Cycling – Team Sport or Not?

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Modern professional cycling teams have taken themselves pretty seriously ever since Lance put together his dedicated Tour de France squads and they rode unselfishly for him year after year. This practice spread like a plague throughout the peloton and now it is common for all professional teams to be structured off this format.  But, is it healthy for the sport and does it really work in anything other than stage races?

I think I can make a fair argument that the whole practice is often a waste of time and energy, plus bad for everyone involved.   Plus, it only works out for the team that wins the event.  Each and everyone of the teams that doesn’t win a race, which is everyone but one team, loses. Thus, their plan was flawed, they didn’t execute it correctly, or they just weren’t good enough to win.   I can argue that many of the common tactics that professional teams use are actually harmful to their chances of winning and it makes the sport way more dangerous for all involved.

First let’s address the practice of riding in team formation when in the peloton.  I don’t understand it all.  I’ve posted about this before.  Trying to follow one guy’s wheel the whole race takes a ton of energy.  Why fight for position the whole race when really it is not important? Plus, with all teams trying to ride at the front of the field, there isn’t enough room on the road, so way more crashes occur.  This is a fact.  Guys fighting for position and the peloton edge to edge on the road is when people hit the concrete the most.

What happened to the tactic of putting a couple guys of lots of teams at the front, when they have the same motivation and tactics.  Why do all 9 guys have to be up there at a time?  It is ridiculous at times.

Then the practice of working for only one rider.  I could give you a million examples of when this backfires race after race.  But, let’s just use one example, the race on Sunday, the World Road Championships in RIchmond.

Here is Peter Sagan, racing with his brother and one other guy from Solvakia, so really no team at all.  They didn’t control anything, never rode in the wind.  Peter seemed to stay in pretty good position most of the race, from what I could see.

And all these other countries with 9 riders, rode in formation, working for, what I guess, seemed like a field sprint.  André Greipel was even at the front drilling it, for what.  He is pretty much a pure sprinter.  He did his big pull and then sat up.  Holland, Poland, the Belgian guys, they were all working as a team and who won, the individual, Peter Sagan.  You might say that is a fluke, but it really wasn’t.  I actually picked the exact place the solo attack was going to occur.  It wasn’t my rider, but that is irrelevant.   It could have been any number of individual guys.

Peter Sagan didn’t luck into being World Champion on Sunday.  The way these “professional riders” were treating the race was the same they treat them the whole season.  They love to sacrifice themselves, doing huge pulls at the front,  then peel off and let someone else try to win.  But on Sunday, at the end, there were just a bunch of individual riders with no one left to chase down Peter.

Okay, let’s forget the Worlds this year and address American criterium racing.  UHC has dominated this for years.  That is until guys starting figuring out the boring ass tactic of taking over the front the last 15 minutes.  Look how it worked out for them in the 4 NCC races in St. Louis over Labor Day.  They had arguably 5 of the best 6 riders in the races and Daniel Holloway won the series overall. Daniel has won 25 races this year and is, by far, the best criterium rider in the country.  And his Alto Velo team is good, but really not on the same level as UHC.  He pretty much does it alone at the end.

Or maybe a better example, Pro Criterium Nationals.  UHC doing their slow leadout and Eric Marcotte comes over the top of them and solos to the win.  One guy doing it virtually on his own,  beating a whole team.  It happens all the time.

Of course there are lots of examples of teams having incredible results working together.  There is no question that having a cohesive team of strong riders increases the chances of any one team in the race.  But it doesn’t have to be the only “tactic” to be successful in the sport. Weaker teams with smarter guys win races.  Individuals obvious win races.

Modern cycling is now thought of as a team sport.  Most of the riders have that drilled into their brains.  They are fighting each other to go back to get bottles.  All for one.

But a cycling team is really a collection of individuals.  It is really an individual sport where team work increases each teans/riders chances to win on a seasonal basis.  But, that isn’t the way the teams look at it.  They use the  – put all their eggs in one basket tactic.  That isn’t the only tactics that are “team tactics”.

I’m not saying that we should completely disregard the value of team tactics in the sport.  I’m saying that if more riders thought more about their individual aspirations, and their team managers thought the same way and allowed their riders to act on them, then the sport of be more exciting, safer and generally better.

