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You Have To Risk It All to Win

How the blueprint for Jumbo Visma exists in the 2008 Tour

2008 Tour de France - Stage Fifteen Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Last night I wrote very briefly about how Jumbo Visma need to do something concerted to put Tadej Pogačar on the defensive. It’s simple enough: to beat the best, you need teamwork, and Jonas Vingegaard, the closest challenger to the Slovenian star, has probably the best team behind him. Pogačar’s UAE team was never quite a match for Jumbo, and COVID is threatening to really thin their ranks. This is a big development in a team sport such as grand tour cycling, even when the weaker team has the best rider. Today there is a nice article in Bicycling spelling out how taking advantage of their strength will involve sacrifice by Jumbo Visma, specifically by Primož Roglič, if it is to really work.

[I’m going to skip over INEOS for now, since they lack the top options of Jumbo, but we might be revisiting this dynamic very soon.]

Joe Lindsey, the author of the Bicycling piece, is one of the better, more seasoned commenters on Cycling out there, and I am delighted to see him spell out what I was maybe starting to get at. That made me think of what really needs to happen for this to turn into a great battle. And it made me think of one of my all-time favorite Tours: the 2008 victory of Carlos Sastre.

Mind you, there are a lot of dissimilarities between 2022 and 2008. There, the presumed favorite was Cadel Evans, not yet either a world champion or a Tour winner; just a guy who seemed likely to do something if he ever had any team support, which at Predictor-Lotto-Whatevertheywerecalled, he definitely did not. Pogačar is hardly down on his luck or lacking in support to the extent Evans was. He also doesn’t face quite the same dynamic that Evans did, with not two but three opponents from the same CSC team to worry about, in theory at least, in the form of two Schlecks and the eventual winner Sastre. But how that race played out should be very much on the minds of Jumbo Visma and UAE.

Coming into the Tour, CSC were a deep team with no true favorite to win. You might think that’s a problem, and we sure did at the time. Andy Schleck was the kid brother, just a gleam in Bjarne Riis’ eye, as lovely as a chip shot out of the sand to the green on a warm spring day. In time, this kid might be a big winner, but his shock second overall at the 2007 Giro (a lame enough course to suit Danilo Di Luca) was all that gave him hope. We figured he needed more time, and I suppose he did.

Older brother Fränk was more seasoned and ready for the challenge, but he had just become a meme at the Tour de Suisse.

Een drama, indeed. Whatever Fränk could in theory do, we sort of assumed he would torpedo on his own at some point, but hey, you never knew. That left Carlos Sastre, who really could climb, and while his Luxemburger buddies truly couldn’t time trial their way out of a wet paper bag, Sastre wasn’t terrible against the watch. Even against the powerful Evans, if you squinted hard enough, you could see him or maybe Fränk stealing this one.

So What Happened in 2008?

Predictably enough, Evans got a couple minutes in hand on the entire CSC team after some lumpy stages in Brittany and a time trial, but Fränk finished first at Hautacam on stage 10, at least among riders not working for the incredibly doped-up Saunier Duval squad, and propelled himself back to within a single second of the maillot jaune. Evans allowed Schleck to get away while he kept an eye on Sastre, Menchov, and everyone else, and he probably felt fine about the stage as he pulled on the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, taking it from Kim Kirchen. [These were not the best of times.] But the ominous signs were there in Schleck’s attack.

2008 Tour de France -Stage Sixteen Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Six days later, the Tour ventured into Italy for a finish at Prato Nevoso, a mere appetizer of a stage, but one where the wheels really began to spin furiously, as CSC’s domestiques hammered the field to isolate Evans from his weaker team, then Sastre got away late, cutting his deficit almost in half at 48”, while Evans couldn’t stop Fränk from taking yellow by a slim 8” margin.

The next stage (after the final rest day) Andy drove the pace over Europe’s highest mountain pass, the Col de la Bonette, though they caught an extra break when Evans decided to contribute to put Menchov, a time triallist, on his heels. The leaders came in together and Fränk remained in yellow. The maillot jaune was the team’s ace, because on the final major climbing stage to Alpe d’Huez, it was again the yellow jersey that drew the most attention, despite Fränk (and Andy) taking part in CSC’s murderous pace over the Col du Galibier and Col de la Croix de Fer, all of which distracted and softened up Evans for the team to play its last card, Sastre, who leapt out of the peloton at the fool of Alpe d’Huez and was never seen again.

Why Did It Work?

