The Tour: Elysian endgame

A foregone conclusion?

They say every good story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This year’s Tour de France has given us the first two, and the ending is now almost in place. We’re about to turn to the final page.

But, as with all good endings, we can still only guess at how it will all turn out on Sunday afternoon. Favourite to win is definitely Bradley Wiggins, but the final week has been his toughest test. He survived magnificently, and stamped firmly on the opposition in Saturday’s time trial.

How the endgame played out

As the riders and teams prepared on the second Rest Day for the final stages, there was determination on the part of Team Sky to defend their overall 1-2 positions; equally, there was resignation among the other principal teams, as they all looked to grabbing whatever was left in the remaining days.

It’s disappointing that defending champion Cadel Evans suffered a couple of bad days, losing considerable time and sliding well down the leader board. He’s a great fighter, someone who doesn’t give up easily; so he must have been really suffering, mentally and physically. It seems a stomach upset was at the root of his troubles, and he’d lost all stamina by yesterday.

Tactics, attacks – or tacks?

Speaking of troubles, there were two major incidents a week ago.

Last Sunday, with about 30 km to go, the peloton, plus all sorts of accompanying vehicles, suffered a huge number of punctures caused by some idiot(s) who’d scattered the road with carpet tacks. What was the point (?) – a protest, directed at some rider, or a team, or just the Tour itself? Or simple idiocy, a cruel and dangerous prank?

The results were not good: one rider crashed because of his puncture, with a suspected broken wrist. Cadel was again a major victim, losing time while waiting for replacement wheels. The stage itself was, basically, nullified, as the peloton sportingly waited for Cadel and others to catch up.

Dopes on tour

And the suspicion of doping was aired, yet again. One Italian rider had already been sent home by his team, accused of doping. Then came the bombshell  –  Fränk Schleck, it is alleged, took a banned diuretic, which is principally a weight-reducing drug, but one that may also be used to hide the effects of EPO.

He asked for a second sample to be tested; but was immediately withdrawn by his team and sponsors, following heavy hints by the anti-doping body. The B test also proved positive; Schleck and the sport in general are under a new cloud of suspicion.

On the road

Meanwhile, the middle of the story became a little flat and predictable, even somewhat boring, as Sky tightened their dominant grip on the race.

Commentators muttered that we were back to the Armstrong era, when his team was regularly able to stifle any significant moves by their rivals. Even on the rest day, the general view was that none of this year’s pretenders to greatness would be allowed to make any significant gains as the story finally played out.

The gamble for Wiggins et al was that they’d get unscathed through the mountain stages of the Pyrénées mid-week; if he and Froome could do that, the Saturday time trial on a rolling course that suited them both, and that one of them could / should win.

The result – another convincing 1-2 for the Sky riders, and the real race was all but wrapped up.

Team or supergroup?

The other question has been the internal tactics of Team Sky. Just like the supergroups of the 70s (anyone remember them?), the team has at least three ‘stars’: Wiggins, Froome, and Mark Cavendish.

Following the team’s strategy, Cavendish, one of the fastest and strongest sprinters around,found himself on support duties. Froome, who was supposed to defend Wiggins, made a couple of moves that raised eyebrows, the unanswered question being: was he actually stronger that his ‘boss’, Wiggins?

The team’s management were very coy in speaking to the press on this issue, playing down the evident dissatisfaction and frustration of Chris Froome. He, however, was more forthright in his comments. Although both he and Wiggins have contracts that extend into next year, he openly stated that the only way he could win the Tour himself would be with another team.

However, the pundits have finally had to agree that, for once, teamwork to achieve a specific goal, actually worked. Team Sky predicted a future Tour win back in 2009. By sacrificing and harnessing some of the undoubted abilities of other team members, they concentrated solely in the one big, important goal.

A classic case study of effective team management (one that equally applies outside cycling).

Motivation and money

So, with the peloton already on the road to the Champs Elysées, it looks as though there will be no final twist in the plot…

Team Sky want to end the 2012 Tour with a bang – everyone knows they want Mark Cavendish to win the final sprint in the centre of Paris. If he pulls this off (and it’s no foregone conclusion), he’ll have done it for a record four times in a row. And, to do it, in a reversal of roles, he needs Wiggin’s support.

Anyway, what motivates a field of 200 rides to tackle this three-week marathon of cycling? A sense of great personal achievement; a happy sponsor, who hopefully will continue to make money to support these teams; the key to raising your value, and, accordingly, your salary. Yes, all these factors are at play.

One thing that’s not significant (in today’s terms) is the prize money on offer at the Tour. It’s the biggest annual event in the cycling world; it’s the first, if not only, cycle race that grabs the attention of the general public (apart from doping scandals). Yet, to make money, serious money, a sportsman needs to turn to tennis, or football, for example.

The total kitty on offer to teams and riders this year is a modest €2 million. Any rider wining part of that sum through  individual efforts traditionally splits his earnings with the entire team. So, if Wiggins does win today, his award of €450,000 will certainly not make him a millionaire overnight. I don’t know how many people are employed by Team Sky, but the queue of outstretched palms is certainly a long one.

So, while top riders may command big salaries (see below), it’s promotional exposure that matters above all at the Tour.

Compare it with the cash prize for the men’s singles winner at Wimbledon – a cool £1.25 million, or with the fortune made by Beckham and his cronies… but, I forgot, the riders get themselves free state-of-the-art racing bikes and loads of throwaway drinking bottles!

Wiggins writes

“When you get into the final week of the Tour de France, it becomes a different kind of race. As the distance and the fatigue really tell, that is when it becomes a proper test of everyone’s fitness. It’s been quite apparent in the last few days that the gaps between the riders have been getting bigger, as opposed to the first week when everyone is superfresh and recovering well. By the last stages this week, there were guys going backwards on every little climb.” [1]

The competition’s view of Team Sky

Why has Team Sky proved so successful? Partly due to the fact that they have the budget to pay the salaries of not only their team leaders, but also for top-quality domestiques. As team manager of Garmin-Sharp, Jonathan Vaughters, put it: “I’m not sure why people are surprised by Sky: A few €800k guys pulling a €900k guy, who then pulls for a €1.3M guy, who helps a €2m guy.” In cycling terms, that’s big money. They’ve even got enough money left over to have the world’s best ever sprinter (who must be on similar money to Wiggins) and not bother to support him much this year.

Post interrupted

Have to end there for the moment– it’s TV time! Pass the beer, please!

[1]: The Guardian

Image source: Getty Images

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