Tactical errors – What were they thinking?

We’ve all seen examples recently, with the ever increasing live footage, of tactical “howlers”. Not only are we as avid fan’s of the beautiful sport left perplexed, but professionals cyclists, legends of the sport and journalists are left scratching their heads looking for answers. The bus ride back to the hotel and the evening meal might be somewhat of a quiet reflective period or if you have a “colourful” directeur Sportif the opposite could be said.

1. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2015, Etixx show you how to lose a race

Etixx-QuickStep had the numbers Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh, against Ian Stannard of Sky. This should have been wrapped up with an Etixx winner engraved on the trophy, but what can only be seen as massive tactical errors meant the victory went to Stannard. The four broke clear with 40km to go, both Terpstra and Boonen were the classics leaders for a very strong classics team. Working hard, Etixx had to hold off the chase from Sep Vanmarcke (lotto-JumboNL) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).

Boonen was the first to attack; tactical error one as he is arguably the strongest sprinter of those four. Stannard slowly closes the gap in the remaining 5km. Terpstra then explodes, straight over the top of Stannard when the catch is made and pulling away with 3km remaining. Then his own teammate, Vandenbergh, chases his own team mate down and pulling Stannard with him. That was error number two. Stannard with gas still in the tank opens his own sprint up and de-shells Boonen and Vandenbergh. Then during the sprint Terpstra moved to the front and opened the sprint (error number three), using the slip stream Stannard edged him on the line.

This was Etixx’s race to loose and they lost badly, i can pretty much guess the atmosphere at the team hotel that evening and the race brief, if they had one.

2. Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2011; Gilbert (Omega Pharma – Lotto) beat the Schlecks (Leopard Trek)

This was Gilbert’s season, he was ripping the field apart and teams had to isolate him. He was just too powerful on the short sharp uphill finishes. The Schlecks it seemed had played it perfectly. Two on one with less than 20km remaining. Where the tactics seem to get strange is that during the final few kilometres the three work together, where the Schlecks deliver Gilbert to the final corner. Why they didn’t try the ol’ one, two’s to try and shake off Gilbert leaves many questioning their tactics. Andy Schleck arguably had the better legs that day out of the brothers and didn’t attack in the closing kilometres.

Many think that an agreement was made between them but then again how could Gilbert repay them later in the season?

3. The 1971 Tour De France, Stage 14. Ocaña’s lost race

During this tour there was talk that the Great One (Merckx) was vulnerable with digestive problems and from his poor displays on stages 8 and 10 it was proved to be right. On stage 11 Ocaña, Zoetemelk, an Impe and Laffrey took off and attacked Merckx. Ocaña was alone on the final climb having dropped his fellow breakaways earlier. Merckx gave chase but no one in the peloton was willing to help. He came in third on the stage but 8.42 minutes behind Ocaña. After stage 13, a time trial, Ocaña still had a 7.23 minute lead over Merckx.

Then stage 14 came Ocaña knew Merckx was in trouble and planned to leave everyone behind on the Portillon. There was a powerful downpour near the summit of the Col de Mente, which included hail. Merckx, excellent at descending, would attack in the horrible conditions. Ocaña wasn’t as skilled as Merckx and made the one and only tactical error. He decided to stick with Merckx on the descent. Merckx crashed and took out Ocaña with him, ending the Spaniards race.

Ocaña had the ability that tour to beat Merckx, Ocaña could have made time back on the climbs he was riding so well. He had an advantage of 7’23” over Merckx his closest rival, he had time to spare and knowing his abilities going downhill should have not taken undue risks. Even his directeur sportif told him to go down easy and not risk the tour on one descent. You could argue that it was Merckx’s crash that caused him to withdraw, but Merckx was looking for time so would be taking undue risks where possible. Ocaña didn’t have to take any risks.

4. 1966 Tour de France, Poulidor’s fatal mistake

At the 1966 Tour it seemed that the race would be between Raymond Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil and it was. Poulidor beat Anquetil in the time trial at Val Les Bans and it looked like the victory he so desperately wanted was finally his. But he made a fatal tactical error. Keeping eyes only for Anquetil, who he thought was his only threat on the Mountainous stage 17 from Briancon to Turin. He failed to react when Anquetil’s teammate, Lucien Aimar, attacked. Only later at the end of the stage when Poulidor saw Aimar in yellow did he grasp the magnitude of his mistake, Aimar gained 2.01 minutes on stage 17.

5. 1987 Liege Bastogne Liege, Where did they come from

Stephen Roche or Claude Criquielion should have won this race, they should have been the ones contesting the line when they attacked and gone clear of the main peloton. However, they made one monumental tactical error.

Back in the day when riders didn’t race with radios you may forgive some tactical mistakes, but yet as we’ve seen above they still happen. The two of them thought it was just them, two lonely fish out alone, breaking away from the school of fish behind. There was no big screen in the finishing straight to give them an idea of their massive mistake. They thought that they had plenty of time to size each other up like track cyclists might. The first the two knew that anyone was near them was when it was too late and a rainbow came hurtling past. The question remains why they wouldn’t look behind them, just a glance over the shoulder to see if anyone was near. In the heat of battle to them they were the only two riders in the race at that point the blinkers came on and common sense did not prevail.

There are other notable mentions as well:

  • Should Valverde have gone with Rui Costa when he attacked at the Worlds 2013?
  • At the 2008 Olympic games Rebellin watched Valverde to closely and didn’t take Sanchez seriously when he attacked.
  • At the 2014 Vuelta a Espana Chris Froome admitted he went out to hard on the Time Trial and gave 53 seconds to Contador, the time lost he couldn’t gain back and finished second to Contdor 1.10 back.

There will be ones missed, if you have any notable mentions let us know.

Peter Denness