Cycling is a very beautiful sport.  It is visually attractive.  Very dynamic when viewed in person. This riding in formation and riders not allowing the natural flow of the race isn’t good for anyone involved.

Okay, feel free to comment or let me have it on the comment section.  I’m going to be driving all day, so it will be a good way to pass the time.

I think this was either the full 1st lap or 2nd lap of the race. There were 16 laps. The whole Dutch team at the front riding. For who or what?

I think this was either the full 1st lap or 2nd lap of the race. There were 16 laps. The whole Dutch team at the front riding. For who or what?

André taking a last drink before pulling half a lap and then quitting. Exactly how I would use a sprinter at the "flat" Worlds.

André taking a last drink before pulling half a lap and then quitting. Exactly how I would use a sprinter at the “flat” Worlds.


I wonder who ended up with Peter’s helmet and glasses.  Pretty happy folks I assume.


56 thoughts on “Cycling – Team Sport or Not?

  1. Mike the Bike

    What about Australia? Michael Matthews is pretty upset because Simon Gerrans didn’t ride for him. I think he has a point. If Gerrans had chased down Sagan (not that big an if) then Matthews could have converted second to first.

    1. Barman

      Gerrans doesn’t have a contract for next year. He was second the previous year. I find it totally disrespectful of Mathews to not let Gerrans do his thing. Mathews could have the other seven guys!

  2. Bill V.

    I think that if Ben King and Tyler had put those watts in places it actually mattered, the USA might have come up with some ok results. All of the media reports that I read made them all come off like they were already defeated going into the race. King’s breakaway was never going to go anywhere yet he was driving it and came up with a big fat goose egg. The mentality was as if they were racing like they never had a chance in the first place and taking the long gamble on that break. That’s a cop out and too bad King blew his wad there because he is obviously on some pretty good form. Whoo hoo fan favorite… who cares?

    1. bob

      Tyler who? Tyler Farrar? I don’t understand how that guy is allowed to race in Europe. He is horrible. He’s not even good enough to be Cav’s leadout man. Mark my words.

  3. Mark Kerlin

    I agree Steve, you have to approach the sport in a right-brained way not just in a linear way. The current approach starts with team directors being control freaks.

    I was at the race on Saturday, was on Libby Hill with a bunch of my old messenger buddies. I wish I’d known you were just down the hill a bit from us so I could come introduce myself. I chose to skip Sunday because my mom was up in DC and my boy had a soccer game. His team won, the first victory he’s had since last November. Now soccer, that’s a real team sport, he scored 25 goals last season but his team never won. He scored twice and made a great corner kick his team scored off of. It was so awesome that they had the app, I still got to follow the race. A friend’s son caught Sagan’s sunglasses.

    Safe driving!

  4. Bolas Azules

    Interesting take on it all. The solidification of teams and each rider’s defined role within the team has made it a bit more predictable and maybe less exciting…add to this race radios at the top of the sport and it becomes almost a rehearsed unfolding of a race everyday.

    In chatting with other riders many have come to the conclusion that the crazing criterium sprints over the years where much harder from a tactical stand point than many of the higher-end pro sprints in today because so many guys were going for it. So many guys could win it or were trying to win. In today’s top sprints they’re really 3-up / 4-up sprints. 3 or 4 guys are getting set-up by their teams, they have their lead-outs and that’s what it is . . . much, much easier to read because of the predictable tactics and roles of so many riders.

  5. Franz

    When teams follow this approach it makes it a lot more predictable on what they will do and allows others to capitalize on it.

  6. FaustoCoppie

    Cipollini won Worlds because of his team effort. When you are talking about a course that is conducive to having a field sprint, it’s far safer to have guys actually drilling it for their sprinter and keeping it single file than to have a cluster-f… every-man-for-himself finish. UHC takes it too far by riding the inside of the course but at least they keep it lined out so it doesn’t become a total bar fight at the end.
    Then there are the mental issues. Some guys can’t handle the pressure of being the one counted on to win a race. They’d rather bury themselves to help their own guys. Would you really want that kind of a guy in a long break knowing he may very well screw it up and not win from the break vs. chasing a more dangerous move down? Hincapie at Flanders the one year he was in a 5 up break comes to mind, or he and Rodriquez towing Cipo all the way to the line at Ghent_Wevelgem is another example.

