Grand Tour trouble
It’s the 2013 Tour de France. The village is Le Grand-Bornand, and Rui Costa has won today’s stage.
This is his second win in the race. The Portuguese rider has brought with him good form from the Tour of Switzerland, which he also won, and so now Christian Prudhomme is congratulating Rui Costa on stage. Lifting his arm to the crowds cheering. The general director of the Tour de France has an expression that suggests that, yes, I understand, you are seeing my daughter and what goes with that, but she looks happy, so everything is fine. We are fine, is what Prudhomme is suggesting.
Rui Costa is a finisseur. An all-rounder from the ranks just behind the Grand Tour riders. Perhaps a little anonymous, not much is being written about him in the international press, and he is seldom considered a big favourite for any race. However. Rui Costa is reliable. Often he will just sort of appear in the final of a race, and this is how he gets his three or four wins in each season.
After his win in the Tour of Switzerland, based on a decent time trail performance, Rui Costa gets overconfident. He lets the world know that one day he’d like to take on the Tour de France as a Grand Tour contender.
Poor Rui Costa.
Because it means that he has to let stage wins like today in Le Grand-Bornand go. He has to lose weight. Book himself into a wind tunnel and go find a team who can deliver a team time trial. And now it gets complicated. Because basically, what Rui Costa is implying, is that he — as a good but not great contender — willingly places himself in cycling’s no man’s land. Yes. Because nobody cares who finishes 7th in a Grand Tour. Except family. Or fellow countrymen, who are hoping for the best, but probably know that the best is easily matched by five or six riders in the world.
It gets worse.
A major sponsor certainly does not care about 7th place. In the world of professional cycling, a major team sponsor is sometimes personified by a billionaire eccentric, who himself thinks he is a winner and wants to believe he is surrounded by winners. A man like that expects value for money, or he’ll lose interest fast. Meaning the folding of an entire WorldTour team. Who wants UCI points for acceptable placings? That isn’t glamorous. That’s not sexy. It’s reliable. And no billionaire wants ‘reliable’ for a hobby. A billionaire wants cutthroat.
Rui Costa is not cutthroat.
So. If he decides to mould himself into a contender, Rui Costa will most likely never get any victories in a Grand Tour again. He won’t be able to go into a breakaway, because other teams won’t let a candidate sneak off to gain three minutes on overall. It means a farewell to stage wins and TV time. And because Rui Costa can’t rely on beating the strongest of the strongest in any terrain during a long stage race, he’ll show up 30 seconds after the winner on any given stage. Which means the cameras and photographers have all gone. Another angle at farewell to stage wins and TV time.
A good Grand Tour contender can’t beat Chris Froome in a time trial in July. He won’t be able to hang on to Nairo Quintana on a mountaintop finish in May. And all year round he’ll be outsprinted by Alejandro Valverde, who is also and still, still, still, a contender and part of the elite group of riders all bidding for a place on each Grand Tour podium.
Poor Rui Costa.
It takes years of anonymous racing to hone the craft involved in taking on a Grand Tour as a contender. A team must let you work yourself into the rider you — and the team — are hoping you can become. Also, a team will need to accept to pay you a good salary, because you are not aiming at small victories. You are aiming at becoming the world’s best all-rounder. So, you are considered an investment. An expensive investment with an unlikely outcome.
The plan is to eventually beat your contemporaries. Which is the easier target. Because your contemporaries are right in front of you. You see what they are capable of doing. What you can’t plan is to not get run over by a new exceptional talent emerging from out of nowhere. A young skinny kid whom you have never heard of or paid little attention to. And there he is. And already this kid has plenty of talents, perhaps alarmingly more than you. That wasn’t in any calculations. But history shows it. First or second year pros thrown into the professional peloton who immediately disturb the order. Eddy Merckx. Laurent Fignon. Jan Ullrich. Andy Schleck. Esteban Chaves. Full-blown young Grand Tour material.
If a contender doesn’t posses the rawest talent, a Grand Tour career can be an endless year after year three-day stint in yellow, pink or red. At best. Maybe you will hold the KOM jersey for a week. Eventually it will sink into everyone’s understanding that you should probably aim for just that. And not that. The other that! Eventually it will become the dynamics in a team bus. Year after year, day by day, lack of confidence in a team leader’s abilities over three weeks.
Poor Rui Costa.