In the Hagakure, the famous handbook to perfect samuraihood, success through death is explained thusly:

“Rehearse your death every morning and night. Only when you constantly live as though already a corpse (jōjū shinimi) will you be able to find freedom in the martial Way, and fulfill your duties without fault throughout your life.”

A tad dramatic for a bike race? I suppose, but the samurai tended to be pretty good at their jobs, when not actually dying. And almost nothing in their world was actually hyperbolic. So let’s go with that.

Samurai warriors Ichijo-Jiro-Tadanori and and Notonokami Noritsune fighting Photo by: Ann Ronan Picture Library/Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Anyway, substitute winning and losing for living and dying, and you can see the logic: you have to prepare yourself to lose it all if you want to win. I’ve heard it phrased as “living with death in your heart,” wherein that little sense of fatalism is enough to release the warrior from any fears that might hold him/her back (there were women samurai), and s/he was then best set up to win.

That was where CSC went in 2008. Sure, you could say that Sastre was the plan all along, but Fränk never stopped being a plausible threat to win as well. Both Schleck and Sastre took turns attacking, taking the risks that could have upended their main strategy or their fallback — Fränk was actually in yellow — in order to put Evans in the most difficult spot possible. They focused not on making the situation easy for their guys, but on making it hard on their enemy. That is how you win.

2008 Tour de France -Stage Seventeen Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

They also mercilessly chipped away at Evans, letting him know day in and day out that he was the hunted, not the hunter. They applied the pressure from several sides, and however you might have viewed those pressure points in isolation — really? Fränk?? — they added up to a major problem that broke the Australian in the end.

So How Can Jumbo Schleck UAE?

Here is where Lindsey has a specific recommendation, that Jumbo use Primož Roglič as the sacrificial lamb, making him attack to stress out the now only lightly-defended Pogačar, so that Vingegaard could slip past for the victory. I agree that this is one plausible scenario, but I don’t think it’s the only one, and think maybe it will take some patience and cunning before Jumbo can really decide how to proceed.

74th Criterium du Dauphine 2022 - Stage 8 Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

First, yes, it’s time to attack. It’s time to put a bit of victory death in everyone’s hearts and take the race to UAE. It makes sense to start that process on Wednesday, with Roglič, the furthest back of the two very-plausible overall threats to win. But for two reasons, I think it might be some time before we know what the right choice will be in the end.

First, strategically, how Pogačar responds will determine, in part, how Jumbo goes. If he focuses entirely on Vingegaard, and Roglič has the legs to get away and stay there, then at some point the door is just too wide open for Rogs and Jumbo not to walk through it. But we are several mountain stages away from a finale, and as we saw in 2008, Evans’ focus did tend to shift with the leadership. If Rogs got all the way back, even into yellow, Pogs probably follows. At some point you have to. Unlike any Schleck ever, Roglič can knock out one hell of a time trial.

109th Tour de France 2022 - Stage 7 Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

For Jumbo, it may take some time to know which of their riders is the actual ace. With searing heat, meters to be climbed, and so on, nobody can say for sure which of their riders will be the strongest; all you can say now is that Vingegaard is ahead and Roglič is the ideal decoy. For now. And all that matters right now is that they launch their aggression at Pogačar in some form or another.

Secondly, from the other side’s point of view, Jumbo need to understand (and undoubtedly do) that such a strategy, combined with the size and shape of the stages to come and the searing heat wave starting slowly this week and into next, will all work slowly against Pogačar. The key is not to defeat him on stage 11 or 12, but to turn the pressure up more and more, so that he can be cracked before they get to Paris. If Jumbo can grab a lead in the next 48 hours, great, but there is always next week too. CSC’s strategy in 2008 was notable because it all ended up being timed to perfection, playing out on the final major climb of the Tour, after which there wasn’t much Evans or anyone else could do to stop Sastre. Sooner would have been fine too, maybe, but like CSC Jumbo needn’t treat every stage as now-or-never in terms of making their final move. As long as they are making moves that lead to a final place, that’s the objective. They haven’t got a moment to lose if they are to weaken Pogačar, but as great a champion as he may not succumb under the first or second or third assault. It may take time. Jumbo have time, as long as they don’t waste a second of it.

Jumbo have a clear advantage, as long as either Roglič or Vingegaard — or both of them — are up to the task of winning the Tour de France. [And if they aren’t, well, then they really have nothing to lose.] Jumbo need to ride like the team that has the upper hand, both the top two guys as well as their ultra-elite support group of climbers and of course Wout. Every day Pogačar is allowed to ride along without covering for his team’s weakness is a step closer to a third consecutive Tour win for him. It all starts tomorrow, or it should, and if so we could have a spectacular race on our hands.