Thunder rumbled over Bergerac, and the rain which has followed the peloton almost all the way round France doused the riders in stage 19 of the 2014 Tour de France, but lightning didn’t strike twice for the Garmin team.
Last Sunday, in Nimes, their rider Jack Bauer was caught just 25 metres from the line by the sprinters after many kilometres of dogged resistance in soaking conditions. His exploit was a moral victory, but to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, show me a good moral victor, and I’ll show you a loser.
Today Ramunas Navardauskas was in a similar position. Rain? Check. Painfully small gap over the peloton? Check. IAM’s Martin Elmiger in the break all day? Check. Obsessive compulsive regulation by the peloton of the break’s lead to two – yes, two – measly minutes? The sinking feeling that we were going to see yet another bunch sprint? Check and check.
But this was different. In an extraordinary display of imaginative tactics and planning, Garmin engineered a stage win for Navardauskas. The team’s management read the script for the stage – break, chase, catch, sprint – and instead of ripping it up, just rewrote the final few lines. The Lithuanian catapulted himself clear over the final climb, the barely-there ramp of the Cote de Monbazillac with 13 kilometres to go, and took the smallest of breathers as he enjoyed a few seconds’ shelter behind the wheel of the early break’s only survivor, his team-mate Tom-Jelte Slagter.
Slagter’s work complete, Navardauskas motored away and stubbornly held a 20-second lead over the peloton, whose strength was significantly reduced first by general fatigue, then by the climb. The bunch was slower through the slippery corners, then its momentum was stalled by a crash.
The win might have looked lucky, or opportunistic, but it was actually planned, down to getting Slagter (a very good climber on the shorter hills) into the early break, and Navardauskas (a strong rouleur) attacking when he did, and for the two to briefly combine their strengths, in fact become more than the sum of their parts, in order to gain a decisive lead. It really caught out the sprinters’ teams, and the victory has rescued Garmin’s race.
The 2014 Tour has been marked by a predictable and athletically logical result in the general classification, with the strongest rider, Vincenzo Nibali, taking a seven-minute win, plus or minus the result of Saturday’s time trial. There has also been very little leeway for breaks, both in the flat and mountainous stages, with the ambitions of the sprinters’ and GC riders’ teams keeping a tight leash on the peloton.
But there have also been signs of some more nuanced tactics happening elsewhere in the peloton. Astana, Giant, Lotto and Cannondale are still using the traditional and unsubtle method of committing numbers to the front of the bunch, setting up their leader, whether it be Astana’s Nibali for the overall or Giant’s Marcel Kittel for the sprint. It’s an impressive thing to be able to do well, but it’s very predictable. That’s fine – some people like things to be predictable.
However, other teams are trying some much more varied tactics. Movistar tried to pull Valverde clear of his rivals over the Col du Tourmalet yesterday by putting two men in the break, and having them wait for him – this was the rider second overall in the Tour trying to attack over 30 kilometres from the finish. FDJ and Ag2r have been strategically placing men in the early breaks to support their leaders. Europcar have been attacking two riders at a time, in tandem, although some of their tactics have been a little counter-productive, such as when they put five riders into an escape that never even saw the front of the race on stage nine.
But Garmin have taken tactics to an even more complex level. Their director Charly Wegelius said that since the withdrawal of their leader Andrew Talansky, they went through the Tour stage by stage, identified which ones suited which riders, and made sure that the riders in question would have one or two easy days before their targeted stage. And rather than believe the received wisdom that a stage like this would be controlled by the sprinters’ teams, they worked out a way to make the race turn out the way they wanted it to. Not by a suicidal early break, nor an impossible late break, but an imaginative combination of both. For once, things didn’t turn out as expected.
Live text commentary and discussion for Tour de France stage 19 on Friday July 25 starting from 2pm
Ramunas Navardauskas put a bit of a shine on Garmin-Sharp’s Tour de France with an audacious solo win in wet
Images from stage 19 of the 2014 Tour de France, won by Ramunas Navardauskas. Photos by Graham Watson