Posted by: mdegeorge | July 8, 2011

RadioShack’s disastrous version of follow the leader

There’s an old adage that some football teams are all-too familiar with: If you have two starting quarterbacks, then you have no starting quarterbacks.

The cycling equivalent is a bit more complicated. Teams can have two sprinters they work for on the same day, though obviously only one can survive to launch the sprint. And they can have two or more guys vying for stage titles, either in sprints or breakaways, over the course of a three-week race.

Brajkovic is one of RadioShack's many leaders to have fallen by the wayside. (Courtesy of Creative Commons.)

But when it comes to the general classification at a race like the Tour de France, there can be only one. Sometimes, the decision is made by the teams. Sometimes there is only one option, either because that racer’s form is so outstanding that he leaves his teammates no choice, or because the lack of form by him teammates collectively affords them no alternative. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s the race that decides who a team’s leader is.

So it goes for Team RadioShack, a team built to stand on the podium in Paris at the end of July with at least one rider – perhaps two, perhaps one clad in Yellow – celebrating a momentous Tour. Remember, this is a team that made two big acquisitions in the offseason by bringing on proven, if ageing, sprinters Robbie Hunter and Robbie McEwen, between them 27 Grand Tour stage wins including 13 in the Tour de France, yet left both at home in favor of a GC-supporting lineup.

The team entered the tour with four leaders – Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner, Andres Kloden and Levi Leipheimer – and all but one has fallen by the wayside before the end of the race’s first week.

The race opened perfectly for the RadioShack boys. The former team of Lance Armstrong – many of whom rode the last two years with Armstrong and were likely still smarting over the results with Astana in the 2009 Tour – saw defending champion Alberto Contador lose 80 seconds after getting caught in a split of the peloton on the opening stage. Alert and ever aware as is the Johan Bruyneel way, the big boys from RadioShack were near the front of the big group as it approached a tricky finish and were able to pick up time. They compounded that lead a day later by finishing sixth in the team time trial and taking another 18 seconds for its GC guys out of Contador’s SaxoBank squad.

Then things fell apart.

A nasty crash late in Stage 5 signaled the end of Brajkovic’s Tour thanks to a concussion and possibly other fractures that sent him off the route in an ambulance. It was one of many spills suffered on the day, with Leipheimer and Contador among those hitting the deck without losing time.

A day later, Leipheimer was on the tarmac again thanks to a relatively innocuous crash with 4 km to go in the run into the finish on Stage 6. He was quick to get back on his bike, but being just a kilometer from the 3-km safe zone in which victims of any crashes are given the same time as the main group, he slid back 17 places and 65 seconds on GC.

It turned out Stage 6 would be just an appetizer for the struggles of the next day. Again Leipheimer hit the ground with around 40 km to go and suffered a punctured tire later that placed him in a large group that finished three minutes off the pace, effectively ending any realistic chance of the American donning the Yellow Jersey.

But he wasn’t even the worst-off American on RadioShack on the day. Horner, the fresh-faced 39-year-old in the form of his life entering the Tour, was one of the worst hit by the crash that waylaid Leipheimer. While fellow GC contender Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky headed to the hospital with a broken clavicle, a dazed Horner managed to complete the stage 12 minutes off the pace despite what is likely a concussion and a broken nose that sent him to the hospital after the race and could yet cut his Tour short.

The crashes leave only Kloden, sitting fifth overall a mere 10 seconds back of Thor Hushovd, as the last hope for RadioShack. He’ll face the prospect of trying to sojourn on with an exhausted team having spent far more time off the back of the peloton pacing guys back than they would have imagined. Superdomestique Yaroslav Popovych was also involved in a Stage 7 crash and has more road rash than he’d like to admit. Big chase efforts have Sergio Pauliho and Dmitry Muravyev near the back of the field a half hour in arrears already. If Kloden survives unscathed to the mountains, even if Leipheimer turns into the kind of workhorse he was for Armstrong and Horner at the Tour of California, it’ll be a battle Kloden will often fight by himself.

Say what you will about teams ostensibly less balanced, but the likes of Cadel Evans’ BMC Racing, Robert Gesink’s Rabobank, and Jurgen van den Broeck’s Omega-Pharma have kept their big GC guys in the front of the pack, largely out of trouble and from losing unnecessary yet potentially vital seconds in the race’s first week.

The leadership picture has come into stark focus for Team RadioShack on the roads of Western France – not the high mountain passes of the Alps or Pyrenees as expected. It’s safe to say they’re feeling more than a bit nostalgic for the doubt the race started with.

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