We are here proposing an analysis of the final moments of the race which took place in Limburg (southern Netherlands) on September 23 2012. The race is frozen in four diagrams that correspond to events taking place in just barely more than a minute. A legend at the end of the article lists the various symbols.
We suggest complementing diagrams 2-3-4 via the following video clip :
Diagram 1. Viva el teamwork! (4.5 km before arrival -> not on the clip). We are at km 265, a few minutes before a strategic sharp turn that leads directly to the Cauberg, the one kilometre-long hill that constitutes the course’s main difficulty. Teams have already been fighting for position for some time. Note the prominent presence of the Italians (with the young Moser at the front) who are forcing the pace, but also of the Australians, Germans and Spanish riders. In the wheel of race-favourite Philippe Gilbert from Belgium, who is refraining from riding in the wind at this point, there is one Russian, Alexandr Kolobnev, and two Norwegians, Edvald Boasson-Hagen and Petter Nordhaug.
Diagram 2. Survival of the fittest (at the bottom of the Cauberg -> clip = 0:40). There is only one quick line through the turn so the peloton becomes even more stretched-out than it already was. The teams that were riding at the front as coherent blocks have now been dispersed. Of the Spanish riders, only Freire is still there; of the German squad, only Degenlkolb is left; the Australians have vanished out of sight. In the lead, there are now two “two-stage rockets” : the Italian one with Paolini pulling Nibali, and just behind, the Belgian rocket composed of Roelandts and Boonen. And then suddenly, a third two-stage rocket appears to their right, composed of Leukemans who is positioning Gilbert. In their immediate slipstream, there is UK sensation Tiernan-Locke and then the two Norwegians who are still hanging on. Russia’s Kolobnev is also nearby.
Diagram 3. The break (where the Cauberg is steepest, 2 km before arrival -> clip = 0:46). Everything happens quickly. First Paolini, running out of gas, politely slips to the right of the road and lets Nibali continue alone. Second, the British rider fails to follow Gilbert and tries to reintegrate the peloton further back down. The two Belgians rockets then briefly combine for a very short moment, the Leukemans-Gilbert pair moving right behind Nibali, before Boonen begins to slide back without changing his trajectory, creating a gap in front of him. Gilbert turns around and sees the Norwegians, Boasson-Hagen first, clawing their way back to the front along the line of riders. He then immediately violently accelerates (an “irresistible squirt” to borrow a somewhat gaudy cycling expression from our French cousins) and creates a rapidly widening gap.
Diagram 4. “The past is nostalgia, the future is a mystery, but the present is a gift.” – dixit an almost delirious Belgian tv commentator (top of Cauberg 1.3 km from the finish -> clip = 1:34). Gilbert is now riding close to 60 km/h on the slight downhill, that day’s tailwind helping his individual effort. Behind, only Kolobnev believes for a moment that he can catch him. In the wheel of Russian, Boasson-Hagen and Valverde (the latter truly appearing out of nowhere) already seem to be conserving energy for the silver medal sprint. In the end it is : Gold, Gilbert; Silver, Boasson-Hagen; Bronze, Valverde. Kolobnev and Nibali will end up, respectively, in 28th and 29th place, paying for better or for worse, the price for going for 1st place.
What must be remembered, is the Belgian team’s extraordinary sense of timing. Of course, the chance factor should not be overlooked. What would have happened if, for example, Valverde had passed the turn among the first, if Boasson-Hagen had been directly in Gilbert’s wheel when the Belgian accelerated, if the wind had been blowing in a different direction at the top of the Cauberg? Yet we see, over and over, how strong teams can integrate the unexpected into their plan and win. This is especially true when the riders are racing on their own territory, as the Belgians were doing that day. And we spoke here of two Belgian rockets but a more complete analysis would have examined the role of the other parts, Van Summeren and Devenyns among others having for example spent the better part of the day trying to control the race.
The flip-side to this refined and efficient team strategy is a certain tendency toward predictability, or at least a tendency toward obliterating individual risk-taking. Young rider Romain Bardet who recently joined his first pro team, AG2R – La Mondiale, illustrates this point :
“This is what surprised me this season. The races are stereotyped. Tactics play less of a role than in amateur racing. There are always 15-16 teams riding for a single leader and trying to make everyone arrive in a bunch, either at a final sprint or at the foot of the last difficulty. When riders break away early in the day, we know we have an hour, an hour and a half to relax before the tempo begins to accelerate. In the Classics, we almost always find ourselves in hill races. The best riders are at the front but I think that the race loses some its magnificence.” – Journal l’Équipe, 25/09/2012
The road race at the London Olympics 2012 could well be an example of another type of race, where for various reasons, individuality opposes the well-oiled machines. Which in itself is not better or worse, just different.