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Can the Tejay-Richie Tandem Work?

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BMC doubles its Tour de France leadership. Can it work?

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On my ride in today I caught the CyclingNews podcast where they talk to new teammates Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen of BMC about their destiny to pair up and assault the Tour de France this summer (and next, and probably the one after that -- he extended with BMC over the weekend for at least 2017, maybe 2018). It's a very nice set of interviews, and while done separately it seems like the two riders got their story straight. So there's that.

And that story is that the two young veterans expect to share leadership of the team's Tour de France GC role, which is about what everyone expected when news broke that Porte was on the move to BMC from Team Sky. The only remaining question was, is this actually a good idea? Power sharing arrangements at the Tour have a pretty sordid entertaining history, and a mix of schadenfreude and skepticism awaits every announcement of one. But they are also relatively common, enough so that I am not about to launch into a thorough analysis of every occurrence on some questionable premise. But let's at least take a short survey of the different types.

The Mentor/Mentee Model

Premise: Easily the most memorable power-sharing arrangements revolve around aging champions bringing along an appointed successor. "I'll show him the ropes, and if he's good enough to win, then that's what is in the team's interests."

Famous Examples: So, so delicious many... Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond occupy the all-time Mentor/Mentee drama spot, for reasons everyone knows. Then there's the Gilberto Simoni/Damiano Cunego fiasco from the 2004 Giro d'Italia. This was an accidental Mentor/Mentee relationship, or maybe it wasn't one at all, considering that Simoni never seemed even slightly interested in Cunego's success. For all Hinault's faults, he never screamed at LeMond and called him a bastard for winning a stage.

Recent Examples: Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador at the 2009 Tour. A stretch? Maybe, given that Armstrong was absent for Contador's rise to prominence, but it was more or less the same disastrous dynamic once they officially became teammates, with aging Lance splitting the squad in the middle of the Tour, which Contador won convincingly. On the flip side, you could put Valverde/Quintana in this category, I suppose. Valverde isn't a strong enough grand tour guy to get offended when the obviously brilliant Quintana disappears up the road, which is why it's worked well for Movistar. But for that same reason I'm not sure the relationship is really mentor-ish.

Verdict? A nearly unmitigated disaster for one simple reason: cycling champions almost never actually want to admit that they are washed up, so as soon as the protege looks ready to assume real leadership, he must be stabbed in the back in every way possible. On rare occasions the top banana is a truly reasonable bloke who can see the future about to run him over if he stands in the way. Certainly the Riis-Ullrich relationship stands as an example of a smooth transition of power from the old veteran to the young kid. There, you had the inevitability of Riis' demise and Ullrich's assent, as well as Ullrich's very respectful behavior in the 1997 Tour. Those are the required elements for a Mentor/Mentee Model to not be a mess. Bike throwing is purely optional.

Applicability? Zero. Tejay and Richie are peers in the classic sense. Richie has three years on Tejay, but I still don't expect even a whiff of this dynamic.

The Throwing Spaghetti at the Wall Model

Premise: You have a multitude of riders who could kinda sorta maybe score high at the Tour de France. You unleash all of them to do... something. This one is barely even a model so much as a default position. Another name for it is the "we don't actually have a true contender but would prefer not to say that out loud" model.

Famous Examples: T-Mobile in 2005 come to mind. They had former winner Jan Ullrich, by now a shadow of his old self but still someone to watch. They had 2004 runner-up Andreas Kloden. And they had a frisky Alexandre Vinokourov insisting on his chance to win. Those contingencies came into play when Ullrich began his Tour campaign by smashing his face through the back window of a team car during pre-Tour training. That he clawed his way back into third overall is a credit to his grit. Or medical science. Moving right along... Anyway, Klodi crashed out as well, sitting 10th when he broke his wrist, while Vino hung in gamely (cough) for fifth place.

Recent Examples: Every Belkin/Blanco/Rabobank Tour de France effort. A number of Garmin teams as well. I'm sure there are dozens of examples of this.

Verdict? Another default strategy for teams with nothing to lose, only in this case they know they have nothing to lose. They don't have a rider who is strong or successful enough to think he's the man, but rather a collection of hopefuls who could maybe win if things fell in their lap. Typically this modest ambition is aided by the presence of a clear favorite on another team who can galvanize a team of outside-threat types to gang up on him. It's a successful strategy in terms of being able to deploy it without much trouble -- i.e. no infighting -- but it doesn't tend to lead to wins.

Applicability? Minimal, and for one reason: both van Garderen and Porte take themselves pretty seriously as Tour contenders. Are they delusional? So far the answer is no.

The Complimentary Parts Model

Premise: This is a great one on those rare occasions it's actually true. A lot of teams start out thinking their multiple Tour threats will all fit together nicely, and the possibility maybe exists, until egos and results screw it up.

Famous Examples: One of my all-time favorites, the 2008 CSC squad, which included the Schleck Brothers running interference on Cadel Evans for 2.8 weeks, only to unleash Sastre Hell on the final decisive stage and win the whole damn thing. For days Frank Schleck stalked Evans as the two traded leadership of the race by seconds. Then it was Andy's turn to apply pressure in the Alps on the Australian, who as usual was lacking in team support. Finally Sastre drove home the blade. Brilliant stuff.

Recent Examples: Vincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso at the 2010 Giro come to mind. They played poor David Arroyo like a fiddle on the famous Gavia-Mortirolo stage, though Arroyo hung on for second at least.

Verdict? A beautiful thing to watch, but I suspect it's nearly impossible to build most of the time. For starters, it requires a collective lowering of egos to allow things to actually play out on the road with riders unfettered by ambition, performing to the best of their ability. In CSC's case they had the unassuming Sastre along with two brothers, the Schlecks, who took care of each other and who didn't have a strong case for their own leadership. [Frank was a bit less than a Tour winner; Andy was still very young.]

