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Stage three analysis: Brains beat brawn

How Garmin-Cervélo finally cracked HTC-Highroad’s leadout in Redon.

Words by Edward Pickering in Mûr de Bretagne

Tuesday July 5, 2011

The vaunted HTC-Highroad leadout train wasn’t just derailed in Redon on stage three of the Tour de France, it was privatised, the rails ripped up and the rolling stock sold for scrap. A four-man ambush by Garmin-Cervélo with less than a kilometre to go delivered Tyler Farrar to his first Tour stage win. It was a popular victory – an American success on Independence Day, which put an admiring smile on almost every face in the Tour village.

For the first time since Cavendish’s ascendance in the 2008 Tour, a rival team cracked HTC’s leadout. Garmin have been trying for years to match HTC, but yesterday they tried a new tactic. Instead of copying HTC and trying to dominate the run-in, they hid just behind the front of the bunch, then put everything into a single attack at a crucial moment. It was guerilla warfare versus conventional weapons.

Under the kilometre banner, three Garmin riders hit the front, tracking an attack by Sky’s Geraint Thomas and passing Cavendish’s last man, Mark Renshaw. Round the final sweeping left-hand bend, Thor Hushovd somehow emerged from the maelstrom of the peloton to join his team-mates. It was like tossing a hand grenade into the bunch. Suddenly six riders had put clear water between themselves and the rest of the peloton, and three of them were Thor Hushovd, Julian Dean and Farrar. Even though Farrar had to hold off a very fast finish by Romain Feillu, the sprint was won not on the line, but in the few seconds between the flamme rouge and the final corner with 600 metres to go. It really was a work of art, and Garmin deserve plaudits for the tactical awareness, planning and ruthlessness with which they won the stage.

The leadout train derailed
Just as in the team time trial the day before, HTC misjudged yesterday’s run-in and it cost them the stage win. It was the smallest of errors, but they didn’t get away with it – they did a little too much too early and were left short-staffed, with only three men left in front of Cavendish for the final four kilometres – Tony Martin, Matt Goss and Mark Renshaw.

Until then, HTC had put in a very impressive ride. All the way through the final dozen kilometres, while the front of the bunch swirled and turned, like a pot of water on a rolling boil, a solid, unbroken line of HTC riders kept a steady pace on the right hand side of the road. Other riders, separated from their team-mates, wasted energy by trying to move up to HTC’s left, then sank back through the peloton, in no better a position than before, but much more tired. But HTC looked imperious.

However, something appeared to be not quite right when Bernhard Eisel finished his turn with four kilometres to go. Tony Martin, the next in line, looked across and there appeared to be some kind of communication between the two riders. Martin looked at Eisel, then turned around the other way, possibly checking to see how many HTC riders were left, doing some mental arithmetic, and realising that four riders weren’t quite enough for four kilometres. The German still put in an incredible effort, taking the peloton to two and a half to go, but with only Goss and Renshaw left after that, HTC were vulnerable.

The bunch seemed to realise, and immediately ganged up on them, with Lampre and Vacansoleil riders attacking in the last two kilometres. Goss used himself up to chase them down, and Renshaw was left on the front going into the final kilometre. It was 500 metres too early, and when Garmin attacked, HTC had no answer.

What now for HTC?
HTC have got a day off leadout duties for today’s uphill finish in Mûr de Bretagne, but it’s going to be interesting to see how they react to their defeat for the flat stages to come. There are few teams with the tactical expertise and attention to detail that HTC have, and there are a number of options available to them.

They won’t panic, and given that yesterday’s mistake was merely to use themselves up 500 metres early, it could be business as usual for stage five to Cap Fréhel. HTC could just put yesterday down to a small misjudgement, and try to dominate from 15 kilometres out again.

Or on the other hand, maybe they need to be more willing to lose in order to win. They took sole responsibility for the final 15 kilometres yesterday, while other teams watched, waited, then ganged up on them to disrupt them. Why not leave it to other teams to lead the bunch to the finish?

Either way, there’s one more thing that needs to be pointed out: that Cavendish is obviously on extremely good form. The two fastest riders over the last 150 metres of the stage were Cavendish, who came from a long way back to finish fifth, and Feillu, who almost overhauled Farrar. Not that Farrar will care – his team outwitted the entire bunch yesterday. It’s going to be fascinating to watch round two of the battle at Cap Fréhel.

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