The Tour of the Basque Country Exposed Major Flaws With the 'Let the Road Decide' Strategy

And how Jumbo Proved The Haters (Me) Wrong

Primoz Roglic won the overall at the Tour of the Basque Country on Saturday with a thrilling long-range attack on the final stage, while David Gaudi, the only rider able to hang with the man-on-a-mission, took stage honors after a short, but extremely explosive and mountainous, 112-kilometer stage.

UAE Team Emirates went into the stage with Brandon McNulty in the race leader by 23-seconds over Roglic and 24-seconds over his Jumbo teammate Jonas Vingegaard, while McNulty’s teammate, Tadej Pogacar, was 43-seconds back. On stage 4, it appeared as though they had thoroughly outsmarted and outmuscled Jumbo by sending McNulty up the road to take the race lead, but with 68km-to-go on the final stage, Astana attacked over the top of a climb and pulled out a gap on the descent that launched Roglic’s attack on the following climb.

The day showed the major flaws with the strategy of letting the road decide the team’s leader. McNulty taking the race lead on stage 4 meant there was initially indecision from Pogacar as to whether he should stay with McNulty or go all-in to chase Roglic, and this hesitation due to the overall position of his teammates ended up costing him a shot at overall victory. While he did eventually abandon McNulty to forge on, it was simply too late to catch Roglic. The confusion around team hierarchy not only cost Pogacar a chance to win the overall classification but has also potentially severely damaged intra-team relationships.

I wrote on Friday that Jumbo had royally screwed up their chances on Thursday’s stage 4, when McNulty grabbed the race lead from Roglic, so it was fascinating to watch events unfold that drastically turned their respective fortunes around by the end of Saturday’s final stage.

Race Notes:

74km: The extremely short and undulating final stage creates an insanely fast start and hard racing for the entire 3-hour stage. On one of the longer climbs halfway through, UAE is down to only four riders in the peloton and is setting a hard pace in an attempt to keep the race together. Jumbo has sent Antwan Tolhoek up to the road to act as an anchor rider, and UAE actually has stashed Marc Hirschi in the move. This gives them a rider up the road in case Pogacar wants to attack but means they essentially have two riders working at the same time; Hirschi in the break and whoever is setting the pace in the peloton.

67.8km: UAE is working on the front on the climb, Pogacar keeps looking back, which shows he is probably worried about a Roglic attack.

67km: However, once they hit the top of the climb, UAE lets its guard down. Right away, Astana’s two local Basque riders, Alex Aranburu and Omar Fraile use this lull to attack at the start of the descent. Roglic is attentive enough to jump on, while the UAE riders are too slow to react and get overtaken.

66.8km: While they had great position just a few moments earlier, UAE is now at the back with race leader Brandon McNulty, while Roglic is at the tip of the action right as the race is about to split up.

66.2km: The Astana duo at the head of the race are holding nothing back and absolutely flying on this descent. Roglic, even though he saw this move coming, is still struggling to catch up, while McNulty & Pogacar, are not far behind.

64km: While the gap between Roglic & McNulty/Pogacar was extremely slim two kilometers ago, it is starting to open up on the descent.

56.6km: Once the descent is over and they hit the long valley road, the gap has ballooned and McNulty is in big trouble. We can see the Roglic group at the very top of the frame in the screenshot. Also, due to Pogacar’s small size, McNulty isn’t getting a great draft from his teammate. If UAE was playing chess, not checkers, here, they would have had McNulty go all-in to weld the race back together for Pogacar.

56km: Hirschi drops back from the breakaway to help McNulty pull. This is far too late, he needed to come back as soon as separation occurred between the two groups. The gap is only 12-seconds, but the race is already over. Pogacar and Hirschi can’t chip into the pace Movistar and Astana is setting. Roglic also has Sam Oomen and antwan tolhoek with him while Vingegaard is back with Pogacar.

54.2km: Making things difficult for UAE is that Astana and Movistar are doing all the work upfront and absolutely flying. It is insane that Roglic is getting a free ride from the two teams here.

47km: Oomen goes to the front and drills it as soon as the next climb starts. Fraile and Aranaburu are dropped. You have to wonder what it was all for.

Pogacar setting pace for McNulty but you can tell he is having second thoughts.  

46.3km: The two groups are very close on the road (24-seconds in time). Pogacar could probably launch an attack here and bridge up.

46km: Chaves drives the pace and McNulty is dropped. Pogacar is immediately on the radio asking if he can leave him. However, he’s only around 4-5 meters back. This is really awkward.

McNulty cracks and Pogacar just kind of floats up the road on the wheels of Yates and Chaves. He needs to commit to one or the other here. Either go full-in for yourself and attack up to Roglic, the junction has to be made before the summit, or drop back and pace McNulty.