    1. K

      +1 to coppi and I’ll add,

      The Dutch and Germans missed the first break and had to chase. Perhaps they brought it back too early. The Germans and aussies missed the next two breaks and had to chase them as well. The Belgians were lining it up on the front to put their best riders in position to attack and it worked for Boonen and van avermaet but neither could seal the deal.

      There was plenty of bad tactics in the race, but a strong team can put you in position to make your best move. Sagan himself said he was lucky the race came back together on the last lap.

  7. Krakatoa (East of Java)

    I quit racing for over a decade. Went to school, got a career going, moved to a new area of the country, etc. So in my 30s, I decide to start racing again after 13 years away. I downgraded to cat4 and joined my town’s racing club.

    It was the “Lance years”. Everything was team this n that in our club. Like ALL the time. I thought it “cute”. They all wanna play “pro bike racer”. Ok, whatever, you’re all pro bike racers. Sure. But I drew the line at what happened at one of my first races with them. The club “coach” called all of us Cat4’s together before the race… you know, to go over the “plan”. The plan where we all work for this one guy, to get him his final upgrade points. In my mind, if you need a “squadra” to help make it to Cat3, you aint ready yet.

    But whatever. I attack solo, and stay away for several laps. Attack fails eventually but i had some fun messing with the youngsters. The “coach” becomes completely unglued at my transgression. “What if you’d won?”… To which I replied “and what if?”

    The thing is, every other club in the area had the same mentality too. My city was gone.

    I quit racing for clubs. Life’s too short for that kind of shit.

    1. Rod Lake

      I had similar experiences and usually just rolled my eyes when it was time to “go over the plan.” Even at masters races our “team” had a plan. I can’t remember if there was a time it worked that way. Usually there was one like-minded teammate and towards the end if we were both still there we would try to help each other. My plan was to not get caught up in the plan.

    2. Jeff

      Yeah, similar experience here too Krakatoa (East of Java). Took all the fun out of it. I have to be serious and boring at work all week and the last thing I wanted was to train all week and weekend long and work for yet another “boss”. Really? Fuck that shit.

  8. Lumpy

    In this Worlds the course designers should be commended. They pretty much foiled the teams. The 1st 260 km was about testing endurance. The last 5km selected the best All around riders in the peloton. Both Women and Men. Not the best climber not the best sprinter.
    Peter dropped the hammer like only he can do on 23rd st. Reduced his drag coefficient to weight ratio to extend his gap. Cornered better than anyone else. And exercised a mental toughness to hang on.
    Lizzie dropped the hammer enough to sap the sprinter. Pulled off one of the coolest last 150 meters i have seen. Talk about a cool cookie!

    The right people won! Congrats!

    The glasses had to be a Karma thing. Gentry and his Dad Joe Jefferson are the grass roots of competitive cycling in America. Those glasses found the right hands.

  9. Jacob

    After burning up some of the best workhorses in the world – Geschke, Marcel Sieberg, Tony Martin – by pulling all day, and then using up Greipel to chase late, Germany had nobody left to close down the Stybar – Van Avermaet – Sagan attacks except for… John Degenkolb, the guy they had been pulling for over the last 6 hours. On a course where there is a legit possibility of a sprint, why use the guy that won 4 sprints in this year’s Tour to chase a break that several other teams were chasing for a guy that won 1 sprint in the Vuelta? If you let Greipel and Deg both ride for a result, aren’t your odds better? Seems like they would be to me.

  10. Skippy

    ” Okay, feel free to comment or let me have it on the comment section. I’m going to be driving all day, so it will be a good way to pass the time. ”

    Hope this gets to you , AFTER , you finish the drive !

    No wonder i see little encouragement for ” Safety for Cyclists ” here , as you go about encouraging “Distracted Driving “!

