In Tour de France, Individual Achievements Are a Product of Team Cooperation

Take an off the road look at the annual bicycle race that covers France and bordering countries.
By Jonathan Brand
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 23, 2009

LE GRAND-BORNAND, France, July 22 -- Thousands of Spanish cycling fans stood in the rain outside Barcelona's Olympic Stadium, cheering as Cervélo Test Team's Thor Hushovd -- and a pack of his closest rivals -- came flying toward the finish in Stage 6 of this year's Tour de France. Just a few feet from the line, the Norwegian sprint specialist surged forward, pushing his front wheel across the tape to slip past Spaniard Oscar Freire for the stage victory.

To many of the spectators watching at the finish, Hushovd, 31, had just put on a superb display of individual strength, muscling past competitors for the win. But what they didn't see was Hushovd prior to the sprint, riding the final miles behind the lead-out train -- a pack of teammates who set the pace, blocked the wind and allowed him to conserve crucial energy for the final push.

Which is why at a news conference just a few minutes after crossing the line, Hushovd was quick to deflect questions about personal achievement. "This means a lot for our team," he said. "When everything works, I know that we have one of the best trains in the world."

The three-week Tour de France, which concludes in Paris on Sunday, focuses on individual achievements, particularly on the rider who wears the yellow jersey that goes to the overall winner. Indeed, professional cyclists acknowledge that individual glory is a great motivator -- standing solo on the podium after a stage or race win is one of the sport's greatest rewards. But even the most accomplished of riders is savvy enough to understand that a quality team is essential to his own success.

The most prominent example this month has been American Lance Armstrong, the seven-time champion who returned to the Tour after a three-year absence this year only to be eclipsed by teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 winner.

Since the Spaniard's dominance became apparent during last Sunday's 129-mile Stage 15 climb in the Alps, Armstrong has used guile and experience in support of Contador and the rest of the riders on Team Astana.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy to be his domestique," Armstrong said, using the French word for domestic help that in cycling means a role player working for the team's dominant rider. "I'm proud of him."

Team dynamics are especially important at lengthy stage races like the Tour de France, a grueling ordeal, where a miscue in selecting the nine-rider team can quickly derail plans.

Fortunately for Hushovd's Cervélo Test Team, a Lucerne, Switzerland-based squad founded by Canadian bike manufacturer Cervélo last fall, the rider roles are clearly defined, with certain competitors focusing on the overall standing and others on other individual categories.

"We have two leaders -- Carlos [Sastre] for the overall and me for the [sprint] points," Hushovd said. "Then we have a few guys who can do both. I think it's perfect."

Sastre, last year's Tour de France champion, is a 34-year-old Spanish rider and the heart and soul of the first-year team. His specialty is the mountains, traditionally where the Tour is won or lost. He was in contention for the yellow jersey this year until Wednesday, when he slipped to 13th place, 11 minutes 39 seconds behind Contador, the race leader.

Sastre's leadership extends off the bike as well. When Cervélo brought him into the fold this year, it was expected he would assist the sport directors -- the team coaches -- in making team decisions.

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