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Putting the "I" in Team

In which the columnist takes a stroll down memory lane, and hopefully has a point about cycling in there somewhere.


I've been re-reading Slaying the Badger by Richard Moore to get/keep myself excited about the upcoming week of Alps stages of this year's Tour, and at the same time gotten Mrs. PdC hooked on Netflix cycling documentaries. We just wrapped up "The Accidental Death of Marco Pantani" and the Lance Armstrong one, "at all costs" or something like that. My wife is a casual fan of cycling at best, but she finds something about these dramatic retellings of racing life to be compelling, and I'll be the last person to question it. [Spoiler alert: Lance is a jerk.] It's made for an engaging week, dull racing notwithstanding.

But I stumbled on one passage from Moore's book that really made me wonder. There, Paul Koechli, the somewhat unorthodox manager of the La Vie Claire squad in its heady early days, told Andy Hampsten as he attacked on a stage to Superbagneres that he should go for it and try to win the Tour. Not the stage, the whole Tour. Hampsten recalled that he made a brief foray forward to take some pressure off Greg LeMond, his team leader notwithstanding the ongoing war with teammate Bernard Hinault, and didn't possess the legs to really go on up the road. It was enough that LeMond was riding well and moving into position to assume the race lead from a bonking Hinault, who was putting the finishing touches on one of the worst decisions of his entire racing career.

Hinault and LeMond on Alpe d'Huez

Everyone gets a pony! AFP-Getty Images

For the uninitiated: in 1986 Hinault entered the Tour with a chance to become the first six-time winner, but had promised LeMond he'd work for the American to win the Tour. This was because in 1985, Hinault crashed in the maillot jaune and was barely hanging on to his form in the final week of the Tour, but LeMond, who could have sauntered up the road to Luz Ardiden and won the entire race, agreed not to, out of respect for his captain and ostensibly because of the vague threat posed by Stephen Roche, riding with LeMond and sitting six minutes back on GC. There was some underhandedness that comes with being a total outsider in a traditional sports atmosphere, in France, and working for no less an icon than Hinault. But whatever, the deal was made that LeMond would defend Hinault, knowing that he was the Badger's successor. Only Hinault, for vague and complex reasons, set out to attack LeMond from the start of the '86 Tour, and when attacked for attacking his teammate, his response was to attack some more. Which begat the bonk, and a super-strong LeMond did what he needed to in order to become the first (and last official) American Tour winner.

Anyway, the point of this was that Koechli subscribed to a form of extreme team-ism in his tactical approach. Backing up, we here will tell anyone who asks, in our forum or in any other walk of life, that cycling is in fact a team sport. We say that in order to make casual fans pay attention to the nuances of a race, where team tactics quite often affect the outcome in dramatic ways, and which you can spot if you're paying attention. So yeah, cycling is a team sport.

But is it a team sport to the exclusion of the individual? That appears to be where Koechli was coming from, and it's a little nuts. Koechli's philosophy was simply that as long as someone from the team won the Tour, he was fine with it. To this end, he insisted on a hyper-aggressive strategy of getting a rider in every breakaway over the three weeks of Le Tour. Which sounds ludicrous for a dominant team like La Vie Claire, except that they were so dominant politically (people asking Hinault before stopping to pee) and in terms of pure strength that they could, and did, place rider after rider in the typical stage breakaways. Between stages 13 and 20 of the 1986 Tour, they won five stages, including wins from the break by Niki Ruttiman and Jean-Francois Bernard. That's crazy enough, but it was all in service of the team winning. Which gets you to moments like Superbagneres, where your last year's captain is busy undermining your this year's captain, so you tell your future captain to take off to pursue his own result.

Jeff Bernard in 1986 stage

Jeff Bernard, pursuing a stage win, for which owner Bernard Tapie promised him a Porsche. Bernard won and Tapie paid, the last part being the most remarkable development. AFP/Getty Images

Did this strategy keep teams off balance? Sure, maybe. If you have a lineup of three or four grand tour winners, like La Vie Claire, it might be an effective way to do things. It's definitely a great way to win the Tour of Flanders. But in a grand tour, 99.9% of the time everyone knows who your strongest guy is, so sending his domestiques on the attack will generate laughter in response and will weaken the chances of your best rider.

Only one guy can win, and the La Vie Claire free-for-all approach to total team attacking isn't even remotely realistic, or even all that smart. LeMond was under constant pressure from his team, rather than receiving help from them, and much more vulnerable to Urs Zimmerman than had he and his team worked together to assert LeMond's will over the race, throughout. Koechli's approach was a great way to win stages, but as a GC strategy for anyone with any sensitivity -- in other words, for anyone besides Hinault -- it was too clever by half. Ultimately, it's debatable whether this was really even a strategy or just team owner Bernard Tapie's misguided fantasy about how cycling works.

But let's get back to describing the sport. We fans celebrate the victory of the individual. Yes, that individual is supported by a team, and often can only succeed with that help, and that's never to be forgotten. But the outcomes are written in terms of individual success. Chris Froome wins because he's the single strongest guy in the race, and his team is there to make sure nobody succeeds in undermining him. Tour de France records are stated in individual terms, as are the honor rolls of every great cycling event. Even more so for our experience -- we see the top riders as individuals, we hear their life story, we debate the tragic nature of Pantani's life and whether Lance was a monster or a creation of his times. [Or both. Let's go with both.] And however us hardcore fans view the sport, there are millions of eyeballs on the race, attached to casual fans like my wife, who are mostly interested in the individual who is winning, and maybe a few other people still in pursuit.

Does cycling differ in this respect from other individual sports? Perhaps. But behind every successful marathon runner are coaches, training partners, sponsors and so on, even if they don't make a showing of team tactics during the event. Golf, same thing. Decathlon, tennis, mountaineering, boxing, Acapulco cliff diving... all have some element of team support to what is otherwise celebrated as an individual achievement.

How would you describe it? My original point is that calling it a team sport helps make a point but doesn't really suffice, because if it did Paul Koechli would have lasted more than four years as a DS. Is it a hybrid team/individual sport? Is it an individual sport that has an unusually high team component to it? Is this whole column just a sorry excuse to talk about the best Tour de France evah?

LeMond and Hinault on the podium

"Do you like apples Bernie? Well I got the jersey. How do you like them apples?" AFP-Getty Images