Cafe Chat: Tyler Farrar's Experimental Classics Campaign

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Tyler Farrar just completed his latest spring campaign for Team Garmin-Barracuda, his fourth full-on run through the Classics, at an age (27) when you would expect a pattern to develop. And yet if any word could define his campaign (besides dissatisfying -- as he put it), it would be "change." Changed training and objectives, changed tactics, changes in the team, changes in the races, and changes in the results. Some of these changes are pretty surprising; and even the ones you knew about, well, Farrar had plenty to say about them too when we caught up last week.

Farrar came back to Seattle shortly after finishing Paris-Roubaix (29th, not a bad day's work), and hung around here and his family's home in Wenatchee while catching a bit of a break and getting ready to start the Giro d'Italia next month. Perfect time to take stock of a fascinating spring season. Join us on the flip!

We'll do this edited-transcript style, meaning I'll give Tyler's own words max space, with just a bit of clipping for organization's sake.

Changed Approach: Answering Questions

The most surprising thing I learned about Farrar's spring is his change in approach, where he basically went all-in on riding the cobbles, even to the point of forgoing sprint training. As he describes it, both he and the team sought to answer the question, what exactly is Farrar's ceiling as a cobbled classics guy?

PdC: You have said you didn't do much sprint training this year? Is this a change from past years?

Tyler: Yeah we made a bit of an experiment this winter. I’ve had success in the past in the Classics without doing a ton of more specific training for them. I mean, I race a classic riders’ program for sure and I was 100% peaked for them, but I was doing a lot of sprint training and not going out and riding the cobblestones all the time. So we wanted to see what would happen this year if I really gave it 100% focus, and see how it played out.

PdC: That sounds pretty unusual for the team to go along with; is this a function of your having a long relationship with Garmin?

Tyler: Yeah, a little bit. It’s also a question that the team’s wondered about. I’ve kind of grown up in this team as a rider. All of my best results are with this team. I came to Slipstream in 2008 and I wasn’t one of the main guys, but I rode the classics, came around as a sprinter, and started to have some success at the classics, and that’s where my heart has always been. The team was willing to play along because they also wanted to see, if I really focus maybe I was capable of some huge result in the classics, and that’s good for them too. And also we were both confident that regardless of how it worked out there was plenty of time to do the sprint training. I don’t think it’s going to hurt me at all at the Giro that I didn’t sprint train in February. My fitness is there, so a few weeks of specific training and I don’t think I’ll be lacking at all.

PdC: So how did it go?

Tyler: It was good to answer the question for myself, if I only trained for more aerobic training and power climbs of flanders and cobblestones of Roubaix, what would happen? And now I know.

The reality is I’m a sprinter, and no matter how much I train, I don’t think I can train myself at this point in my career to be able to attack with the attacking riders of the classics. No matter how much I would love to be able to do that I have to be realistic about what my strengths and weaknesses are. So, in years past when I did more sprint training and hung on for dear life in the classics and then maybe be able to sprint for a high placing or the win. I think that was more effective.

I was certainly a little bit stronger this year than the last two years, but I wasn’t as fast when it came to a sprint, and I wasn’t able to win in races like Tirreno and Qatar and Oman. I was close but I was missing that little snap that you need to win field sprints at that level. In the end I was able to go with some breakaways in Kuurne and follow moves in Waregem (Dwars) but it didn’t really pay off. I think the way I was doing it in past years was better for me.

PdC: LIke in the Scheldeprijs, you guys rode a pretty ideal race.

Tyler: Yeah, when I look at Scheldeprijs I don’t think we did a single thing wrong. I think Kittel just beat me in the sprint. But other than that we executed our exact strategy pretty much. The only thing we changed on the road from what we planned beforehand was when it started raining, we had wanted to gamble a bit more, sit back and try and do a really big leadout proper into the finish, and it just got so crazy when it started raining and everyone started crashing, we just said look, I talked with Robbie Hunter and said I just wanted to stay out of trouble. I’d rather use up the whole team and keep me up front alone than gamble and sit back and end up on the deck. So that’s what we did, we just burned him and Koldo and all these guys up riding in the wind, next to all the other teams that were riding. Luckily Jack Bauer did a really impressive ride and was right there with me to the finish.

I did a pretty good sprint but Kittel was a little better than me that day. It’s frustrating, that was my other big goal, I’d won there two years ago and really wanted to win there this year. But its one of those things where sprinting hasn’t been my focus so as much as I wanted to win, I really didn’t do all the things I needed to do to win the sprint at Scheldeprijs.

PdC: Sort of the deal you cut?