    Did you read about that clown in London , saying he would not spend the GBP35M on the 2017 Grand Depart of ” Le Tour “? He is already planning to spend 30M on a bridge , from Cycling Safety Funds , where Cyclists WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO RIDE !

    Each year ” Bozo ” draws down monies he claims to be spending on Cycling Infra. , yet at the end of the year most of this money is returned to treasury , then he tells everybody it was INVESTED IN Cycling Safery !

    So he is NOT going to spend it with Le Tour , and Any Voter can be sure he will nOT spend it on Cycling safety Projects , but then it makes him look like ” Caring & Compassionate ” whilst actually being the disillutionist that he really is .

  11. Krakatoa East of Java

    Steve, I’m with you. It’s an inherently individual sport. Teams of individuals who should ALL be trying to win (if not for themselves, then for their team). I think it’s completely stupid to form an entire race (or season) strategy around just one rider. I can understand having a team focus on classics, or stage races, but to place the focus on one designated winner? That’s messed-up. Look at the talent that Hincapie had. He pissed it away riding tempo for that asshole Texan all the time. What a waste of valuable resources.

    1. euro

      Hincapie had talent, yes. But he was a doper extraordinaire, juiced up so he could help his buddy LA win Tours year after year. I doubt he would have been much more than pack fodder without his “supplements”…

  12. Tony R.

    I think the purpose of the Dutch riding at the front early on was probably twofold: 1) Early on, everyone was fresh and there was lots of nervous guys with lots of people trying to get to the front. It was probably easier to go to the front and control things to keep all 8 guys safe. 2) It looked cool and someone in a position of power in Dutch cycling wanted some photo ops.

    Team Tactics – I thought the American women road a fantastic race. I’d give them an “A” for tactics and an “A-” for results. They were aggressive. There were in all the moves that counted, they covered the front when they had teammates in the moves and at one point, had 3 riders in a move of 9 or 10 which ultimately lead to the the move that Coryn Rivera was in that almost stuck. When that move came back, Megan Guarnier was right there for the finish. If Shelley Olds hadn’t been taken out in a silly crash, they might have won the race. As it is, they would up with a bronze medal which is the rest US result in over 20 years.

    1. Tony R.

      And they didn’t waste any energy lining up at the front towing 100+ riders around. When you used their energy, they made sure it counted.

  13. Jeff

    I’m pretty sure that when Greipel was on the front, it was for his teammate Degenkolb, who the Germans thought had a better chance at winning. It didn’t ultimately work, but I don’t think Greipel was up there drilling it, just to drill it.

  14. Ken

    My son and I were comparing professional cycling to tennis the other day and discussing how cycling was a “team” sport with individual glory unlike any major team sport. He wondered what it would be like if there weren’t any teams at all, everyone was on their own, and all of the money spent on sponsorships was poured into the prize list. The prize lists would be bigger and deeper and you’d end up with the top 150 riders competing in the big events, with maybe a few that win qualifying events filling in the extra slots. All race support would be neutral and equipment/bike manufacturers would sponsor individuals, not teams. The racing would be like the craziest cat 4 race you could imagine and the Tour de France would be a free-for-all. And just like in tennis, the top tier racers would do fairly well, but once you start getting out of the top 50-75, those riders would be busting their hump at smaller races just to make enough money to keep things going (unless they had good individual sponsors). One would have to make sure there was no collusion, but it sure would make for fun spectating.

  15. GaryD

    Sorry Steve, but I think the modern day era of a dedicated “Tour Team” was put together by Bernard Hinualt/ Bernard Tapie with La va Claire, which I think you where a part of back in the day. Lance mimicked Bernard’s tactics, we should not give Lance that credit.

    1. Steve Tilford Post author

      Gary-La Vie Claire had an unbelievable team, but no, it was not Lance’s Tour teams. I road on La Vie Claire.

      Look at the 1986 Tour. Half the team riding for Hinault and the other half riding for LeMond. And they still finish 1st, 2nd and 4th overall. Who were they riding for?

      I challenge you to find a photo from that year, in a road race, where 9 La Vie Claire riders are in line at the front of the race pulling. It didn’t happen.

