A three-week grand tour is not one race but a series of races within races. Each competing team has different objectives: general classification, sprints, one of the four main jerseys, individual stage wins or even just airtime for their sponsors.
With the 23 nine-man squads for the Giro being finalised this week, let’s take a look at a few examples of teams competing for different objectives over the next three weeks to understand how these lead to subtle variations in team composition.
Focus on the general classification: Sky
While most of the top contenders’ teams have been set up to support their leaders’ general classification aspirations, no one has done it with quite the single-mindedness of the Sky squad supporting Bradley Wiggins‘ quest to add the maglia rosa to his maillot jaune from last July.
There is no space for a sprinter or lead-outs in the nine-man line-up. The entire team is focussed on protecting Wiggins on the climbs by setting up the kind of tempo-setting, peloton-throttling mountain train which has become a familiar feature in stage races over the past year.
We’ve had a good run into the Giro, have a strong squad and the preparation has gone well. The final touches have been put in place after the Giro del Trentino and we’re all set to go.
Dave Brailsford, team principal
The hard kilometres on the flat and the fast drive in the foothills of the major climbs will be shared among a talented set of domestiques, several of whom have impressive climbing credentials in their own right. Christian Knees, Danny Pate and Xabier Zandio possess both experience and big engines, while grand tour debutant Salvatore Puccio will no doubt be on bidon duty. Kanstantsin Siutsou is a formidable all-rounder who is as capable in a team time trial as he is on the climbs. He’s a former top-ten finisher at the Giro and recently impressed at the Giro del Trentino with a solo win in the mountains.
Zandio and Siutsou will most likely form the bridge between the flat bits and the climbs before handing on to Wiggins’ three-man personal detail for the steep stuff. New recruit Dario Cataldo (the stage winner on Cuitu Negru at last year’s Vuelta) will be first up before handing over to the metronomic Rigoberto Uran and the explosive Sergio Henao to help chase down attacks and pace Wiggins to the final kilometre.
The two Colombians also represent a more than useful plan B should Wiggins falter. Henao was runner-up at Fleche Wallonne last month and finished ninth overall at last year’s Giro, two places behind Uran, who went on to claim an Olympic silver medal in the road race.
This is a team with an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent and a ruthless single-minded focus: to put Wiggins in pink. If the reigning Tour de France champion has the form, the strength of his team could prove to be the decisive factor.
Focus on stage wins: Argos-Shimano
At the other extreme of the spectrum to Sky we have Argos-Shimano. This is a team with no GC aspirations, whose primary focus will be catapulting John Degenkolb to victory on the half-dozen or so sprint stages to add to his five win-haul from last year’s Vuelta.
In the same way that a GC team builds itself around the dual requirement of being strong in the mountains and having enough horsepower to chase down breaks on the flat, a sprint team is designed to combine long-range capability with brute speed over the final 10km to set up their lead-out. Think of Mario Cipollini’s Saeco team, Alessandro Petacchi’s Fassa Bortolo or the HTC-Highroad unit which powered Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel to so many victories.
We have a clear goal in mind and that is sprinting for victory with John Degenkolb. When the stages become more challenging, we will give the other guys the chance for a good result in a break.
Addy Engels, sports manager
Argos-Shimano certainly possess one of the peloton’s most potent lead-out trains, with a host of quick, strong riders ready to point their lead sprinter at the finish. Look for the better climbers on the team such as Simon Geschke to help support Degenkolb through the high mountains. Then on the flat look for the long streak of white massing at the front of the peloton in the closing kilometres, with Bert De Backer, Albert Timmer and the highly experienced Koen de Kort leading out for Degenkolb.
GC positions will be an afterthought for the Argonauts, so don’t be surprised if they fail to put a single rider in the top 50. One win for Degenkolb would represent a good result for the team, two would be outstanding. Plan B will be for one of their other riders to smuggle themselves into a breakaway in the hopes of stealing a victory. As far as the Argonauts are concerned, it’s stage wins or nothing.
The animators: Wild-card teams
In addition to the 19 WorldTour teams, four other squads have been invited as wild-card entrants: Italian teams Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela, Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox and Vini Fantini-Selle Italia, plus Colombia.
We tried to set up a balanced group, capable of staying in the action in every race situation, even if our main focus will be on the mountains, where our top athletes can show their best qualities. We are going to the Giro to show off and put up a big show, that is what everyone is expecting from us.
Claudio Corti, Colombia general manager
None of these will feature at the Tour de France and are unlikely to receive an invite for the Vuelta, so the Giro represents their one opportunity this year to show off in front of a global audience. As a result each of these four teams will turn up with their best combination of available personnel. Androni mostly have their eggs in the climbing basket, but each of the other three also has a broader base of options for potential victory. Bardiani, for instance, will split their support between sprinter Sacha Modolo on flat days and climber Stefano Pirazzi on more vertical ones. Neither is a likely stage winner, but both will be primed to pounce should the opportunity arise.
A single stage victory would make any of these teams’ seasons – and potentially secure financial futures – but as a minimum they will look to secure as much airtime for their sponsors as they can. This means we can expect them to be aggressive in trying to get men into breakaways, especially in the early stages where the GC teams will be content to take a back seat, stay out of trouble and conserve energy. By the end of the first week, viewers should be well acquainted with the jet-black jerseys of Colombia and Androni’s red-trimmed white tops.
In between these extremes exists every shade of grey depending on the various strengths of different teams. FDJ, for instance, are set up more for sprints in support of French national champion Nacer Bouhanni, while Blanco are slanted towards climbers to support Robert Gesink‘s GC hopes.
In short, no two teams are exactly alike – and it is this mix of differing objectives which provides an ever-varying backdrop to the headline act of the battle for the maglia rosa. Races within a race.