Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Cycling Update: Vuelta a Espana


Professional Cycling Primer

I wanted to start this entry with a cycling primer.  It will be important to help have an idea of what happened in this Vuelta.  


Professional cycling teams have sponsors.  It can be anything from the French lottery to a grocery store chain out of the Netherlands, but corporate sponsors are behind all professional teams.  This means that some teams have larger budgets, some have small budgets but all must meet the minimal requirements to be considered a UCI professional team.  The highest level of teams are the WorldTeams, they have higher financial requirements.  There are 18 WorldTeams.  By default they get invited to all major world events on the UCI pro calendar.  The second tear pro Teams then fight for any remaining spots in these races.  For instance at the Vuelta this year there were a total of 22 Teams.  That means 4 teams outside the WorldTeams got an invite.  They could be continental teams, but usually they are second tear pro teams, of which there are 18.  There is relegation in pro cycling.  So teams can move down and move up the tiers and it can be for performance or it can be for financial reasons.  


There are 3 types of races on the professional cycling calendar.  There are one day races, short stage races, anywhere from 3 to 10 stages, and the three grand tours, 20-22 stages.  For the most part each race invites the teams to bring from 7 to 10 riders per team.  In the grand tours these days it is 8 riders.  it has varied a bit over the years. 


A term you will hear in cycling is the peleton.  This refers to the largest group of riders on the road in a race that are in contention to win.  That is the simplest way to think of it.  There are times when a breakaway group is 10 minutes up the road with a fe km left and so we know that no one in the peleton will win but we still call that largest group behind the peleton.  


There are generally 7 types of riders.  I'll give you a simple breakdown.  

  1. Domestiques:  These are generally riders who can do a little of everything, they can climb, they are strong, they have amazing stamina, but they aren't great at any one thing.  Their main role on a team is to help support the other riders and help with the team plan for each race, each stage, etc.  Anyone can be a domestique and a domestique can become anyone on this list.  But there are some riders who spend their entire career being a domestique, only getting a few chances over a long career at actually winning a race.  
  2. Climbers:  These are generally riders who perform best going up mountains.  Often acting as domestiques, climbers have the most potential when they are young to become GC riders.  
  3. Sprinters:  These are riders who specialize in spring finishes.  A sprint finish is generally when a large group of the race all comes to the finish line together.  At that point it is the person who can generally go faster than anyone else in the last 100m that will win the race.  I will also note here that another type of rider, very specialized is a leadout rider for the sprinter.  Someone who is very fast themselves that is very good at bike handling, very good at reading the race, who will want to be in front of their sprinter with 300m to go to give them a good lead up to the final sprint with 100m to go.  Many want to be sprinters become very good lead out riders.  
  4. Power Riders:  These are riders who are very strong riders.  They tend to be heavier than the climbers and unlike sprinters who are built for bursts of speed are built to sit and put out a lot of power for a long time.  They are very important like climbers to team construction as we will discuss later.  Power riders are often the main domestique leader or the lieutenant on the road for a team.  
  5. Time Trialists:  Often power riders are also the best time trialist on the team.  Time trialist specialize in time trial stages.  These are stages where a rider is on the course, anywhere from 5km to 50km by themselves going as fast as they can against the clock.  The rider with the best time wins.  The best time trialists can often also become GC riders.  
  6. One Day Specialists:  One day specialists also usually come from the power riders group or sometimes from the sprinters group.  Generally speaking one day races are races that are built around endurance and power more than purely climbing and so it favors the more powerful riders.  
  7. GC Riders:  GC stands for general classification and this is the person who is selected as the leader of the team in a stage race or a grand tour.  They are usually the best climber on the team but also someone who is a strong time trialist and can hold up to long days with lots of power output.    

Teams have corporate sponsors but like any professional team they have a management group who actually run the team.  This group is made up of many people all the way from the people who do maintenance on the bikes to the person making the race day decisions for the team.  Because most teams have about 22 riders on a team and there can be multiple races happening at once you will have some management groups that are more focused on one day races, and another focused on stage races.  It varies for every team, but the management is very critical to a team's success just like in any sport.  Just because you have the best rider in the world, it doesn't mean you will win a race.  

