You have to risk it all to win

Last night I wrote very briefly about how Jumbo Visma needs to do something concerted to put Tadej Pogačar on the defensive. It’s quite simple: to beat the best, you have to work as a team, and Jonas Vingaard, the closest challenger to the Slovenian star, probably has the best team behind him. Pogačar’s UAE side have never been up to par with Jumbo, and COVID threatens to really thin their ranks. It’s a big development in a team sport like grand tour cycling, even when the weaker team has the better rider. Today there’s a nice article in Bicycling explaining how leveraging their strength will involve sacrifices from Jumbo Visma, especially Primož Roglič, if it’s really going to work.

[I’m going to skip over INEOS for now, since they lack the top options of Jumbo, but we might be revisiting this dynamic very soon.]

Joe Lindsey, the author of the cycling article, is one of the best and most experienced commentators on cycling, and I’m glad to see him clarify what I was perhaps beginning to understand. It got me thinking about what really needs to happen for this to turn into a big battle. And it made me think of one of my favorite Tours of all time: Carlos Sastre’s victory in 2008.

Attention, there are many dissimilarities between 2022 and 2008. There, the presumed favorite was Cadel Evans, not yet world champion or winner of the Tour; just a guy who seemed likely to do something if he ever had the support of the team, which at Predictor-Lotto-Whatevertheywerecalled he certainly didn’t. Pogačar is hardly lucky or lacking in support to the extent that Evans was. He also doesn’t face the same dynamic as Evans, with not two but three opponents from the same CSC team to be feared, in theory at least, in the form of two Schlecks and eventual winner Sastre. But how this race unfolded should be very much on the minds of Jumbo Visma and the UAE.

Going into the Tour, CSC was a deep team with no real favorite to win. You might think that’s a problem, and we certainly did at the time. Andy Schleck was the little brother, just a glint in Bjarne Riis’ eyes, as beautiful as a flea pulled from the sand to green on a warm spring day. In time, this kid could be a big winner, but his second upset in the general classification of the 2007 Giro (a pretty bad course to suit Danilo Di Luca) was all that gave him hope. We thought he needed more time, and I guess he did.

His older brother Fränk was more seasoned and ready for the challenge, but he had just become a Tour de Suisse meme.

A drama, In effect. Whatever Fränk could do in theory, we kind of assumed he would torpedo himself at some point, but hey, you never knew. That left Carlos Sastre, who really knew how to climb, and while his Luxembourg buddies really couldn’t do a time trial to get out of a wet paper bag, Sastre wasn’t terrible against the clock. Even against the mighty Evans, if you squint hard enough, you might see him or maybe Fränk steal this one.

So what happened in 2008?

Predictably, Evans had a few minutes in hand over the entire CSC team after a few lumpy stages in Brittany and a time trial, but Fränk finished first in Hautacam on stage 10, from less among riders not working for the incredibly doped Saunier Duval team, and propels himself within a second of the yellow jersey. Evans allowed Schleck to escape while keeping an eye on Sastre, Menchov and everyone else, and he probably felt good on stage as he pulled on the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, taking it to Kim Kirchen. [These were not the best of times.] But the worrying signs were there in Schleck’s attack.

Photo by Jasper Juneen/Getty Images

Six days later, the Tour ventured into Italy for a finish in Prato Nevoso, a mere stage appetizer, but where the wheels really started to turn furiously, as CSC servants hammered the ground to isolate Evans of his weaker team, then Sastre escaped late, almost halving his deficit to 48″, while Evans could not prevent Fränk from taking the yellow by a slim margin of 8″.

The next stage (after the final day of rest) Andy drove the pace up Europe’s highest mountain pass, the Col de la Bonette, although they took an extra break when Evans decided to help put Menchov, a time trial, on his heels. The leaders arrived together and Fränk remained in yellow. The yellow jersey was the ace of the team, because during the last big climbing stage towards Alpe d’Huez, it was again the yellow jersey that attracted the most attention, despite the participation from Fränk (and Andy) to the killer pace of CSC on the Col du Galibier and Col de la Croix de Fer, all of which distracted and softened Evans for the team to play their last card, Sastre, who jumped from the peloton to the crazy from Alpe d’Huez and was never seen again.

Why did it work?

In the hagakurethe famous manual of the perfect samurai, success by death is explained as follows:

“Repeat your death morning and night. Only when you constantly live as if you were already a corpse (jōjū shinimi) can you find freedom in the Martial Way and fulfill your duties without fail throughout your life. .