Tyler: Yeah, and it’s an experiment that one of these years I needed to do. If I’d never done it I’d always wonder, and now I know... how I’m gonna sprint if I don’t do sprint training and only do, you know I did tons of intervals on the cobbles this year, going down to the climbs of Flanders and doing efforts on the different climbs. I definitely felt quite strong on the cobbles, but not quite strong enough to be among the best, and I blunted my sprint so that instead of winning sprints I was always getting second, third, fourth. I need to do the best thing for my team, and winning sprints is what that is.

PdC: The Classics often favor older riders. Can you still get better as a classics rider over time?

Tyler: Well, experience is a factor, and the only way to get experience is to do them over and over, which I plan on. I’ve said a milllion times they’re my favorite races of the year and that isn’t going to change. I’ll certainly target them every year. The question is more how I’ll prepare for them. We'll see, as I get older and more mature. A lot of riders as they get older get maybe not as fast but stronger. Wait and see.

Team Changes: The Era of Sep Begins

Garmin-Barracuda went from last year's attention-grabbing Classics lineup, featuring World Champion Thor Hushovd, to a quieter but no less interesting band of riders in 2012. The big news was the progress of Sep Vanmarcke, who stunned the scene with his victory over Tom Boonen in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a feat that looks even better now than it did at the time. Vanmarcke did what people accused Garmin of failing to do enough of last year: he attacked, a lot. Suddenly Garmin were one of the more active teams in the peloton.

PdC: How would you compare this year's Garmin cobbled classics squad to last year's? Was this a tactically different team?

Tyler: It wasn’t a huge change but the changes that happened I think were significant. Yeah, we lost Thor and that definitely changes the dynamic. For him, yeah he wasn’t really an attacking rider in the classics but he can follow the moves, he may not be the guy launching the attacks but he’s still there when it’s a group of 6 or something. So he was a really valuable rider in that respect because he can cover the range and still sprint at the end. Having him leave changes it a little bit. But then having Sep as he’s coming into his own here, that also changes it because he is very much an attacking rider. I think he was one of the more aggressive guys over the span of the classics this year. And it was good... it forces the team to play the tactics a little differently and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

PdC: Having a variety of different styles is good, right? Give you more options?

Tyler: Yeah, different races cater to different riders, so yeah you can say a race like the Omloop, that’s more of an attacking riders’ race, then the next day a race like Kuurne, I can hang on and still be there when the race gets down to 20-30 guys and still sprint. Realistically you look at the races and say the Omloop suits Sep a lot better and Kuurne suits me a lot better and disperse the riders accordingly, and you can do that across all the races.

Race Changes, Pt. 1: Gent-Wevelgem Gets Away

One of the biggest changes to the race calendar from Farrar's perspective was the subtly critical alteration of E3 Prijs Harelbeke, which moved from Saturday -- 24 hours before Gent-Wevelgem -- to Friday. The point was to create equality between the two races and to give riders a chance to ride both with a purpose. Tom Boonen won both races, so apparently that last part worked. For Farrar, though, this additional competition raised the stakes on what was his number one goal for the spring...

PdC: How did the change in scheduling of E3 affect Gent Wevelgem? Did it change the way the race unfolded?

Farrar_roubaix_mediumTyler: I think you could see the guys who raced E3 were still able to race Gent-Wevelgem for the win, as opposed to in years past when it was the next day, no one really did. They either raced E3 full gas and just survived or tried to ride Gent-Wevelgem or dropped out and didn’t do much. Or they skipped E3 like I did and just did Gent Wevelgem. So now with the day in between you saw Tom won both of them. It’s not a ton of rest but it was enough. As for the dynanimcs of the race itself, I think Gent-Wevelgem played out in a really traditional way this year. The way that race unfolded, that’s how Gent-Wevelgem usually goes when the weather is that way. We stayed together in a big bunch and then the race split up the last time up the Kemmelberg, and then it was a game of pursuit between the first group and the second group all the way to the finish line, well, until the second group gave up. That’s not really surprising or different than Gent-Wevelgem usually goes.

PdC: You must not have been happy with your outcome?

Tyler: I was super disappointed. That was probably my biggest disappointment of the spring. That was my big goal, I had good legs, I rode good position all day, I was always right where I needed to be. I just screwed up a little bit on the run-in to the Kemmelberg and didn’t put myself in the right place and started the climb too far back, and that was it. I went over the climb, it split, we chased as hard as we could but I just wasn’t able to get back. That was really disappointing.

PdC: Did the attention focused on Cavendish dominate the tactics?

Tyler: Certainly any time he’s in the race people are going to pay attention to where he is, is he dropped, should we ride, that kind of thing. But I think even if he hadn’t been there they would have ridden the exact same way because Greipel was there, I was there, Hushovd was there, plenty of quick guys in that group. If the roles were reversed and I had been in the front group and had teammates there and I knew Greipel was in the second group, you can be sure we would have been on the front too in that sort of situation.