Team Configuration

Your team configuration is very important and a lot of it depends on the type of team you want to be.  Most teams go for a balanced approach.  You'll have at least two one day racers, one time trial specialist, a couple of young climbers who you think have GC potential as they develop, one known GC threat, one sprinter, and then you build your supporting cast.  Mostly a mix of strong riders who can win in breakaways when the chance comes up or who can contribute to help your one day specialist or your sprinter as needed.  Some teams go all in on sprinters and build essentially two units to support two sprinters, some teams go all in on one day races, some go all in on GC.  

Race Example One Day Race

OK with all of this I thought it would good to give some race examples of how this all works in practice.  

Let's first look at a one day race.  Let's look at the 2009 Tour of Flanders as an example.  

Generally speaking the Tour of Flanders is a race of about 220km to 260km long.  The race is divided into two parts.  A long 100km to 120km build up of mostly flat and rolling roads to the second half of the race which has steep hard little climbs and big sections of cobbled roads.  One team who has always specialized in one day races is team Quick Step and so was the case back in 2008.  They had maybe the best one day racer in the world at the time in Tom Boonen and they also had the defending Tour of Flanders champ Stijn Devolder on their team.  

When you are building your team for a race like this you would structure it something like this.  Team leader: Tom Boonen, Option B:  Stijn Devolder, Option C: another strong rider who you believe could win it if something happened to the other two or they made it into the big break of the day.  The rest will be power riders who will act as domestiques.  

For a team like quick step they will usually not put anyone into the early day break.  Usually early on in the Tour of Flanders a group gets up the road but the break does not usually include any strong contenders.  The teams will work to keep any of the main contenders getting into an early break or one team getting advantage over the others.  A team like quick step may put their C option into the early break, but more than likely they will put a domestique or two into the early break.  

As they first get into the hillier, more difficult, section of the race this is when they will likely try and get their C option into a break, hopefully partnering up with the one or two domestiques they had up the road earlier.  The goal here is to put some pressure on other teams to have to work to bring the break back.  Not all the teams will get their 2nd or 3rd option rider into a break and the teams that don't will have to work hard to bring the break back.  They understand that even though this option is the team's number one, they are good enough to win the race if left to it.   

As the break starts to come back and we get deeper into the race and the hills and cobble sections get harder now is when the attacks of the main contenders happen and in 2009 what happened was that Stijn Devolder put in a big attack and got a gap right away.  With Boonen also in the main group behind the other riders were busy watching Boonen and worrying about him and so Devolder was allowed to go up the road.  Anytime someone would try and get away from Boonen to try and chase down Devolder, Boonen would immediately jump on their wheel and mark them.  This meant if they road hard all the way up to catch Devolder they would be bringing Boonen with them.  It is accepted that if you are sitting on someone else's wheel you can save about 10% of your energy compared to the person riding in front of you.  So in this case you can't drag Boonen with you up to Devolder because you know he will be able to attack you as soon as you make contact with Devolder and you won't have any energy left to try and bring him back.  This is where team tactics really come in handy.  

For Quick Step in 2009 things worked out as well as they could.  Devolder got away, Boonen marked every move.  Devolder held on riding by himself up the road and he won the day one minute ahead of a group of 29 riders.    

Let's compare that to a stage race say in the Tour de France.  

Race Example Stage Race

Before a stage race begins teams and riders will look at the race and try and plan out a strategy for the full race.  For instance if you have a team with a strong GC contender who is a great time trialist you will look at the race to try and figure out the best way to leverage any time trials in the race.  Or maybe your GC rider is a brilliant climber but not so good at time trialing then you will focus on mountain stages.

Let's take a look at the 2011 Tour de France from the perspective of Cadel Evans.  Evans had earlier finished 2nd twice at the Tour but he was getting older and his chances of winning a Tour were not looking to good, but the 2011 edition was interesting.  The high mountain stages didn't start until the 2nd week and this was after a Team Time Trial.  It would also end with a long individual time trial.  Evans was a better time trialist than mountain rider and so the idea was if he could stay close in the mountains then maybe he could win in the final time trial.  The key then from Evans and his team was to make sure he gained as much time as he could in the first week over his main rivals and that he lose as little time as possible in the mountains.  

