Photo by Teocalli
Of all the (many) negative aspects of the US Postal/Discovery dominance of the Tour de France, for me, the most egregious is that in seven tours, only one of Armstrong’s teammates, George Hincapie, won a stage while he won 21 individual stages. If it was not all about the bike, then it was certainly all about Lance; his teammates were simply serfs to the master. (Yes, I know they won team time trials, but my point still stands). It was an efficient modus operandi, but seriously lacking in what might be termed “esprit des corps.” In more recent years Sky have been accused of adopting the same approach in service of a particular team leader, but have generally shared the spoils more generously.
One team that certainly avoids the “you’re our #1 rider and that’s the rule” approach is this year’s Deceuninck-Quick Step line up. We’re barely a third of the way through the year and they have already notched up an astonishing twenty-three wins including Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. And nine riders have stood atop the highest podium step with Julien Alaphilippe doing so eight times. More numbers? Since the team’s inception in 2003 they have amassed an astonishing 700 wins – that milestone coming with Philippe Gilbert’s win in the Roubaix velodrome.
The esprit des corps attitude of DQS is palpable. Even stars know that not every race win might come their way – a bad day, a puncture, a mechanical, but given their strength in depth, there is another teammate to take the lead. It’s like the cycling equivalent of ‘wack-a-mole”: Gilbert, Alaphilippe, Jungels, Stybar, Jakobsen, Senechal. One gets knocked down, up pops another potential winner. Talent aside, much of the credit has to go to Patrick Lefevere the Team CEO for his personnel management skills: as he says, “The strength of the squad is at the service of the strongest in the race. It is the work of a cohesive unit that brings success. And this group is the Wolfpack, a family that moves together and lives together. Names aren’t important. What is important is to have no regrets when we cross the finish line and to know we gave our everything out there.” Star cyclists have their egos like any other top athlete, but cultivating and nurturing divergent personalities and letting them know that everyone gets a shot and will be supported is a big factor in their success. Many teams have floundered as a designated rider fails to deliver and rather than go to a Plan B, the failing Plan A is maintained.
Such an attitude can only be healthy for a team: it generates wins and greatly reduces the pressure on individual riders. Would Yves Lampaert have liked to have won Paris-Roubaix? Of course. But he was there, just behind his teammate in case he faltered, and Gilbert won – so the team was victorious and got two places on the podium. For riders, team and sponsors, a most excellent day out. How will they do in the Grand Tours? Who knows, but few would bet against riders picking up stages and maybe a classification.
Speaking of modern cycling, it seems to have increasingly adopted a monocular approach to the Grand Tours: teams line up with specific aspirations: targeting a particular jersey or maybe just looking for a stage win or two. Race radios and team tactics have profoundly affected the sport for better and for worse. Barodeurs are few and far between and usually found in the ranks of the smaller teams. In the Grand Tours gone are the days of an almost casual approach team hierarchies, take-it-as-it-comes strategies and riders seemingly having carte-blanche to take their chances. Historically, two teams standout as examples of a more freewheeling approach (pardon the pun), where wins were widely shared and the sense of camaraderie must have been (pardon the pun once more) sky high.
Let’s start in 1980 with the Tour de France. 13 teams of 10 lined up for 22 stages which included two days of split stages. (In 1981 Bernard Hinault led a famous protest against this practice at Valence d’Agen and they magically disappeared in future editions. The Tour learned early that the Badger was not to be trifled with). Stages 1A and 1B were a 133kms road stage and a 46kms TTT; stages 7A and 7B were a 65 kms TTT and a 92 kms road stage. – impossible to conceive of today. The Raleigh team, led by no-nonsense Dutch boss Peter Post, had a viable yellow jersey contender in Joop Zoetemelk, the dogged Dutch veteran who had finished second in the Tour 5 times between 1970 and 79. As a supporting cast they had Jan Raas, Henk Lubberding, Bert Oosterbosch, Gerrie Knetemann, Cees Priem, Leo van Vliet, Paul Wellens, Bert Pronk and Johan van de Velde on the roster; frankly, this was an embarrassment of riches. By the time the race reached Paris, Zoetemelk was in yellow and Van de Velde in white as best young rider. Raas had won three stages, Zoetemelk two and individual wins were secured for Lubberding, Oosterbosch, Priem, and Knetemann. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough they won both team time trials, setting a new standard for preparation and discipline in that event. A total of 11 stages or half of what was on offer. Dominance, but not just with one rider reaping the glory.
In 1984, Laurent Fignon, returning from his 1983 Tour triumph, led the Renault-Elf team. (Hinault had skedaddled in the off-season for Bernard Tapie’s new La Vie Claire team). The bespectacled Frenchman was undisputed leader of his merry band of young professionals and as the new superstar of cycling might have been expected to demand total subservience in pursuit of another Tour crown. Not quite. Twenty-three stages and a prologue lay ahead for the 170 riders – quite a rise from just four years earlier – as the race left the outskirts of Paris at Montreuil. Renault dominated throughout, winning stages 2, 3, 7, 8, 12, 16, 18, 20 and 22. Fignon won five, Marc Madiot, Pascal Jules and Pascal Poisson each got one and the team claimed the team time trial. Vincent Barteau spent 12 days in yellow, Fignon seven. By Paris, the team had 9 stages in the bag, overall victory plus the team classification, 2ndin the team points competition and the white jersey for best young rider being won by a fresh-faced American kid called Greg Lemond. By any standards it was a performance of stunning team work. One can only imagine the sense of camaraderie at meal times as the successes kept coming for both teams and each rider fully feeling that they were not just true contenders, but setting the standard for others to beat.
What makes these two teams exceptional is that both had legit yellow jersey aspirants (who were ultimately successful) yet did not metaphorically put all their eggs in one basket. Both squads were led by wily ex-pros who were tactical geniuses: Peter Post and Cyrille Guimard, and both were strong in depth with a great mix of specialists and all-rounders.
Appropriately, given that we’re discussing teams such as Raleigh, Renault and DQS, I’d like to close by quoting the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas, whose Three Musketeers had a motto of “all for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.” Raleigh, Renault and DQS didn’t just enter cyclists, they sent musketeers with attitudes that could be described as “swashbuckling” – taking advantage of all opportunities and chances. While dominance can get a tad predictable and boring, it is often the result of careful planning and man-management. It’s not as easy as it sounds, for as Dumas said, “The merit of all things lies in their difficulty.”