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Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Director Sportif

In honour of the Tour de France, I thought I'd publish some posts explaining some of the finer details of the Tour, this piece explains the integral role of the Director Sportif. 

Picture this hypothetical, Wiggins is leading the Tour de France by 35 seconds, followed closely behind by Nibali. It is stage 12, a medium mountain stage and the main players are at the head of the peloton. With about 40km’s to go, Wiggins gets a puncture and drops back to replace the wheel. The replacement takes some time and although he has two helpers to get him back in the mix, it takes a while to get back to the head of the peloton and he expels a lot of energy in doing so. Nibali sees this and goes on the attack on the Cote d’Ardoix, quickly opening up a sizable gap on the peloton. What does Wiggins do? Who makes the decision? The answer – the Director Sportif.

Sometimes also called the Sporting Manager, the Director Sportif (DS), is in charge of the team. They are the ones that will make all of the decisions surrounding the team, right from training techniques to tactical decisions on the road.

Much like a football coach on game day, all twenty-two DSs will sit down with their team prior to each stage and discuss the aim of the day. They will encourage and push their riders and they are usually master tactictions, using their intelligence and guile to out-manoeuvre their rivals. Many of the current DSs are former pro cyclists themselves, familiar with the mind games, the strategies and the inner workings of the peloton.

photo by roblisameehan
During the race the DSs will ride in the team car with the driver (who is usually another team official), and a team mechanic will be in the back. From the passenger seat of the team car the DSs use whatever means or technology is available to them to improve the positioning of their riders. They are in constant communication with their team, informing them of upcoming hazards, time gaps, terrain differences and mechanical issues. Perhaps most importantly, through the radio, they are able to make calculated decisions in crucial situations, like the scenario described above.

In the above hypothetical, the DS of Wiggins’ Team Sky, Sean Yates, an accomplished cyclist in his own right, would be on the radio to his men, instructing them on whether to chase down Nibali, or concede the time and make it up in a later stage.

Interestingly, a similar situation actually happened in last year’s Tour on stage 18, the 198.4 km grueling race from Pinerolo to Galibier - Serre Chevalier. Andy Schleck attacked early in the stage leaving the other contenders (primarily Evans) surprised and confused by how to counter this move. In hindsight it was a brilliant strategy. Schleck knew that the GC's would stick to his wheel like glue on the final climb - the only way to get a significant time gap was to roll the dice and go early. His gamble paid off and he took more than 2 minutes off Cadel. What was equally amazing about this stage was Cadels response. He looked at the others to help claw back the time Andy had taken (which was over 4 minutes at its peak), the other big names chose to be ticket collectors and suck his wheel. Cadel steeled his resolve and dragged the peloton along himself - bridging the gap by half and it was here that he ultimately saved his Tour. In this situation, Team BMC’s DS, John Lelangue, would have been in his teams ear directing them on exactly how to counter Schleck’s bold move.

Cadel Evans and John Lelangue

Another point to note is that teams will often have some designated ‘deputies’ on the road. The DS ultimately has control, but some teams with experienced racers on their books will designate these individuals as ‘Road Captains’. Guys like Stuart O’Grady and George Hincapie are given this type of responsibility as they command a lot of respect in the peloton and have a wealth of knowledge. George and Stuey may never win a Tour, but their instructions on the road will be worth their weight in gold for their teams GC contenders.

These ‘Road Captains’ will often have a strong bond with their respective GC champions, it is quite obvious that Hincapie and Cadel get along very well. Similarly, the DS’s also from strong bonds with their champion riders often partnering up for many years, creating a consistent winning combination. Like the legendary pair of Cyrille Guimard and Bernard Hinault, and Johan Bruyneel’s partnership with Lance Armstrong (all controvery aside!). Who know’s, If Cadel brings home the yellow again in 2012, the combination of Lelangue and Evans may be another for the pages of history! 

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