“We’d fixed the goal of finishing between twelfth and fourteenth place and we’re right on cue because we finished thirteenth! The result on the day was rather satisfying”
That’s Ag2r-La Mondiale’s team manager Vincent Lavenu speaking after yesterday’s team time trial. Homer, not the ancient Greek but the Simpson, said the secret to happiness was low expectations so their must be smiles all round with Ag2r yesterday. Aiming for 12th-14th spot, the team hit the mark for sure. In fairness, the team does not have many rouleurs and the goal was realistic rather than romantic.
But it’s not the first time the team expresses modest ambitions. Speaking ahead of the Tour, team boss Vincent Lavenu said:
This year Ag2r must aim for a rider in the top-10 of the overall classification. Of course, like all teams on the race, a stage win is also the least we can aim for. However, it’s clear that not everyone will get this, especially if we consider the teams with sprinters and big leaders.
I don’t to pick on Ag2r alone but the team makes the point for me, that the Tour de France is probably the only race of the year where a top-10 finish is goal before a race. The exposure to be gained by a rider high on the overall classification can be enormous, even if they never get the money-shot imagery of their rider on the podium or crossing the finish line with arms aloft. Indeed a rider can finish, say, 15th a few times on a few the mountain stages and by virtue of consistency they’ll crack the top-10 come Paris.
A high finish in the Tour de France is enormous. Few can achieve this result and – park talk of doping for a minute – it is highly respectable and I’m not looking to diminish this. After all it places the rider in the elite of the elite. Many would give their left arm for such a result, although clever donors would arrange for the transaction to conclude after the post-Tour criterium season.
But all the same, I can’t help feel a bit wistful with this. I’d rather see a rider capable of the top-10 go for a stage win, even if it backfires and they lose a few places on GC. Many viewers will feel like this too, indeed French TV producers love le spectacle because watching a rider “defend” ninth place just isn’t as compelling when it comes to the ratings.
But for the rider and the team, the incentives are very different. They’ll get daily coverage from the media, especially from their home country reporters and this is what they crave. For the rider the result is indicative of potential, maybe they can go better the next year or they can take wins in other races. As a result a newcomer to the top-10 can see a big pay boost, quite easily adding a zero on their salary.
I feel a bit bad citing Ag2r’s modest ambitions twice but they quotes jumped out at me, the arguments are just as applicable to many other teams. Fans and riders have opposing incentives and objectives, what is good for one isn’t always good for the other.
Viewers want to see riders on the rampage one minute and quite possibly falling apart the next. Yet riders want to minimise this volatility, to control their racing and deliver a steady result. It’s not necessarily negative racing but it can be very conservative. I was pleased to see Jurgen Van Den Broeck win a stage of the Dauphiné as it was his first big win after a string of high overall positions but no win.
Above all this kind of riding can be quite prevalent in the Tour de France because the media coverage is that bit bigger, meaning results overlooked in other stage races can gain big publicity here.