Continuing my view of strategy vs. tactics using the lens of the Tour de France. I’ll need to skip stages 6 and 7 – my small houseguests were complaining about the hours of Tour de France coverage so I took a couple of days away from the TV to show them the city.
Stages 6 and 7 were sprint stages and, like watching NASCAR, they can be boring until the big finish unless there are crashes. Kittel took the green jersey after stage 7, Aru kept the polka dot and Yates kept the white jersey for both stages.
At 64.5 miles, 50 riders have broken away from the pack. They’re split into two groups, with the peloton about 3 minutes back. The course today is transitional, with one category 3 mountain then a cat 1 just before the finish, without a long downhill afterwards on which the sprinters could catch up.
Strategy & Tactics
Chris Froome, the yellow jersey, is in the peloton but three riders from his team made the breakaway. Tactically, those three riders won’t take turns leading the break as the others will, and usually that would drag the break back, but with a break this large their inaction probably won’t impair the break. If the break stays away, these riders could try for a stage win.
It wouldn’t be a bad strategy for Chris Froome let the yellow jersey go today – it would put the burden of leading the peloton’s pace on a different team – but it says something if Team Sky is unable to pull back the break. And, of course, every yellow jersey says during the first week that it might be better to let the jersey go to another team – but, curiously, they rarely let that happen.
The peloton is in hot pursuit with Sky, BMC, and Movistar lined up in single file. The pace of the race is so high that they’re on track to arrive 15 minutes earlier than the organizers had anticipated. All of these GC teams have riders in the break, which will help them the same way it could help Froome.
Tactically, having riders in the break also helps a team because, when they hit the mountains, the breakaway riders will be positioned to help their team leaders from the front. Either a team leader can try to launch an attack from the field and catch up with a domestique and draft behind him. Or a breakaway rider can drop back to the peloton to lend help to his leader – it’s easier for them to drop back then to catch up from behind. Also, on hills, the riders are so spread out on the road that it’s hard for the team cars to pull up in support of their leader if there’s a problem with his bike; so the fastest assistance might come from a domestique dropping back and handing his bike over to his leader.
BMC is starting to get more aggressive to try to take some of the fight out of Team Sky and wear them down so Porte can make a move later in the race.
The sprinters went full out for the intermediate sprint, which fell before the cat 3. The race is heading into the high mountains tomorrow so the sprinters’ strategy is to secure as many sprint points as they can before the stages where the intermediate sprint points are placed between mountains, forcing them to work harder to keep up with the peloton long enough that they can try to reach the front to get those points.
The split in the breakaway has shifted, and now there are two riders in front, a huge group about 1 minute back, then the peloton 3:41 back. Three riders are off the back, the leader of team FDJ and two of his domestiques. He’s a sprinter and is suffering a little early in the mountains. His domestiques need to keep him within the finish time required (if he’s too slow, he falls out of the race), at least until they hit the high mountains later in the stage and the other sprinters join him in the Autobus. They’re about 17 minutes back and really in trouble.
One of the Team Sky riders just slipped back from the breakaway to the front of the peloton to lend his strength.
At 37.9 miles from the finish, the peloton is at a little over 2 minutes back from the leaders. As you saw in the earlier stages, usually when there’s a two-minute gap at this point in the race, the peloton is in control, setting a pace that keeps the breakaway just far enough in front of them to discourage other riders from trying to launch another attack. Today the peloton is stretched out in the long single file that shows how fast they’re going, with Team Sky at the front – they’re doing a lot of work considering that tomorrow will be a very challenging day for the GC. Ideally they would conserve their strength for tomorrow’s stage, when the other GC contenders will be attacking Froome, hoping to gain back a few seconds. The riders at the back of the peloton are off their seats, sitting down on the top bar of the bicycle to make themselves more aerodynamic and try to keep up.
On the last climb, the breakaway splits up as everyone attacks each other.
At 4.9 miles from the finish, the break is on a shallow descent off the category 1 mountain with the peloton is 1:24 back. Lilian Calmejane is off the front by 35 seconds and descending like a demon, going for the stage win. Robert Gesink is next back, then 3 riders 1 minute down and then the peloton, quickly gaining. It looks like the sprinters must have formed an autobus off the back after the intermediate sprint points.
3.1 miles from the finish, Calmejane has started a slight uphill and his legs are cramping. So far, he’s keeping his advantage but it’s dangerous. It sounds like he ran out of water – rookie mistake, this is his first tour and only his second year racing professionally – and riders are not allowed to collect new water bottles from the team car on an uphill (because they might hold onto the water bottle a little too long and catch a free ride).
2.0 miles. Calmejane still has :36 on Gesink and 1:05 on the 3 man chase group. But the peloton is only 1:26 back. At this length, and with all the turns that prevent the peloton from seeing the men in front, Calmejane may be able to finish if he doesn’t cramp again. [Gesink said later that he knew that Calmjane was cramping but so was he and “it was a fight between two dead guys.”]
.8 miles and Dan Martin, a GC contender who was in the peloton, jumped out of the pack aggressively and has caught the second chase group. He’ll never catch Calmejane but he could get some time on Froome and the other leaders. Froome may even let him take yellow because then Martin’s team would need to chase any breaks tomorrow and Froome’s team could conserve energy until the end of the race.
Martin managed to get to the second break but the peloton chased him down – not just the Team Sky boys but also the other GC contenders. He might not be able to close the gap to Froome but he could certainly have pushed himself up the ranks; and the other teams didn’t want him to do that. With a leader as strongly in front as Froome is – and a team as experienced and well-heeled as Sky – the real race may be for second or third. That means the GC teams will be watching each other carefully and, if someone tries to break free, like Martin did, the other teams will ride him down to maintain the ranks of their own contenders.
Calmejane won the stage – another Frenchman and the French go crazy – they’ve been in a slump for a while, and this is another big shot in the arm for them. He also earns enough polka dot points to take that jersey for a day.
Yellow stays on Froome (Dan Martin got caught and finished 13th) and there’s no change in the gaps. Green jersey stays with Kittel and Simon Yates keeps the white.