Movistar’s recently released Tour de France lineup was notable for including nearly equal parts team leaders to domestique. Mikel Landa, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde all head to the race with GC ambitions, along with budding stage-race star Marc Soler. With the UCI cutting teams from nine to eight riders, this three-pronged attack is even more top heavy than previous triple leader teams we’ve seen in the past, like T-Mobile in 2005.
This strategy stands in stark contrast to team BMC, who has one clear leader in Richie Porte, and Team Sky, who has a clear hierarchy with Chris Froome as the team’s undisputed leader. The use of this strategy raises the age-old question of if it is better to back one rider at a three-week race or diversify your strategy by backing multiple leaders.
The unusual three-leader setup has caused more than a few raised eyebrows and skepticism from those who have seen this setup fail endless time before. History is littered with failed attempts at the “multi-pronged” Grand Tour leader approach. The downside of this decisions was most famously exemplified in the 1986 Tour de France when La Vie Claire teammates Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond openly fought for team leadership from one another. The T-Mobile team in 2005 went to the Tour de France with three leaders, Alexander Vinokourov, 2004 Tour de France runner-up Andreas Kloden, and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich. This three-leader setup saw the three fail to work together in any way, and possibly even hurt each other chances, making the team lesser than the parts of its whole.
Of course, let’s not forget the 2009 Astana team, which featured dueling leaders of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Any chance of a positive relationship between two riders was doomed from the start. Like Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy, “neither can live while the other survives… ” the two generation-defining talents could never co-exist. They were meeting each other at opposite ends of their careers and Armstrong could never come to terms with the existence of a newer, faster rider that subconsciously reminded the champion of his fleeting mortality. The Astana team was bitterly divided from the start, with Contador actively undermined team orders in-race, while Armstrong and Team Manager Johan Bruyneel played mind-games with the Spaniard off the bike, going as far as leaving their “leader” stranded following a mountaintop finish. Contador was physically on a higher plane of existence during the three-weeks, and took the overall win in Paris with a healthy time buffer, but had the race been closer, the divided team could easily have cost Astana the race win.
These examples are burned into the minds of team directors everywhere, but even taking personality clashes out of the equation, there is certainly merit to the argument that taking multiple leaders to a Grand Tour diminishes the chances of overall success for individual riders on the team. A truly cohesive team will have 7 (formerly 8) members riding in full support of a sole leader, but for every extra leader added to the start list, a domestique is taken away, with the remaining helpers divided among the leaders. A team of 8 riders featuring two leaders is left with 6 total workers, with each leader getting 3 domestiques if the team sees its loyalty split down the middle, a la Astana in the 2009 edition. While this leaves split teams at a firepower disadvantage and keeps them from consolidating team power to accomplish a singular objective, the main reason for its failure is that teams taking multiple leaders to Grand Tours usually just simply aren’t as good. A true favorite is most likely able to convince a team manager to put all of their chips behind them, while B and C level favorites are more likely to share leadership duties. This pollutes the sample and makes it difficult to know if multiple leaders actually increase a team’s chances of success.
On the flip side, there are three big reasons for spreading out risk by taking multiple leaders to the 2018 Tour de France. The first week of the Tour de France often sees an absurd number of crashes, which can leave a team leaderless before the race for overall victory even begins. Team Sky, which traditionally religiously sticks to the lone-leader template, suffered this fate at the 2011 Tour when Bradley Wiggins crashed out on stage 7. It should be noted that Sky has bent their strict “one-leader” rule in recent years. Geraint Thomas was sitting second overall when he crashed out fo the 2017 Tour, and heads into the 2018 race as a self-described co-leader for the British squad.
The second main reason is that having multiple riders placed high in overall standings put rival teams in difficult position late in the race. This is best exemplified by Carlos Sastre riding away from a peloton busy marking his CSC teammates Frank and Andy Schleck on stage 17 of the 2008 Tour. This hesitation by conflicted riders allowed the Spaniard the requisite elbow room to ride away with the overall victory. Movistar’s tri-leader lineup certainly allows for this possbility late in the 2018 Tour if they can finally figure out how to capitalize on their superior numbers. If they can’t convince one of their leaders to lay it all on the line, their numerical advantage could be wasted as we’ve seen in years past.
The third reason a multi-leader strategy could work is the collection of unique stages in the 2018 route that could be lethal to a rider’s overall ambitions. The opening week of the Tour de France is always hectic, but this year, that hectic week is capped by a stage 9 that sees the peloton traverse the brutal cobblestones of northern France.
Having a few “spare” leaders during this stage could end up being the difference between winning the overall and having your team’s ambitions ruined before you even get a glimpse of the Alps. In addition to the brutal stage 9, the uber-short 65-kilometer stage 17, with 43 of those precious Ks spent climbing, will codify team hierarchies in a truly egalitarian fashion.
Outside of the risk of an untimely mechanical, teammates will be rendered all but useless on the short, frantic stage, and each individual rider’s form will be laid bare for all to see. No artificial team structures will protect a GC pretender, the cream will rise to the top over the super-sonic 65 kilometers.
Taking these three reasons into account, Movistar’s Tour de France selection starts to look less like a fan’s fantasy squad, and more like a deliberate strategic decision.