Race Changes, Pt. 2: The New Ronde

The one subject of discussion on everyone's mind was the overhauling of the Ronde van Vlaanderen parcours, from the traditional Muur-Bosberg-Ninove finish to a circuit race around the Vlaamse Ardennen close to the new finish in Oudenaarde. It looked different, felt different, and was sure to ride different, even if in the end the tactics didn't open up much as riders felt out the new course the first time through. The changes were sure to alter Farrar's approach though...

PdC: Flanders, was the new course harder for you?

Tyler: I think the course itself is quite different, I think it is a lot harder. The interesting thing is, I think you saw a really negative race until the true finale because everyone was afraid of the course. The question is, OK now that everyone’s seen it in a race and has an idea -- I mean you can ride it a million times in training but it’s not the same as in a race -- I have a hunch that people are going to ride more aggressively next year, now that they’ve seen it. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone expected a group as big as it was to come in for fourth place. Everyone expected it to be all ones and twos, really small groups. We’ll see, if it unfolds that way again, maybe if I hadn’t gone in the early break, I could have been in that group, but I don’t know. I also don’t know if it could unfold that way again. Now that people have done it they won’t be quite as conservative as they were.

PdC: As an admirer of the race, someone who's watched it for years and always really appreciated it, what’s your view of the change?

Tyler: I am not a fan of the new course. [Ed.: this was said with some emphasis.] Not just -- OK, of course I think the old course was better for me than the new course -- but taking myself out of the equation, I feel the new Flanders has no history. And then by ccreating a circuit race you’ve made it less "classic" than you could have. Even if they’d changed the route and not have it be circuits, I’d still say you’ve lost the history, but then to also have it be circuits, it’s just another bike race now. OK, it’s really hard and there are a lot of people watching, but you don’t have that feeling you get as a rider racing up the Muur -- that was such a mythical climb. The Kwaremont and Paterberg are also famous climbs and crazy hard, but its not the same feeling, and especially when you’re doing them multiple times in the race, it doesn’t have the same special feeling to it.

PdC: Is this opinion common in the peloton?

Tyler: I dunno. I think everyone really loved the old course. The reason everyone loved the Tour of Flanders is because it’s Tour of Flanders, that’s what it is. I think maybe in ten years if they keep it on this course for a while it will create its own history and you might be able to get that feeling back, but it’s a much different race now than what it was before.

Changed Tactics: Up the Road

Farrar made plenty of noise on the new course by joining the early breakaway, a move that stayed away til fairly late in the game. It was unusual to see a rider who had been 5th and 13th in the last two editions up the road, and it was unusual for Garmin-Barracuda to use its winningest rider this way. But there was a reason...

PdC: On your Flanders attack, what was strategy?

Tyler: The thought process was one the team didn’t really have confidence that I could be there to play a role in the finale if I just rode Flanders the way I had the past couple years, hide in the field and wait wait wait, go over the Muur in that second group. Maybe we catch the front group and I get to sprint like I did two years ago and get fifth, and maybe we don’t and I sprint for, I don’t know what it was, 12th or 15th (Ed: 13th). So that was the card they would play with me in Flanders.

In hindsight because it ended up being a semi-negative race until the last 50 or 60k we could have played that same kind of tactic again. But we really didn’t think it was going to unfold that way, so they said, what’s the best scenario we could use you for to help the team. With Sep he was one of the favorites, we didn’t want a big group going up the road in the start and then teams looking at us to help ride all day. If it was five guys we didn’t care, we didn’t want anyone in the break, and that’s pretty easy to control in a race like Flanders. But if it was 15, if it was a strong group, you never know. All of a sudden you use up a couple guys to help chase in the first 150k, and then you really miss those guys in the end. So they said, Tyler we don’t think you’re going to be there in the last hour, why don’t you try to get in that big move if it goes, it takes the pressure off the guys, everyone can just sit back, let the other guys do the work, and you never know, maybe if you don’t get caught til late in the race, maybe you could survive with that first group. That was certainly more of the pipe dream scenario, I was really just up there to take the pressure off the guys.

PdC: I know you're not a neo-pro, but this is Flanders -- was it cool to be in front?

Tyler: Oh, I think that will go down as one of the more special experiences of my cycling career. You know, it’s funny, you have these moments in your career, and they’re rarely your big victories or your big results. They’re the days like Flanders was, a special day. The cool thing for me was I’m pretty well known in Belgium, so when I was in the break in front of the peloton, people know me so it really felt like all of Belgium was screaming my name. That’s something I’ll never forget. That was really special. It also ended up being I just had one of those great days that come along every now and then when you have amazing legs. It just happened to come along then.

