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.
"Since the beginning, Carlos has played a big role in the team and has put his philosophy into the team," said Alex Sans Vega, one of the Tour team's two sport directors. "On other teams I have worked with before, at the end of the day it was always the boss making the decision."
Sastre's role not only has been supported by the management, but also by his fellow riders. "He only says things in meetings when he has to, but he'll get us motivated and tell us exactly what he wants," said Brett Lancaster, an Australian in his third Tour de France.
Hushovd, the other team leader, is focused on another color jersey -- the green, given to the rider who accumulates the most sprint points during the race. In each stage of the Tour, there are points up for grabs at intervals along the course, as well as at each finish line.
Hushovd has worn the green jersey for eight stages so far this race, and after Wednesday's Stage 17, he was still in green, leading Mark Cavendish, Columbia-HTC's young phenom, by 30 points.
Supporting these two stars are the team's domestiques. A domestique's primary job is to ride in support of the team leaders, doing everything from dropping to the back of the peloton -- the main pack of riders -- for water and snacks from the team car, which follows behind the racers, to chasing down a rival rider who has ridden out on a breakaway.
Because Cervélo has two leaders with different skill sets, the management put together a Tour team that reflects both abilities.
Some, like Spaniard Jose Gómez Marchante, are climbing specialists who support Sastre in the mountains, while others, like Lancaster, aid Hushovd on the sprint stages.
"My job is to be here for Thor, to help him out for the green jersey," Lancaster said. "Columbia-HTC have a very strong team here, but we've kept Thor up to a good position."
Though these riders were brought in to fulfill specific roles, it doesn't mean that the team is cleaved in two during the race. "This is one team, it's not just one half for me and another half for Thor. We will ride as one," Sastre said before the Tour started.
During mountain stages, the sprinters focus more on the mundane tasks of picking up bottles and setting the pace at the beginning of the race. Conversely, on sprint days, the mountain-oriented domestiques pick up those duties.
But it's not just servant work for these team members; they get some leeway during the race.
Before the Tour started, Sans Vega pulled Heinrich Haussler aside and told him that he thought Stage 13, a medium mountain stage toward the end of the race's second week, would be a perfect opportunity for the young German to pick up a stage win. Last Friday, Haussler responded to the challenge by separating from the pack and riding to a long breakaway victory, his first Tour stage win, into Colmar, a French Alsatian town near the German border.
"We always want to give some freedom to each rider," Sans Vega said. "When you give them freedom, they are also more likely to be motivated when they have to do work."
Many teams have multiple riders going for the yellow jersey, so which rider the team supports is determined during the race. That's what happened on the powerhouse Astana team, which was the object of considerable debate during the first two weeks of the Tour over whether Armstrong or Contador would be the leader.
Contador's rapid acceleration to the finish -- and into the yellow jersey -- in Verbier during Stage 15 on Sunday ended those questions.
But Astana is also different from most teams in that, from the beginning of the race, it decided to forgo working on the secondary jerseys and competitions with hopes of securing the yellow jersey in Paris. The composition of the team reflected that; last week, before American Levi Leipheimer dropped out of the race with a broken wrist, Astana had four riders in the top 10.
"Astana is built and engineered to win the Tour de France," Team Columbia-HTC owner Bob Stapleton said. "They are a grand Tour team that saves all their energy and all their resources for this final week. They are expert at this and designed for this and they will win it. It's pretty much that simple."
Astana is not, however, built for the long haul. In fact, Armstrong plans to announce Thursday that he'll be sponsoring and riding for a new team for the 2010 racing season. Contador is not expected to join him.
For a team like Cervélo, the goals aren't only short-term. While Cervélo's riders would like to "have the green jersey in Paris and get Sastre the podium [a top three finish] for sure," Sans Vega said, the broader objective is about building team chemistry beyond the 2009 Tour.
"Success is the best way to bond," said Thomas Campana, Cervélo's team manager. "With our individual riders, we're not the strongest team on paper, so we have stressed the team mentality from the beginning."