In a tour race there are generally 3 types of stages.  Flat stages, hilly stages, and mountain stages.  For a GC rider who has power rather than mountain skills, the hilly stages are good ones to target as a way to get time over their rivals.  These stages tend to be raced more like one day races and so there is a chance for a power rider to gain some extra time or to win these stages.  Cadel Evans used this tactic very well in the first week of the 2011 Tour.  He would actually win stage 4 and put a little bit of time on some of his biggest rivals in the GC competition.  After this stage he was sitting in 2nd place overall with his nearest major rival, Frank Schleck, sitting 3 seconds behind him.  3 seconds is not a lot, but with Evans racing so hard on these hilly stages it was a good way to put the riders who favor climbing the big mountains under pressure early on and making them use up energy.  In stage 9 a large group got away and Thomas Voeckler ended up taking the overall lead 2'26" ahead of Evans and 2'29" ahead of Frank Schleck.  With Frank and his brother Andy two of the favorites the pressure was now on their team to try and take back time from Voeckler in the mountains and get the lead.  Voeckler was not to be taken lightly as he was a solid rider, but it was understood that in a long time trial Evans would likely be able to take back the time he needed to win.  Now Evans had a break.  He could now focus on just following the Schlecks when they got into the mountains limiting his losses.  He knew their team would be riding hard to bring back time from Voeckler and so all he needed to do was limit his losses when the big mountain stages began.  

The first big mountain stage would arrive in stage 12.  Evans would lose 20 seconds to Frank Schleck but amazingly Voeckler would hang onto the lead by a margin of 1'49".  Everyone had expected this to be the day the Schlecks stormed into the lead but they were still in a position of having to try and get back time from Voeckler.  Stage 14 was the next big mountain test, this time Evans would only lose 2 seconds, but it was to Andy Schleck, not Frank.  Voeckler continued to surprise everyone.  We had had two big mountain stages with no real hit to Evans, now he had a chance in stage 16 to get some time back.  More of a power stage he managed to pull time back and suddenly was sitting in 2nd place overall now 4 seconds ahead of Frank Schleck.  This deep into the race it was looking good for Evans, but there were still two major mountain stages to come.  The first of these would be stage 18 won by Andy Schleck who would gain 2'15" on Evans.  Then came stage 19.  Evans knew that his only chance of winning the Tour was to hold on in stage 19 and then beat all of the his main GC rivals in the individual time trial in stage 20.  At the same time the Schlecks wanted to gain time on Evans, but also feared tiring themselves out too much for stage 20.  This worked into Evans favor and he ended stage 19 with the same time as the Schleck brothers.  Voeckler finally cracked on this final mountain stage and so going into stage 20 it was Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck +53", and Cadel Evans +57".  Like I said Evans primary goal this entire tour had been to go into that final time trial with as small a gap to the climbers as he could manage.  He had managed to do this with some luck and some smart riding.  Perhaps the most important part in all of this was the pressure he had put on the Schlecks whenever the race favored him.  Like taking back time in stage 16.  The Schlecks were good time trialists, but Evans was very good and he would end up destroying their times in the time trial.  They had run out of energy when they needed it most.  The final gap would end up Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck +1'34", Frank Schleck 2'30".  

When you think of a grand tour you have to be able to look at it across all the days and figure out when you have an advantage and when you are vulnerable.  In this example of the Tour Evans was able to take advantage of the days when he was favored, and not lose too much time on the days when he was not.  The Schlecks appeared to not do as well with this.  It could be argued that they would have been better off to lose a little bit of time to Evans in the more power oriented stages, saving their energy for the mountains.  There they could have perhaps taken more time.  In the end their mountain gains over Evans simply weren't enough and this was in part due to the fact that they had used up all of their energy fighting to not lose time on power stages.  

