The men’s and women’s World Championships road races may have played out in drastically different ways in Doha over the weekend, but did share one thing in common – both winners, Peter Sagan (Slovakia) and Amalie Dideriksen (Denmark), were backed up by just two domestiques.
Sagan found himself up against four Italians, four Norwegians and six Belgians in the key selection that formed in the crosswinds, with just one Slovakian teammate, Michael Kolar, for company. Yet he was able to sit back while all those teams did the work, then pounce for victory in the final sprint.
Dideriksen overcame even greater odds to defeat a formidable Netherlands team full of world class stars. She latched on to Kirsten Wild’s wheel at the back of a long orange-clad train, then was able to overtake the Dutch sprinter in the finale.
Could it be, therefore, that being part of a smaller team is in fact an advantage at the World Championships, rather than a hindrance?
As events competed in by nations rather than trade teams, the Worlds are unusual in that team sizes vary.
Slovakia’s men’s team and Denmark’s women’s team, for instance, were allocated three riders each in accordance with the success and strength in depth of their riders over the course of the season; less than the maximum number (eight in the women’s race and nine in the men’s) assigned to the most successful nations, but more than the smallest nations that are limited to just one rider.
On a basic logical level, it makes intuitive sense that the more riders a team has riding for it, the better the chance of that team winning.
More riders means greater tactical flexibility, more domestiques to work for the protected rider(s), and more options to send up the road to cover attacks, as well as less vulnerability to one mechanical or crash ending the entire team’s chances.
In recent editions of the women’s road race, having a large team has been clearly beneficial, with each of the seven winners between 2009-2015 being part of recognisably elite teams (Italy, the Netherlands, France and Great Britain) featuring at least six riders. In this context, Dideriksen’s victory looks like something of a one off.
But Sagan’s victory in the men’s race is part of a recent pattern of smaller teams triumphing in the men’s road race.
Watch: Highlights of Sagan’s second World Championships win
In his victory in Richmond twelve months ago, Sagan was again supported by just two Slovakian teammates; as was Portugal’s Rui Costa for his win in 2013. And even though Michal Kwiatkowski was part a full complement of nine Polish riders when he triumphed in 2014, the other riders on the team weren’t exactly from the top drawer, with just one other finishing within the top 57.
This trend can of course be partly explained away by the Sagan factor. Such is the Slovak’s extraordinary talent that he doesn’t share the same need for domestiques as most riders, and has shown time and again for Tinkoff his knack for competing in bunch sprints without the help of a lead-out train, just as he did to out-sprint Mark Cavendish in Doha.
But in Richmond last year, Sagan seemed to benefit from going relatively under the radar. Usually all eyes are on him, and he isn’t able to so much as move to the front without the other favourites pouncing onto his wheel.
But ahead of the 2015 road race he wasn’t talked up as much as usual, partly due to his habit at the time of just missing out in the biggest races, but also because it was observed how relatively little support he’d rely on from his two teammates.
Consequently he was able to stay invisible all day, before launching one definitive attack on the last lap to win the race.
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Kwiatkowski won the 2014 Worlds in Ponferrada in a similar fashion. After his Polish teammates had been burned off having done the pace-setting early in the day, Kwiatkowski slipped off the front with 7km, with no rider following him.
Had he been riding for a team that had signalled its strength by massing at the front during the key sections of the race, it seems implausible that he could have got away as discreetly as he did.
Then there’s the pressure that the big teams are put under every World Championships, as well as the obligation to make the race. That’s the situation the Dutch women’s team found themselves in on Saturday, but all it took was a slightly misjudged lead-out for Dideriksen to pip their leader Wild for gold.
And whereas no-one blames the likes of Denmark, Poland and Slovakia for not pulling-off a victory, in the proud cycling super-power nations like Italy and Spain there’s usually an inquest if their riders fail to win.
Finally, it’s also worth remembering that the national teams assembled for the Worlds are squads hastily assembled for one race only, made up of riders who for the rest of the season compete as rivals on different trade teams.
Take the 2013 men’s road race. Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez may have both been part of the same Spanish team on paper, but they sure didn’t ride like teammates as they allowed Portugal’s Costa to slip away to victory without either of them covering him.
If given the choice, your average team organiser would still opt to pick as many riders as possible for the World Championships, even if having a big team is no guarantee of the kind of sleek cohesion the 2011 Great Britain team demonstrated to deliver gold for Cavendish.
But the past few years have shown that numerical advantage isn’t without its drawbacks, and that one of the best things a rider hoping to win the rainbow jersey can do is to lurk under the radar.