Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
Since Geraint Thomas (above) won back-to-back stages in the Alps and took the yellow jersey, relegating his teammate and four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome to second place, the Tour’s press corps has been abuzz with theories and rumours. Will Froome attack Thomas? Can Geraint hold on? Will the rivalry between Sky’s two leaders let in Tom Dumoulin?
One common thread to all of this theorising is that it ignores the role that Sky DS Nicolas Portal plays in setting Sky’s strategy for the Tour and their tactics for specific stages. “The riders know exactly what they’ve got do on the final three mountain stages. I don’t think that plan is going to change unless one of them is tired or sick and doesn’t have the legs,” Portal said at the start of the Tour stage 15 in Millau.
Portal is Thomas and Froome’s ace, arguably the best DS in the sport and certainly the most successful in Grand Tours over recent years. “He’s calm, doesn’t panic, he’s not a screamer and shouter, and that aspect of him has grown over the last few years,” Sky team boss Dave Brailsford told me. “He’s such a key part of what we do. He knows when it’s right for the riders to go all in and when to hold them back. He’s got a really good feel for what’s going on in a race, for reading the situation. It’s chaotic most of the time, they haven’t got full information on what’s happening, but he feels it very much like the riders do. His decision-making is so good. That’s not taught, it’s there and gets better as he gets more confident.”
Always a good talker and especially so when asked about the tactical side of road racing, Portal likes to think of the sport as “chess on wheels” rather than going with the often made comparisons to poker. “In chess, you know you’ve got strong pieces and good tactics, and based on that you know you can beat your opponent. At Sky we’ve certainly got some strong riders. I do look at other teams, though, and think that they’ve got some really strong riders, but they’re playing poker. When you play poker, you can lose everything on a single hunch.
“I prefer to play chess. It may not be so cool, but at the end of the day I prefer to play this way because I want to make sure that our riders, who spend six months getting ready for the Tour de France and will spend so much time away from their families, who will work so hard, who’ll crash and fight their way back, don’t get wasted in a game of poker.
“I prefer to play chess, so that when I get them to move and expend their energy, there is some thought behind that, a tactical plan. If they get tired, then I’ll move to Plan B. I don’t want to play poker with them and risk the strategic plan for the whole team. That would only frustrate them and me. Instead, I tell the guys to focus on our plan, that if they stick to it and achieve what we’re aiming for then we’re going to be in a good place at the end of the day.”
Portal gives the example of Sky riding on the front of the bunch day after day at the Tour to support what he is saying. “Taking control like that is better than saying to them, ‘I know no one is going to ride with us today, so we’re not going to ride and control the race,’ because that’s playing poker. I would perhaps do it if we had a team that wasn’t so strong and we didn’t want to ride with the others just sitting in behind us. But that’s a different scenario.”
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