Applicability? Murky. It's hard to picture Tejay and Richie applying pressure to their rivals in the mountains, since both riders are known more for hanging around on the big climbs and making up time in the time trials. [Yes, I know Tejay nearly won on the Alpe in 2013.]

The Odd Couple Model

Premise: On par with the mentor/mentee version, in this case you have two riders whom nobody can say why they are even on the same team. Which is a pretty good sign that, by the end of three weeks, they effectively will not be.

Famous Examples: Stephen Roche and Roberto Visentini. Why were they ever teammates? I guess there is nothing inherently wrong with Roche being on an Italian team, and I might even set aside my Anglo bias and contemplate the possibility, however vague, that Visentini was a decent guy who tried to treat Roche fairly. And certainly the Italian fans deserve way more criticism for their treatment of Roche than his team does. You can think these things when you consider all possibilities in life, I guess. But it sounds a lot simpler to just say this was doomed to fail. Visentini was Italian, the defending Giro winner, and the leader of an Italian team. There simply was no way to accommodate a foreign rider who was potentially superior to Visentini.

Recent Examples: I guess you could put Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins in here, but not because of anything too diabolical; Sky simply "raised" two champions at nearly the same time (they were more like a finishing school for Wiggo), and they simply ran out of power to share before they could get their spouses to say nice things about the other.

Verdict? They come in varying degrees of nastiness, but the end result, for practical purposes, is the same: somebody must go. The drama gets the headlines, but in reality it's the need for more power than is available that is at the root of the problem. The major difference from the Mentor/Mentee model is that the Odd Couple model doesn't start out with a nice story about older guy helping young guy learn the ropes. The Odd Couple model should have been sniffed out and stopped before it became a disaster. Sky talked Wiggo into the Giro as a way to clear him out of Froome's path, which was pretty brilliant in hindsight.

Applicability? This is one possible outcome, though only if somehow both Tejay and Richie both get over the hump of Froome and Quintana, and nobody else stands in their way of ultimate glory. Until then, there's enough power to share.

The Sorta Odd Couple Model

Premise: A close relative of the previous model, except that in a weird way it winds up making sense. Maybe the truth was there all along and nobody saw it. Or maybe the two started off as a poor fit but learned how to come together. Anyway, it's the less hilarious, more respectable version of the odd couple.

Famous Examples: Struggling a bit here... maybe you put Delgado/Indurain here? That was almost a Mentor/Mentee thing, though they're only four years apart in age and compadres, so nothing inherently odd about them.

Recent Examples: Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador, who went on a grand tour-winning spree from 2007 to 2009, largely because the presumed second fiddle (Contador, at first) turned out to be undeniably awesome and the presumed main guy, Levi, hit his ceiling.

Verdict? Like the premise says, in the end it makes sense.

Applicability? Possibly the best analogy to Tejay and Richie. They aren't countrymen and Porte hasn't had any connection to BMC, where van Garderen has spent most of his professional life. They aren't complimentary pieces per se, except that they are both GC contenders, which means you can find them in the same part of the race most days. But there is no reason they can't work together either, and maybe the chemistry will turn out better than anyone anticipated.

The Prove It Model

Premise: A team has two young potential stars, neither of whom has shown that they deserve leadership outright, so the team pits them against each other, more or less, to prove who deserves to take over.

Famous Examples: It wasn't long ago that young Vincenzo Nibali thought his pathway to success at Liquigas was blocked by Roman Kreuziger, with whom he shared Tour leader duties in 2009. Kreuziger had plenty of talent and was 18 months younger than the Sicilian, so pundits tended to favor the Czech rider's prospects over Nibali's early on. The 2009 Tour began the sorting process, with Nibali finishing seven minutes ahead of Kreuziger -- then still only 23. Nothing was proven, right? Ah, sure, except that the following year Nibali went on to win the Vuelta and take third (for teammate Basso) at the Giro while Kreuziger failed to progress at the Tour. Barking about Nibali's "small motor" and "weak points" did no favors for Kreuziger, who watched helplessly as Nibali went on to the highest heights on the strength of his large motor and mental toughness. So yeah, the 2009 Tour turned out to be the prove-it moment that Liquigas said it would be.

Recent Examples: Hm, Aru and Landa? Except both of them proved it, and Landa got a contract elsewhere. I'm sure there are plenty of examples. Feel free to add some.

Verdict? Sort of a hopeful version of the throwing spaghetti model, involving as it does unproven riders in a situation where the deck is stacked against them. Good outcomes happen sometimes, and acrimony doesn't always follow.

Applicability? I could be talked into this, I guess, but really we are talking about expectations. The team's expectations for Tejay and Richie are probably that they are already capable threats, not in "prove it" mode, but I'm sure there are more than a few fans that would beg to differ.

*****

Ultimately the success of the BMC tandem will come down to quality, consistency and opportunity. Porte has won some big races -- Paris-Nice and Catalunya -- but being mostly at Sky meant he wasn't generally in a position to contest a grand tour for himself. The only "exception" is the 2014 Tour when Froome crashed out and suddenly Porte was the Next Man Up, but that's hardly the same as being bred to lead a team. Porte is the best guy who never had his chance, and now he's getting it. Van Garderen, on the other hand, has had nothing but chances, and has delivered a creditable fifth place on two occasions, as well as wins in the US and a place on the team's formidable time trial squad. Both of them might do something big at the Tour. Neither will be favored over Froome or Quintana. Together, they can definitely make things interesting in July. Beyond that, we'll see.