As I admitted last year, I’ve become a Tour de France addict in recent years. The commentary for the last couple of days has centered on Team Phonak’s decision not to chase down a 2-man breakaway, permitting the yellow jersey to slip away, at least temporarily. OLN’s Bob Roll summarized his comments on the OLN website:
But being a part of a team that has never been there before might prove to be a very difficult situation for Floyd to overcome. Floyd has the legs, but I’m not sure if the team has what it takes to defend the yellow jersey — and understand the significance of letting any breakaway get a half and hour and what that does to the morale of the other riders in the race like Menchov, Sastre, and Evans. If in fact they see this as a sign of weakness — like lions looking at a crippled gazelle on the plains of the Serengeti — they are going to attack without mercy and with a fury that Floyd Landis, himself, will have to contain. Lance Armstrong — in seven years of dominating the Tour — never let a breakaway like that getaway with one set of mountains to go … Tomorrow, Phonak is going to have to do tempo anyway. Oscar Pereiro is not a big threat on GC, but it sends a very bad message to the rest of the riders in the peloton. If you don’t need to face this situation, why would you go ahead and incur the type of wrath that is going to come from Menchov, Evans, Sastre, etc., as the race goes into the Alps?
On the telecast the other announcers said similar things. While I generally enjoy the OLN crew, I disagree with their game theory. In effect, they think that Phonak sent a bad signal — a signal of weakness — likely to encourage their rivals.
Only credible threats or promises matter. The reality is that Phonak is not a strong team. Their second best rider from last year, who happened to be Oscar Pereiro, jumped ship. In the long Pyreneean stage where Landis took over the Tour lead, he rode the last couple of major climbs without a teammate. Phonak ranks low in the team results. If I can see the weakness, one can bet that the other teams and riders do. Phonak’s situation differs radically from that of the powerhouse Discovery-US Postal teams of 2004 and 2005. A big push in Stage 13 to keep Landis in the jersey would not have signaled anything worthwhile.
The one comment brought forward on OLN about the decision that is more pertitent is whether Pereiro poses a real threat. If he does, then falling behind him by over a minute may have been an error. After all, he finished only one spot behind Landis in the overall standings last year. On the other hand, he had fallen almost 30 minutes behind the leaders through the first 12 stages. Whether they win or lose, my guess is that Landis and Phonak made the right call — save your strength and forget about meaningless signaling.