PdC: Is there a causal connection maybe?

Tyler: Um, I dunno, I mean it’s my favorite race of the year, it’s my favorite race in the world. I mean, I’m always motivated in all the classics, like I said Gent-Wevelgem was actually my big objective of the year, but Flanders is always a really special day and I usually tend to surprise myself on that day most years.

PdC: Guys like you with your resume usually not allowed in the break?

Tyler: No, not much.

PdC: Was there any conversation like "we don’t want you here"?

Tyler: It was kind of on the edge, because when i went across to that move it was dangling right in front and I saw it was a pretty big group and I jumped across to it. And they kind of started riding behind, they didn’t really want to let the break go. We were trying to get away and I ended up jumping in and taking my share of the pulls in the rotation, trying to get away. We rode for a while and the gap was slowly easing out and slowly easing out. I dunno, at that point if guys in the break had asked me to sit up I may have thought about it, but it slowly went out and finally they gave up and let us go, so it wasn’t really an issue. But they also kept the break on a pretty tight leash, they didn’t really give us lots of time. Maybe if I hadn’t been there they would have given them more time.

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Looking Ahead: Giro, Tour, Olympics

Next up for Farrar is his sprint campaign. This too comes with a couple wrinkles: an inviting Giro d'Italia, a Tour de France where he isn't still trying to break the ice, and an Olympic Games course catering to the fastmen...

PdC: This Giro isn't quite as bad for sprinters as the last few?

Tyler: No! Last year it was three sprints I think for the whole Giro? I was really happy to see this year’s Giro course. There’s been for me a really frustrating trend of races across the calendar that try to weed out sprint stages. You look at the Vuelta this year, I don’t think there’s too many sprinters that are going to put their hand up to go to the Vuelta with three or four sprints in the whole race. But in the Giro I see 6 stages that, barring weird tactics, should end in a sprint, and there’s even another stage or two where if things play out right you never know. That’s pretty good numbers. For us the team time trial is always big for us. We may not be the favorites but we’ll still be able to go pretty well. And if I get to take six cracks at stage wins in the first two weeks, that’s definitely worth it for me to go. Finish? Won’t say definitively no but the plan now is no. Go do sprints in the first two weeks, get out, recover, and go do the Tour.

PdC: What's your take on the Olympics course?

Tyler: It will be a sprint from the group for the win. The question is how big is that group going to be. I don’t think it’ll be a sprint from 150 guys, no way. Is it 30 guys, 50 guys, 80 guys? That I don’t know, that’ll depend on how the tactics play out, how the weather is, but it’s dead flat, straight on big roads in the last 50k, there’s plenty of time to come back. But the circuit out on Box Hill is really hard. At least I had that impression when I did the test of it. You go and you do a lap or two and it’s not that hard, but there’s really not a lot of recovery on that circuit, there’s a lot of small roads, it’s up down left right. If they go full gas lap after lap up the climb? It doesn’t go downhill right after the climb, it kind of rolls along for another couple K. I think it’s just going to wear on everybody. I think it’s going to break up a lot on the circuit, and then it’s just a question of how many groups come back together on that last 50k on teh big straight flat roads.

PdC: Do you plan to finish the Tour?

Tyler: If everything’s going well in the Tour I always like to finish. The Tour is the Tour, and the finish on the Champs Elysees is also really important. If I’m getting through the Tour the way I did last year, I’ll finish and hope I recover quick enough for the next weekend, but if I’m really getting tired or I’m sick, I dunno we’ll see.

PdC: Tour win last year, different experience?

Tyler: I guess so, in a way. It’s funny but of all my stage wins in grand tours, in a way the win in the Tour was maybe the least satisfying, it was more a sense of relief. It was a beautiful victory and something I will never forget but the emotions that went along with it were different than when I won my first stage of the Vuelta or the Giro. It was certainly special. But you know the Tour’s crazy. The Giro and the Vuelta it’s a little bit slower pace, and you do the podium and it’s a bit more elaborate and you get to savor it a bit more. In the Tour it’s kind of Boom! do these interviews, Boom! Go on the podium, Boom! gotta do the next guy... kind of a big rush through it all.

*****

Catching up with Farrar has become a regular thing here at the Cafe. Sure, objectivity is an issue (Seattle in the house!), but Farrar is more than just an especially friendly face. He's a student of the Classics, as well as a guy with an uncertain role in them -- potential winner in the sprinter-friendly events but not an obvious candidate to win a monument. He's also a guy who is not just nice enough to talk with us but to seems to really enjoy hashing out the details. The chance to conduct a, shall we say, longitudinal interview series like this is another way talking of looking at the sport, and it's something I appreciate and enjoy.

All photos © Fotoreporter Sirotti

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