- By Joe Lindsey
Mark Cavendish crossed the finish line of Stage 4 of the 2012 Tour de France with a gigantic crack in his helmet, courtesy of a bone-crunching crash just 2.4 kilometres from the line. Alongside him, teammate Bernhard Eisel had a gash on his forehead.
It was a near-disastrous finish for Sky. Only the relatively minor injuries suffered by Cav and Eisel (who got a few stitches aboard the team bus) saved the day.
But another tale can be told. In the race-jury communiqué, half the pack was listed as delayed by the crash and so received the same time. Bradley Wiggins was one of them (and among seven Sky riders, not including the crashed Eisel and Cav). You read that right: The entire team was somehow involved in the crash.
They were not the only ones. BMC (all nine), RadioShack (all nine) and Liquigas-Cannondale were similarly hard hit—only Peter Sagan made it through the front bunch. It was a nasty crash, and we’re lucky it didn’t cause more injuries.
On Stage 5, Sky took no chances. In the final 20km it was on the front, with even Wiggins taking a pull.
Why the difference? “Riding in that high-middle zone has too many risks,” said Sky manager Dave Brailsford. “We decided to commit the whole team to riding the front with intent and purpose.”
Intent, commitment, and purpose are probably three of Brailsford’s favorite words; he repeats them so often. And he has a point.
So far, Sky has managed to come through the race’s first days largely intact. It lost Konstantin Sivtsov to a broken tibia on Stage 3, but Wiggins has not touched the ground and there’s just one more day until the race’s first mountaintop finish.
Tired legs should then begin to spread things out more and the attrition of the race has the paradoxical effect of making it safer, without the first week’s twitchy nervousness. But it’s a delicate balance.
“The challenge is how do you manage these (early) stages and stay out of trouble; how much work do you ask the guys to do,” said Brailsford.
Sky consciously came with what Brailsford called “the summit team,” and with Cavendish also protected, that means riders like Bernhard Eisel, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Christian Knees have lots of responsibilities.
For Bernie and EBH, it goes double; Eisel pilots Cav on sprint stages like today, and on stages that suit him Boassen Hagen has a free hand. That has the effect of sometimes leaving Wiggins isolated without a big body to protect him.
The answer, says Brailsford, is to be aggressive when possible. Counter-intuitively, playing it safe can backfire.
“If you try to save the team’s energy and hover in the wheels and just get through the stage, you run the risk of getting caught in a crash and losing time, so you pay more for being conservative,” he told Bicycling.
Wiggins agreed that the team’s hard approach today was in the plan from the start. “Yesterday was mad and we wanted to avoid the crashes,” he said. “With one day left to the Jura, staying safe was a priority.
“There was a crash outside 3k to go (the line inside which anyone caught in or delayed by a crash is given the same time as the winner), and it happened close to the front,” he added. “You can’t take any chances.”
Brailsford acknowledged that in being aggressive at a time when the GC teams are normally expected to ride more conservatively could make them work too hard too soon, but he’s not overly concerned about it.
“The efforts the guys would be doing in training for mountain stages would be 20-minute blocks, so this isn’t that different,” he said. “If it costs us a little more energy to be safe, so be it.”
It’s the old game of the Tour: The race isn’t won in the first week but it can be lost. Brailsford is betting that if he can manage to avoid the latter, his boys will be in good position to deliver a victory.