One element of the sport of cycling, as a whole, that doesn’t have nearly as much understanding or as much appreciation as it should from the fans is the tactical nous and preparation that goes into a race. It is easy to watch a great attack and appreciate the way that the athletes grind and endure as they make their way toward the finish line, but tactics and planning are much harder to assess from the outset. Another layer that often isn’t taken into consideration is that a team’s tactical planning must take place, not just for a single race, but for the entire race calendar throughout the year. All planning and preparation was instantaneously thrown out the window earlier this year, of course, as the coronavirus ran rampant world-wide, nixing any and all sports outings for a number of months at least. It could have been longer. In March, it was impossible to tell and impossible to plan for the races ahead. Nobody knew when they’d be, or if they’d be at all.
I mention this because of the recent news that Tom Dumoulin has withdrawn from this year’s Vuelta a Espana. The reason? He hasn’t caught Covid-19. He hasn’t been flagged for a drugs violation. The reason is that he’s tired. The challenges and trials of a professional cyclist are gruelling, always, but it is unusual that a rider bow out under such apparently “normal” circumstances. The Dutchman says, of his team and of the race; “We have decided that I will leave the Vuelta. Both our coaching staff and I think it is the best choice to get off the bike. At the start of the Vuelta I already felt tired and that feeling remained. It makes no sense for me to continue.” This is surprising for a number of reasons, the first being that non-Covid-related withdrawals are far fewer this year than in years prior (obviously). So surprising is it, in fact, that when Matteo Spreafico popped for a performance enhancing supplement, I wrote an article on it. It’s almost strange to see.
What has been brought home to me, with the news of this withdrawal, is that, with the compressed race schedule this year, all planning has had to have been done almost on the fly. It might sound obvious now to say so, but not all the riders are ready to go. Perhaps I should not say “ready to go,” but, more accurately, “ready to continue.” Tom Dumoulin has already raced in the Tour de France this year and began the Vuelta a Espana as team co-leader with Slovenian team-mate Primoz Roglic. The Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia happened two weeks apart. The Vuelta began before the Giro had even finished! That’s a lot of riding in a very short space of time. Tactically speaking, it is almost impossible to properly plan your rider positioning. Who’s leading? Who are the domestiques and when? One of the greatest strengths of cycling is the multi-faceted nature of the race – multiple stages to win, multiple jerseys to reward excellence in multiple disciplines, and that’s just within a single race. Tactical nous is vital to the success of a cycling team and it is impossible to get everything right in such a short amount of time. To be sure, there’ll be many more fatigue-related withdrawals before this year’s World Tour is complete.