      1. bob

        That’s an easy challenge – no digital cameras in 1986 = no proliferation of photos like today, where everyone has a camera.

        Quit saying dumb stuff all the time.

  16. GaryD

    Just another aspect of the sport. I have been in a number of races where we have a teammate up the road, but I know I’m the stronger rider, The question comes, do I go for the win, or protect my teammate? Team sport comes into play at this point.

    1. Peter W. Polack

      “Just another aspect of the sport. I have been in a number of races where we have a teammate up the road, but I know I’m the stronger rider, The question comes, do I go for the win, or protect my teammate? Team sport comes into play at this point.”

      Unless you’re going to share in your teamate’s winnings, I see no reason to exercise any of those “team tactics” at the lower tier amateur and Masters level racing.

      I want SOMETHING for my sacrifice, and it ain’t a smile and WE DID IT while the winner walks away with the booty.

      Also, racing teams, particularly amateur teams, aren’t so equally matched in ability that they can share the workload. Combine that with the World’s, where riders are thrown together not by choice but by country of origin, and team tactics are virtually non-existent. It’s every man for himself.

      I think race tactics are reverse-engineered to explain the aftermath rather than actually formulated and executed from the start.

      As for comments regarding the U.S. team, I think they did a fantastic job getting U.S. exposure during the race. Sure, their moves may have been doomed to failure but if they knew or assumed that beforehand and gave it a go anyway, then they left their hearts on the course and the American public ate it up. Ben is known for his long breakaway talent so why not throw him out there first? Taylor-perhaps he recognized he was not fully recovered from his injuries and he was playing with the real big boys. He put himself out there and gave it all he had long enough to inspire the crowd. Finally Tyler; a futile effort by a sprinter?- I think not. He may be a second-tier sprinter with little chance at the end but he too dared, and the crowd loved it. That stuff made an impact for sure.

    2. Krakatoa East of Java

      The question is, does your teammate have the ability to beat whomever he is with (or does he have the ability to stay away)? If the answer is no, then team ideology virtually demands that you go after him.

  17. Cameron Hoffman

    Teams should have an outline of a plan. For example, our teammate here is a top sprinter. Let’s let him sit in. Everyone else go for breakaways. Plan A; go for break aways. Plan B; keep the sprinter from working so that he can use his full strength at the finish.

    Either way, if you’re on a team and wear the same jersey, you should go along with what the team decides. Don’t be that guy that says, “Yeah, we’ll go with that strategy” and not follow through.

    American racing is less predictable because in many categories it’s every man for themselves. Cat 3-5 groups almost always end in a pack sprint. The only exception is when there’s a super strong guy or the course dictates a break away.

    Anyway, go in with a plan. Play teammate if you’re on a team (otherwise wear a white jersey and race for yourself). Expect that most races end in a sprint.

    1. flicksta

      “Either way, if you’re on a team and wear the same jersey, you should go along with what the team decides. Don’t be that guy that says, “Yeah, we’ll go with that strategy” and not follow through.”

      It’s exactly that approach that won Nicole Cooke hundreds of races, including World and Olympic titles and set her at odds with British Cycling for her entire career.

      1. Cameron Hoffman

        Yes, sometimes a team is not the way to go for everyone. It’s hard work to race mostly alone and be among the strongest in the group, but you don’t have issues that other teams face with, “Too many cooks in the kitchen.”

        I loved watch Jeanie Longo crush her competition. She was amazing!

  18. Mark

    If it weren’t for a handful of guys “like Sagan” road racing would be COMPLETELY boring to watch.

    All of this team tactics BS is the reason I only race mtb’s.

  19. Paul Christopher

    I think part of it stems from the fact that many of today’s team managers never rode as pros (look at sky, tinkoff, etc.). I think it all started with a guy just like this: Manolo Saiz in ONCE. To compensate for fact that he had no experience of racing and consequently no idea of tactics, his strategy was to just fill his riders with dope and put them on the front all day. It worked for a few years, whilst everyone else didn’t have their doping programme sorted out, but once everyone started doing it, well…. No coincidence that Bruyneel rode for Saiz in ONCE and applied that strategy later on as we all know.

