’s teams (Motorola, US Postal, Discovery), which were built for the TdF and not the classics. How many times did Hincapie get isolated and had to fight off Museuuw, Knavens and the other Mapei teammates? Georgie could have had a lot more wins if he were on a different squad.

  6. Author

    @veloduffer – Excellent point. The only difference I would make is that Cancellara is pretty clearly the top Classics talent of this generation, whereas Hincapie, even in his prime, was never more than a top contender. The thing that sticks in my craw (and perhaps Fabian himself is comfortable with his choice) is that he moved to an under-powered classics team just as he was in the prime of his career. Either he knew the sacrifice he was making, or he overestimated his own ability to win races on his own.

  7. Jonathon

    FABulous signed late and new the full rooster when signing. If he’s unsupported on this team, no one to question but himself. The way he rode to 2nd was beyond impressive.

  8. randomactsofcycling

    My take on the Schleck/Riis split was always that Contador didn’t enter the equation until Bjarne was convinced the Schlecks were gone for sure. Perhaps they, like Sastre, were no longer enamoured with his imposing presence.
    Cancellara did seem to jump ship or at least announce his move quite late in the piece and I can see for LEOPARD/Trek that his signing was almost rubbing salt into the wound. Fabian seems to be an intelligent and thoughtful guy. I’m sure he looked at the roster and could see holes when it came to the Classics. Perhaps he thinks he can win them himself, as long as someone is in the car giving him the occasional bottle? You can’t blame him for being self confident.
    I think it is correct that the team management lacks tactical nous. I was amazed Spartacus towed Thor and Ballan for as long as he did. I can’t see Bruyneel or Riis or (dare I say it) Manolo Saiz letting their best rider tow two other favourites for 5kms let alone 15 or 20.
    It doesn’t bode well for any of the Grand Tours, regardless of Andy’s form.

  9. Robot

    @Jonathon – Agreed. The tactical error, in my mind, was both his and L-T’s.

    @randomacts – The whispers I’ve heard (they’re very quiet) suggest that Contador was in the frame much earlier than has been reported, in fact, that all the moves were 3-5 months ahead of the reporting. Draw what conclusions you may.

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