A bit dramatic for a bike race? I guess, but samurai tended to be pretty good at their jobs, when they weren’t really dying. And almost nothing in their world was actually hyperbolic. So let’s go with that.

Ichijo-Jiro-Tadanori and Notonokami Noritsune samurai warriors fight

Photo by: Ann Ronan Picture Library/Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Anyway, replace winning and losing with living and dying, and you can see the logic: you have to prepare to lose everything if you want to win. I’ve heard him say “live with death in your heart”, in which that little sense of fatalism is enough to free the warrior from any fear that might hold him back (there were female samurai), and then he was better off set up to win.

That’s where CSC went in 2008. Sure, you could say Sastre was the plan all along, but Fränk never stopped being a plausible threat to win as well. Both Schleck and Sastre took turns attacking, taking the risks that might have upset their main strategy or fallback – Fränk was actually in yellow – in order to put Evans in the most difficult position possible. They focused not on making it easy for their men, but on making it difficult for their enemy. This is how you win.

Tour de France 2008 - Seventeenth stage

Photo by Jasper Juneen/Getty Images

They also ruthlessly flayed Evans, letting him know day after day that he was the hunted, not the hunter. They applied pressure from many sides, and yet you could have considered these pressure points in isolation – really? Franc?? – they created a major problem which ultimately broke the Aussie.

So how Jumbo Schleck UAE?

This is where Lindsey has a specific recommendation, that Jumbo use Primož Roglič as a sacrificial lamb, having him attack to stress the now lightly defended Pogačar, so Vingaard can go through for the win. I agree it’s a plausible scenario, but I don’t think it’s the only one, and I think it might take a bit of patience and cunning before Jumbo can really decide how to proceed .

74th Criterium du Dauphine 2022 - Stage 8

Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

First, yes, it’s time to attack. It’s time to put a little death of victory in everyone’s heart and take the race to the United Arab Emirates. It makes sense to start that process on Wednesday, with Roglič the rearmost of the two very plausible overall threats to win. But for two reasons, I think it may be a while before we know what the right choice will be in the end.

First, strategically, Pogačar’s response will, in part, determine how Jumbo plays out. If he’s fully focused on Vingaard and Roglič has the legs to get away and stay there, then at some point the door is just too wide open for Rogs and Jumbo to walk through. But we’re several mountain steps away from a final, and as we saw in 2008, Evans’ focus has tended to shift with leadership. If Rogs came all the way, even in yellow, Pogs probably follows. At some point, you have to. Unlike any Schleck, Roglič can knock out a hell of a time trial.

109th Tour de France 2022 - Stage 7

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

For Jumbo, it may take some time to figure out which of their runners is the real ace. With scorching heat, meters to climb, etc., no one can say for sure which of their runners will be the strongest; all you can say now is that Vingaard is up front and Roglič is the perfect lure. For the moment. And all that matters now is that they launch their aggression against Pogačar in some form or another.

Secondly, from the perspective of the other side, Jumbo needs to understand (and no doubt understands) that such a strategy, combined with the size and shape of the upcoming stages and the oppressive heat wave that is slowly beginning this week and next, will all work slowly against Pogačar. The main thing is not to beat him on stage 11 or 12, but to increase the pressure more and more, so that he can be cracked before arriving in Paris. If Jumbo can get a lead in the next 48 hours, great, but there’s always next week too. CSC’s strategy in 2008 was remarkable as it all ended up being timed to perfection, happening on the last major climb of the Tour, after which there wasn’t much that Evans or anyone else could d anything else could do to stop Sastre. Earlier would have been nice too, maybe, but as CSC Jumbo doesn’t need to treat each step as now or never in terms of a final decision. As long as they make moves that lead to a finish, that’s the goal. They don’t have a moment to lose if they want to weaken Pogačar, but such a great champion as he may not succumb to the first, second or third onslaught. It may take time. Jumbo has time, as long as he doesn’t waste a second.

Jumbo has a clear advantage, as long as Roglič or Vingaard – or both – are up to the task of winning the Tour de France. [And if they aren’t, well, then they really have nothing to lose.] Jumbo has to ride like the team that has the upper hand, both the top two guys as well as their ultra-elite support group of climbers and of course Wout. Every day Pogačar is allowed to ride without covering for his team’s weakness is one step closer to a third straight Tour win for him. It all starts tomorrow, or should, and if it does, we could have a spectacular race on our hands.

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