45.7km: Roglic is driving the pace hard to keep Pogacar from making it up. He has isolated himself by dropping his teammates, but in his mind, it is probably worth it to keep distance between Pogacar and himself.

45km: Roglic’s pace has really thinned down this front group in less than a km, but he is also sending a lot of riders back to Pogacar by doing this. 

44.3km: The group is down to just Carthy, Roglic, and Gaudu as they crest the climb.

26.7km: When the leading trio gets off the descent and into the following valley, Carthy and Gaudu are camped out on Roglic’s wheel, which puts him in a difficult position. He has isolated himself from his teammates, and since the two other leaders won’t work with him, the conservative move would be to sit up and wait for the chasing group with Vingegaard and count on the fact that it will be tough for Pogacar to take the time back on the final climb. But Roglic doesn’t seem fazed by the lack of help and begins an hour-long individual pursuit against the chasing Pogacar.

Helping Roglic is that Pogacar, back in the chasing group, is in an incredibly awkward position of being only 30-seconds in front of his teammate and race leader, McNulty, after leaving him on the last climb. Also, nobody is helping Pogacar chase, which is causing him to constantly yell at the group. This, along the Vingegaard taking turns through and then sitting up on the front, is really disrupting the chase. At this point, Pogacar would be better served just putting his head down and hammering.

17km: Pogacar takes out his earpiece, I’d love to hear what is being said over that race radio. Vingegaard is still sitting right on his wheel, really doing a good job of disrupting the pace.

15.5km: Up front, Gaudu attacks while Carthy and Roglic argue about who will pull him back. It isn’t clear if Roglic is just playing games with Carthy or if he is really cracking.

10km: Pogacar is getting incredibly annoyed with the chase group instead of focusing on the chase. They are only 48-seconds back, so that is kind of odd. If he just put his head down and attacked on the climb, he could still win this.

6.8km: The gap back to Pogacar is 41-seconds and and now Roglic is driving on the front. If Pogacar hadn’t messed around earlier, he’d be within 30-seconds here.

6km: The gap down to 31-seconds, but notice Vingegaard (in blue) sitting right behind Pogacar. This means that nobody can pace if Pogacar tries to pull off.

5.8km: Gaudu attacks, Roglic follows and Carthy is dropped

5km: Gaudu driving and the gap is out to 46-seconds. This thing is over.

4.3km: Valverde attacks and Pogacar has to chase. Vingegaard is able to go with them, which is really impressive. The fact that Valverde is now attacking after sitting on and disrupting the chase for the last hour will really break any spirit in this chase group.

2.1km: Since Valverde can’t get away he has stopped working and Pogacar has had to take it back up. This is really impressive from him and shows that it would have been a widely different day if he wouldn’t have let that 10-second gap form on the descent.

1km: Roglic fistbumps Gaudu, this is the perfect example of “gifting” a stage. Both riders have something to gain and it is mutually beneficial versus Stage 6 on Paris-Nice. Roglic didn’t really give anything away, he traded the stage win for help up and over the final climb.

Finish: Gaudu takes the stage and Roglic wins the overall classification, along with every jersey competition (sprinter & climbers). Due to the heavily aligned incentives between the two riders, we get one of the most unusual finish photos I’ve ever seen, with both riders simultaneously celebrating victory.

Final GC

Takeaways:

Where the Race Was Won

  • The race was won with 66km-to-go on stage 6 when Astana attacked and split the peloton on a descent. Roglic was right on their wheels and was able to catch on while Pogacar and McNulty weren’t aware enough and caught too far back.

  • The Basque roads are perfect for these short, exciting stages. The climbs are short enough that they reward attacking riding and the descents fast and technical enough to reward daredevil descenders.

  • Beyond his better positioning on the decisive descent, Roglic won this race by simply out-riding Pogacar between 43km-to-go and the finish line. At 43km-to-go, the gap was 30-seconds. Compare this to the 35-second gap to Roglic at the finish, and we can see Roglic rode just a slightly better pursuit race for the final 1.5 hours of racing.

Where the Race was Lost

  • UAE seemed so concerned about an attack on the climb between 74km-68km-to-go that they let their foot off the gas as soon as that climb crested, which is exactly where they were ambushed and in turn, lost the race.

  • Pogacar essentially pulled the chase group from 60km out to the finish with varying levels of dedication and still only finished 35-seconds back. If he had solely focused on closing the gap after the descent where the split was made, it is very likely he could have closed it down.

  • However, it is unlikely that he could have dropped both Roglic and Vingegaard on the final climb after doing this.

  • In the end, the weak point in Pogacar’s armor was his teammate, and this will continue to be true for the foreseeable future. I’m almost certain there was a conversation in the Astana team bus pre-stage regarding how McNulty would struggle to descend as fast as them at full gas. An American in the leader’s jersey at one of the most technically demanding races on the calendar is essentially an open invitation to attack.