Take a look at Cadel Evans. The reason he was a successful Grand Tour rider, was that he knew where to position himself in the peloton. His riding style never looked like much on TV, but it was effective racing inside a race. Cadel Evans was arguably the rider of his generation who made the least mistakes over a three-week period. The only thing his team needed to concern themselves with was whether or not he was going fast. That was Cadel Evan’s career. He either rode fast or not so fast. Which you couldn’t tell either, because he looked the same winning or suffering. No matter when you witnessed Cadel Evans race, he looked like a misguided pendulum. Awkwardly swinging from one side of his bike to the other. Almost on the side or even underneath it at times, it seemed. Cadel could be so out of sync that teammates couldn’t hand him a water bottle without all crashing up in a big pile. He was jerking that bike in defensive squares, fragmented, pixel upon pixel; a mysterious down force was following the man around. Cadel was never on top of the gears. No. He was on top of a mechanical rodeo bull. Struggling, wrestling. Manoeuvring it. It was unmusical. Like as if a song had never been written, and I’ll go off the deep end here, because Cadel’s world was a world where the summer dresses of Big City Girls were made of cement, you’d hit yourself on those dresses, you’d burn yourself on their lips, and it was as if Farmboy Evans was trying to steer around the sharp edges of what those Big City Girls would throw of comments at him. Farmboy Evans. Always suspicious. Always full of indignation. An outback hyena carrying the world of guilt on a bicycle.
We’ll assume Cadel Evans is from the countryside somewhere in Australia.
Grand Tour riders are often country boys. You need raw material, almost mineral resources, to be a great contender. The understanding of a plough. The stamina of a person who knows how to plough a field of corn. The day by day determination. Endless cornfields are laid ahead of you. This was the knowledge of Farmboy Evans. How to plough a rodeo bull through those bitches and everyone else who would stand in his way.
Take a look at Pippo Pozzato’s sunglasses. You can tell he doesn’t have a clue what a Grand Tour rider does for a living. Every time Pippo is at a starting line, he looks like he just delivered those same young women Cadel spent his career trying to run over, into their husbands’ arms after a week in Ibiza.
Today Rui Costa is old news. He has shown that he was no Grand Tour contender after all. The rainbow stripes probably made him rethink any further adventures into voluntary oblivion. So change the name to Steven Kruijswijk. Here is another good but not great contender. Still. If you can place 7th in a Grand Tour, you should be able to improve to fourth. Which he’s done. However. Steven Kruijswijk lost eight minutes in the first week at the 2015 Giro d’ Italia, because he was in all the wrong places several times. Then he clawed his way back. Until he lost it again, and ended up some eleven minutes down on Alberto Contador. Last year was better. Until he crashed into a wall of snow and lost it all again. In other words: Steven Kruijswijk has underperformed more than he has performed. And he’s done it twice. Not because he isn’t strong. No. It’s because he doesn’t know how be to a winner at the highest level.
Take another look at Cadel Evans over three weeks.
Steven Kruijswijk should focus on Paris-Nice. Peak in March. Who wants to peak in March? No one. Why? Because in cycling everyone thinks about the calendar. Well. If Chris Froome only wants to peak in July, then why shouldn’t another rider just want to peak in March? Paris-Nice is there to pick up for any contender with potential and strategy. It’s a good race for obvious reasons. A learning platform. Experience what it feels to ride away from Nibali or Quintana in March. The mind will remember this. The idea is to learn how to win at a high level. Not many riders are winners in today’s sport. They used to be winners as young riders. But only a few can continue to do it at the highest level. Years of top 10’s in a Grand Tour will not teach you how to win a Grand Tour. It taught you that someone else is winning. The mind remembers this as well.
I stand before you today and say Paris-Nice. There is your key to Grand Tour success. Win it. Get to understand the stress and expectations that surround a winner. How to not make mistakes. Get comfortable being the guy to beat. Then move on to Grand Tour trouble.
People began clapping. At the auditorium the day was finally coming to an end. The sun fell through a crack in one of the huge curtains and lit up the blackboard. I was standing in a beam of light, coughing into my left armpit. The associate professor in the front row looked tired. Then a young man shouted something from the back of the room.
“Yes,” I responded.
“Mr Okbo. You told us before this seminar to place a bet on the Tour de France. Now. I had Chris Froome as winner and won 35 euros. Tell us. Who did you pick as winner?”
“I lost 750 euros on Rui Costa. Class dismissed.”
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.