  20. bob

    “You might say that is a fluke, but it really wasn’t. I actually picked the exact place the solo attack was going to occur. It wasn’t my rider, but that is irrelevant. It could have been any number of individual guys.”

    Wow! You predicted the attack would happen on the only technical, cobbled hill right before the finish?

    You’re like the Miss Cleo of cycling! Have you ever considered a career in sportscasting?

    1. Paul Christopher

      wow, you are so sarcastic and witty, it doesn’t matter that you missed the whole point of the story.

  21. flicksta

    I’m pretty certain there are plenty of highly physically competent professional riders who do not have the mental strength to even try for the win, hence this team approach suits them perfectly. I’ll do my turns on the front, be a good boy and fetch bottles for the star, but I don’t have to suffer the ignominy of trying to win and failing, even though understanding failure is just part of being a winner.

    I was delighted Sagan won. He’s a mental giant, constantly under group attack when he has any sniff of a win, he’s the focal point of everybody else’s efforts hence the string of second places. Yet, when the time came he took his chance, which was the obvious place to go, but still had enough gas and guts to pull away. Plus he is technically superb and has massive balls.

  22. Bolas Azules

    All good points but in the World Championships it’s hard to really tell what is going on without having insight to each country’s deal with their riders and then the deals behind the scene with each trade team’s deal with their riders regardless of their country affiliation. After-all these are professionals and they respond to one thing and that’s $ and the $ the viability can bring.

    For instance what kind of $ was Belgium going to put up per rider if they had a winner? What kind of $ could a Belgian rider make from their trade team if one of their trade team teammate had won and they supported them? Multiple this and come-up with thousands of different scenarios involving 40-50 riders times 7-8 countries and 10-12 trade teams.

    I’d say it might be a better situation to be like Segan with virtually no countrymen and a trade team with deep pockets. With that said, it certainly looked like he won it all on his own.

  23. wallymann

    “Modern professional cycling teams have taken themselves pretty seriously ever since Lance put together his dedicated Tour de France squads and they rode unselfishly for him year after year.”

    there is nothing new that lance brought to the game. he did what merckx did and countless other leaders before: create a team committed to the success of the captain.

  24. Larry T.

    I thought you were a student of the sport Tilford. Blaming BigTex for team tactics is rather short-sighted. Back-in-the-days of Coppi (and probably earlier) and Merckx teams were created and run for the benefit and victory of a sole leader. Does it always work? Of course not, but would any of those guys choose to give up a dedicated team..and would they have won as often without it?

    1. Steve Tilford Post author

      Larry T. – No, Lance did it completely different. A team that was hired for just the Tour de France. Coppi and Merckx might have thought that they were hiring domestics, but when the real racing started, it was mano a mano. And raced they whole season. No only the Tour. Show me a stage of the Tour with the whole Molteni team lined up for hours with Eddy sitting on chillin’. Don’t think it exists.

      The reason it worked for Postal and since, is because of doping. No one rider has the capabilities to pull day after day, flat and in the mountains, for two weeks like what was going on, and still is somewhat.

      There wasn’t the oxygen vector drugs, so thus, no super human domestics. Pretty simple.

      1. Krakatoa East of Java

        Right. It’s not that a strong “climbing” teammate can’t pull the leader up the mountain. It’s that there is no way they can do it day-after-day with such regularity (without serious doping).

  25. Strava Junior

    Take a look at this video of the Athens Twilight Crit 2015. The UHC train drove the front for the entire video of the last 14 laps of the race, although Aldo Ilesic (Holloway’s lead out master) provides a textbook job of race/team management for Holloway, as well as a monster lead out. You can skip to about 6:00 to see him really start to take control. Occasional pulls, but excellent use of his teammates until Aldo takes over w one to go, with Holloway protected to deliver in the last 15 seconds, leaving UHC in the dust, wondering why they pulled on the front for the whole race. Not surprisingly, Aldo won other races this year, from a break or when he was so strong that he went 1 to Holloway’s 2 (e.g., San Rafael).

    1. Krakatoa East of Java

      Thanks for posting that. UHC assumed they had the front completely locked-down, but this guy just kept his cool… and when the time was right, he just took it from them.


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