  • And things have to be a little frosty between McNulty and Pogacar, especially after today's fiasco. Oddly, in the end, McNulty's strength ended up being Pogacar's weak point and this shows the major flaw in the 'let the road decide' strategy. They got stuck between two leaders and the indecisiveness after the gap to Roglic formed cost them dearly.

  • If UAE would have made a firm commitment pre-stage to Pogacar as a leader and McNulty would have worked to pull him back to the lead group, they certainly would have gotten within a few seconds by the base of the final climb and then Pogacar could have attacked to bridge the gap on the early slopes of the climb and then possibly even drop most, if not all, of the lead group.

In Hindsight

  • While Astana and Movistar made the race, they eventually dropped themselves and missed the winning move. This begs the question of why? What were they thinking? Did they really need to work in the valley after splitting the race? Probably not, and it wasn’t smart to pull Roglic to the base of the following climb, but they had to try something, and if Valverde wanted to win the stage, he needed to distance Pogacar before the final climb, and if Ion Izagirre wanted to podium, he had to take big risks.

  • But from a pure optics perspective, they launched Roglic’s long-range attack and then he systematically dropped them one-by-one. In fact, Astana’s leader, Ion Izagirre was dropped with around 46km-to-go. They had to try something, but getting so thoroughly worked over by Roglic after splitting the race and pulling him really wasn’t a great look.

  • Pogacar got within 30-seconds of the leaders on the final climb, even though he spent large portions of the valley before yelling at the others for not working. If he had simply focused on riding as hard as possible and forgot about the others, he could possibly have closed the gap before the climb.

  • By putting Hirschi in the break and pacing behind, UAE was essentially using two riders at once, which ended up really costing them later on. If they had a “fresh” Hirschi to chase back to Roglic, they could have probably closed down that gap.

  • What is odd is that if they were going to use this strategy, why not attempt to put Pogacar in the early break to put pressure on Jumbo?

  • It is important to remember that just because Jumbo took first and second in the overall and absolutely destroyed UAE on the final stage, it doesn’t mean their overall strategy was necessarily good. Also, they still seem to be having extreme variance in their team performance from day-to-day that they will need to sort out in the coming months.

  • On this note, Roglic was isolated at key points in the finale of stages 2, 3, 4 & 6. At some points, it was due to his team simply not being strong enough, but on others, it was due to them being up ahead of him. This isolation at key moments shows the flip-side of keeping multiple riders high up on GC throughout a stage race.

  • Ineos went from looking dominant at Volta Catalunya to pedestrian all week here. Adam Yates was the only rider putting in a consistently respectable performance, while. Carapaz, their supposed leader at the Tour, looked to be off-the-pace. With Yates outperforming Carapaz at every race this season, it will get harder and harder to keep him out of a Tour leadership position.

Looking Forward

The Ardennes

  • Roglic certainly has to be feeling good about defending his Liege-Bastogne-Liege title in two weeks’ time.

  • Additionally, outside of his team’s tactical boondoggle, Pogacar looked incredible all week and also has to be considered a favorite at Liege. Remember, he could have won last year if not for Alaphilippe’s errant sprint.

  • However, it is debatable if it is a good idea for them to be this fit for the Ardennes Classics. Nobody has won Liege and the Tour in the same year since Eddy Merckx in 1975.

  • Marc Hirschi was supposed to lead UAE at the Ardennes, but he hasn’t looked the same after the contentious and shocking exit from his old DSM team, so Pogacar will likely have to carry the team whether he wants to or not.

The Tour

  • Jonas Vingegaard gets the best result of his career and is looking like a great replacement for Dumoulin, for this year’s Tour as well as the future.

  • It is becoming increasingly clear that this summer’s Tour de France is shaping up to be a two-man race. Adam Yates destroyed the competition at the recent Volta Catalunya, but finished a distant 4th place here and was never in a position to seriously challenge a stage or overall win.

  • Also, Jumbo finally has a clear roadmap for beating Pogacar. His team has always been his greatest weakness, but the tempo riding clinic they displayed at the 2020 edition did nothing to exploit this.

  • However, the ‘satellite rider’ strategy they deployed on Saturday shows that to beat Pogacar, they have to race aggressively, even if they are technically in the lead. Also, if instead of Tolhoek and Oomen up the road, it was a high-up-in-the-GC Wout van Aert, the strategy would be even more potent.

  • Roglic had yet to beat Pogacar yet in 2021 but really saved the first win for quite the moment. This has to give him a lot of confidence going into the Ardennes.

  • Shockingly, this is only Roglic’s second-ever GC win over Pogacar and first since the 2019 Vuelta, so this is a much-needed confidence boost at last year’s crushing Tour defeat to his younger countryman.