Talking Tactics: When the fox escapes the hounds

It is a scenario we have seen time and time again at the end of flat stages. The day’s breakaway has been caught and, as teams start to think about winding up to set up the sprint, an opportunist attacks off the front only to be subsequently caught by the swarming bunch. Why do they bother with such a futile effort? They do it because occasionally – just occasionally – such moves actually succeed.

Belkin’s Mark Renshaw managed just that on Monday on the opening stage of the Eneco Tour. Here’s how he did it.

1. A disorganised, hesitant peloton

In normal circumstances, a lone rider – no matter how strong – stands no chance against the weight of numbers of a hundred-strong peloton. However, when there are no dominant trains to drive the bunch along at pace in the closing minutes of a stage, this can open the door for an attacker. And when that same lack of organisation results in a couple of seconds’ hesitation as everyone looks to everyone else to lead the chase, that can be enough for a telling gap to form.

The image below is taken with less than 1.5km to go in Monday’s stage as the peloton approaches a tight left-hand bend. Normally we would expect to see one, two, possibly even three long lead-out trains on the front. Here, however, there are no distinct trains, with riders from Belkin (front and centre), Cannondale, Sky, BMC and others clustered almost randomly at the head of the pack.

Approaching the flamme rouge, no one has established control over the peloton

Approaching the flamme rouge, no one has established control over the peloton

2. Tactical flexibility

The Belkin team’s original intention was for Renshaw to lead-out designated sprinter Theo Bos, but with more than 1km to go he found himself alone on the front with his teammate – in other words, short-handed for a bunch sprint. When the opportunity for a pre-emptive attack opened up, Renshaw was quick to commit to it 100%, as he said after the race:

The initial plan was to ride for Theo [Bos]. In the final, he was right in my wheel properly, but with still a long way to go it was just the two of us. He then opened up a small gap, I think on purpose, and that was crucial for me to win.

It was Renshaw’s immediate and sustained acceleration which quickly formed a 20-30 metre gap.

3. A helpful parcours

Theo Bos himself provided at least a partial ‘assist’ to ensure that the temporary advantage took on an air of permanence. By easing off a fraction as Renshaw jumped away on the left-hand bend, he allowed a gap to open up in front of him, delaying the chasers.

Renshaw’s chances were greatly improved by the presence of a right-left chicane almost immediately afterwards. In these tight, twisty bends a single rider can match or even exceed the speed of the massed peloton, picking his preferred line and taking more risks to maximise his own pace into and out of the corners.

A chicane immediately before the flamme rouge aids Renshaw's escape

A chicane immediately before the flamme rouge aids Renshaw’s escape

Indeed, the TV coverage suggests that Renshaw extended his lead by a fair margin through the chicane, swinging the advantage very much his way.

4. A powerful, motivated rider

Of course, the attacking rider himself is an important part of the equation. Taylor Phinney, one of the top time-trialists in the world, rode away from a similarly disorganised peloton and held them off for the final 7km to take a fabulous solo win at the Tour of Poland two weeks ago.

A highly motivated Renshaw powers his way to the finish

A highly motivated Renshaw powers his way to the finish

Renshaw isn’t a top time-trialist, but his attack only had to be sustained for just over 1km, and as one of the top lead-out men in the business he knows all about pushing himself through pain in the final kilometre of a race. Here he had all the motivation he could possibly want, knowing that his opportunities as a designated lead-out man are limited and his own personal frustration that his two years with Belkin/Rabobank have not worked out as he hoped.

The extent to which he had to dig deep is evident in his power numbers, which he tweeted after the stage, with his heart rate touching 195 beats per minute as his output exceeded 600 watts for the final kilometre. (His slower speed in the final kilometre is due to a slightly uphill ramp approaching the finish.)

The odds on a late attack succeeding are stacked against the solo rider, but every now and then the hand plays out in the underdog’s favour. As the old saying goes: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Here’s the full video of the closing moments of the stage, so you can see how the various factors played out:

I’m on holiday next week but will be back in two weeks’ time to analyse the Vuelta a Espana as it unfolds.

2 thoughts on “Talking Tactics: When the fox escapes the hounds

  1. A really good blow by blow account of how Renshaw bagged his win…good tactics, a bit of luck, motivation and massive power! Looking forward to seeing Renshaw back in his role as Cav’s bodyguard next year though….arms raised half way down the Champs Elysees again?

    • Renshaw’s addition will undoubtedly help Cav, but I think the final lead-out isn’t where OPQS need the most strengthening – after all, Gert Steegmans is one of the best in the business too. For me, the problem isn’t so much talent – after all, they have men like Martin, Kwiatkowski and Terpstra with huge engines – as it is organisation and leadership. OPQS don’t really seem to have a dominant road captain to call the shots in the way that Hincapie or Eisel have done in the past. Not sure Renshaw’s the man for that role, but as I say he’ll definitely be a big help nonetheless.

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