La Vuelta a Espana 2023

Coming into this year's Vuelta there were essentially three favorites.  The defending champion from last year Remco Evenopoel of team Quick Step.  Jonas Vingengaard of team Jumbo Visma, the current Tour de France champion.  Primoz Roglic of team Jumbo Visma, the current Giro d'Italia champ and multiple Vuelta winner.  Evenopoel had started the year with plans on trying to win the Giro and the Vuelta but got COVID in the Giro and had to quit.  Roglic had one the Giro on the final time trial stage.  Vingengaard had gone into the Tour to defend his championship from 2022 and won, in the end, fairly easily.  Roglic and Evenopoel we knew would be coming in with good form and ready to race.  Vingengaard was coming in as a wildcard last minute edition.  You never really know how someone will perform in the Vuelta after doing the Tour.  One rider to note that was also going to be in this race was Sep Kuss.  Kuss was the main mountain lieutenant for Roglic in the Giro.  He was also the main mountain lieutenant for Vingangaard in the Tour.  Now he was doing his third grand tour of the season.  With two leaders on Jumbo Visma, we knew that Kuss would be there to play his role to help whoever in the mountain stages.  

The race started out as expected.  Evenopoel was very agressive early.  Similar to our discussion about Evans, Evenopoel is the current time trial world champion and though he is a great climber, he is not the kind of climber who does well on really long mountain stages, better on shorter tougher mountain stages.  So his approach would be to go after Jumbo Visma early on and he did.  On the third stage he took it hard to Jumbo Visma, it was his kind of mountain stage and he won the stage and took the race leaders jersey.  He had a 31" lead over Vingengaard and a 37" lead over Roglic.  He continued his agressiveness going after time bonuses on the road and putting Jumbo in a position where they had to constantly be on defense.  By the end of stage 5 on what were flat stages he had extended his lead, now with 37" on Vingengaard and 43" on Roglic.  

Then Evenopoel and his team made a critical mistake in stage 6, they let a breakaway group form with 3 Jumbo Visma riders in it including Sep Kuss.  Kuss was a bit of a danger.  He had almost finished this year's Tour in the top 10, but for a mechanical problem on the last mountain stage.  He ended up winning the stage and suddenly found himself 8 seconds off the lead with Evenopoel now 2'39" behind.  This meant that Evenopoel would have to no be the one trying to bring back time from Kuss while Jumbo could sit and play defense.  Evenopoel had already been playing a strong attacking game on Jumbo Visma, but now with Kuss 2 minutes ahead it meant that Evenopoel would have to figure out a way to take back time on some of the big mountain stages, and especially the one time trial which was coming up on stage 10.  

By the time we got to stage 10 here are how things looked.  Kuss had the overall lead, Evenopoel was 2'22" down, Roglic was 2'29" down, and Vingengaard was outside the top 10.  The big question was could Kuss hold onto the lead from Evenopoel.  Kuss is not known as a time trial rider at all.  If he could hold onto the lead then Jumbo would be able to continue their defensive tactics which already seemed to be putting a bit of a strain on Evenopoel and Quick Step.  If he could surpass Kuss, then Jumbo would be in a bit of a mess because they would have to figure out how to take big chunks of time from Evenopoel on the longer mountain stages.  By the end of stage 10 here is how things stood.  Kuss was still in the lead.  Evenopoel was 1'09" down, Roglic was 1'36" down, and Vingengaard was 2'22" down.  

People now began to ask can Kuss win the Vuelta.  In this position the strongest play for Jumbo would be to defend Kuss as long as they could unless he cracked, then either Roglic or Vingengaard could try and take the win.  What happened was something no one expected and would setup one of the strangest final 8 stages I've ever seen in a grand tour.  On stage 13, a big mountain day, Evenopoel completely cracked.  He would end up losing 27 minutes by the end of the day.  Vingengaard won the stage with Kuss second and Roglic 3rd.  By the end of stage 13 here are how things stood.  Kuss still lead with Roglic 1'37" behind and Vingengaard 1'44" behind.  

