Today sees the strangest races on the pro calendar. Across Europe it is time for the national road race championships and the format is unlike anything else all year.
Take the French championships, it is possible for four teams to each field over 20 riders. You will see Europcar, Ag2r, FDJ and Cofidis swarming all over the race, with the smaller teams struggling to match them. The likes of Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel and Garmin Cervélo’s Christophe Le Mevel have their work cut out. And if you that’s different, imagine the Dutch championships with Rabobank.
The big teams dominate the race but in a curious way. Any breakaway that goes clear without a rider from a top team is not going to get far because maybe 20 riders are on hand to lead the chase. So there’s a constant flurry of attacks but the composition has to be just right before a move goes clear. It’s tactical and at times a bit negative.
It’s a little bit similar to the domestic pro races in the Coupe de France series where team representation in a breakaway is crucial and often a move goes clear not when everyone is broken and the elastic snaps but because riders spot a team mate up ahead and ease up, giving the breakaway some space. This is the opposite of a big classic where the strong riders come to the fore at strategic points and the race reaches boiling point and 95% of the field gets cooked.
But the big teams don’t always have it their own way. In 2009 Dimitri Champion live up to his name whilst riding with the modest Bretagne-Schuller team, profiting from the tactical marking to win the French championships.
Even within the teams things are competitive. It’s not like a normal race where the team has to win. Yes the team has to win but this is one race where personal ambitions can rise to the top too. A win in this race can guarantee plenty, from a pay rise to juicy fees in post-Tour criteriums to plenty of public recognition and fame. So you can find team mates chasing each other. Indeed last year Niki Terpstra won the Dutch championships partly thanks to Rabobank riders not working together as well as they could.
These are unconventional races where tactics are very important, it often takes a team effort to win the race… and sometimes a team effort to lose it too. But everyone wants to win, the honour of wearing the national jersey is still an important tradition in the sport.