Here it is important to talk about cycling tradition.  Traditionally your team races for the rider who wears the leaders jersey.  It doesn't matter if he started as the team GC captain or not you race as a team for the person who is wearing the race leaders jersey.  Jumbo found themselves in an odd position.  They clearly had the three strongest riders but it was their mountain lieutenant in the lead, not one of their highly paid, GC leaders.  Still everyone expected this would now be a very formulaic ride in over the last 8 stages.  Everyone rides for Kuss, you protect Vingengaard and Roglic as best you can and hope you can finish 1,2,3 at the end of the race.  Also Jumbo Visma would have won all three grand tours in one season, something no team had ever done.  

This is not how things turned out.  On stage 16 Vingengaard would go on the attack.  The plan was to win the stage for Jumbo Visma, the thought was that he would attack and Roglic and Kuss would police for him, how they did on stage 13 when Vingengaard won.  But it was also expected the other teams would not allow Vingengaard a very big gap, this is not how things played out.  Not only did Vingengaard win the stage with a big gap, but Roglic went on to attack Kuss as well and so after stage 16 things were getting a big harry.  Kuss still lead but it was now Vingengaard at 29" and Roglic at 1'33".

There was a lot of outrage in the cycling community about Vingengaard and Roglic attacking Kuss.  That they could have still won the stage and protected him.  Some, however, spoke out and said that if Kuss wanted to win he needed to show he was the strongest rider.  Problem is you can't show you are the strongest rider against your teammate.  Remember the story of Tom Boonen in that one day race.  He was the team leader, he was the strongest rider on the day, but his job was to play defense once his teammate got up the road.  Well each stage plays out like a one day race and so when Vingengaard attacked Kuss can't try and bridge up to him, his job is to play defense.  So the idea of who is strongest is really not something we can tell in a team sport like this.  

There was a lot of emotion and anger on both sides and Jumbo Visma management told everyone not to worry it had not been intended to put Kuss under pressure it just worked out that way.  The next day however did not play out that way.  This time it was Roglic who attacked and he attacked Kuss and Vingengaard as they were the three riders at the head of the race when he attacked.  Vingengaard left Kuss behind and went with Roglic.  By the end of the day here are how things stood.  Kuss still lead but now Vingengaard was only 8" behind and Roglic was 1'08" behind.  At this point if Vingengaard won another stage he would be the race leader and so once again outrage poured out over the airwaves.  People were critical of Roglic and Vingengaard.  People were critical of Kuss and now people began to wonder if Jumbo would end up 1,2,3 in the Vuelta but destroying their team in the process.  

Stage 18 would be another mountain stage and everyone was curious to see how things would play out.  After a team meeting the night before Jumbo Visma came out and it was apparent once they hit the final climb what the decision had been.  They would now ride for Kuss, unless he cracked.  In fact on that climb Kuss at one point went with an attack and Vingengaard was quickly gapped and on the radio asking Kuss to slow the pace, which he did and three of them road together toward the end.  Vingengaard would lose a little time, many think on purpose, and so we ended that stage and the Vuelta with the following top 3.  Kuss, Vingengaard at 17", and Roglc at 1'08".  

Jumbo Visma had done it.  They won the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta all in 2023.  They also took all three podium positions in a grand tour.  Sepp Kuss was the first American to win a grand tour in 10 years and the second American to win the Vuelta.  We are still left at the end of all this what this means for Jumbo Visma and these three riders.  Kuss seems happy with his role of super domestique, but maybe after this a team will approach him to be their GC man.  It would mean a substantial increase in pay.  Roglic was not happy with how things turned out and so many wonder if he will try and leave the team.  He still has a few top flight years in his legs and could be a GC leader elsewhere.  Vingengaard is the one that Jumbo cannot afford to lose as he is younger and he is the two time defending Tour de France winner.  

You can enjoy Kuss's winner speech at the end.  


1 comment:

  1. This was fantastic. I had seen a good bit of stuff about Kuss, and I inferred in broad strokes of what might've happened here. But you're breaking it down in such detail was really helpful. It would seem to me like this would end with each of these riders on different teams next year--and maybe none on Jumbo. Kuss (of Durango, Colorado) sure said conciliatory things here, but I've never turned down a job that paid me more money than another, and so I always expect people to ultimately switch for the money.