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July 11th, 2016 – Bernhard Eisel’s role in Mark Cavendish’s lead out train is well documented. But when the Tour de France hits the mountains, Eisel has a role every bit as crucial. Eisel guarantees that Cavendish gets to the finish within the time cut simply needed to remain in the race.
Words & images: James Startt – European Associate to peloton
From: Bagnières-de-Luchon, France
The Tour de France is nothing if it is not a quagmire of rules and regulations, and this is never more true than in the mountains, where the cutoff time is calculated using a complex coefficient system that takes into account the length, difficulty and speed of the stage. Finish outside of the stage’s stated time cut and you are out of the race.
Time cuts penalize the sprinters more than other riders, so those that are built for high speeds, not the mountains passes of the Pyrénées end up suffering greatly. When the Tour de France hits the mountainous stages, the race becomes one of survival for the sprinters!
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“The sprinters fascinate me most,” a certain Miguel Indurain once told me. “They suffer and suffer in the mountains, just to have a chance to continue, and then they just go at such amazing speeds in the sprints!”
Most sprinters simply try to stay in the grupetto, but Cavendish often rides his own race. And for that, Eisel is his watchdog, constantly calculating the cutoff time of the day, keeping him out of the red zone on the climbs and pushing the pace at the necessary moments so that Cavendish remains in the race.
“The most important part is to keep him (Cavendish) in his comfort zone,” Rolf Aldag said before the start of stage nine, the key climbing stage in the Pyrénées this year. Aldag, first worked with Cavendish on the HTC-Highroad team and now at Dimension Data where he is Head of Performance. “There is no reason for a sprinter to be more than one second ahead of the time cut because it just doesn’t matter. Okay it is better to have a little bit of a margin just for safety, but that’s the only reason. There is a lot of experience that comes into play.”
And for such experience Dimension Data counts on Eisel. Like Aldag, Eisel first rode with Cavendish on Highroad and followed him to Sky before joining up with him again this year with resounding success.
“The main thing is that I know him so well. I know what speed we can do. And I know when we can get dropped,” says Eisel. “The thing with Mark is that, sometimes if you put him too much in the red, he just stops. In situations like that, it is better to drop off earlier and try to pace him. Each rider is different. Some riders prefer to hang on as much as possible and then recover on the downhill. But sometimes it is better to get dropped earlier and just pace yourself.”
On stage 8 to Bagnières-de-Luchon, Cavendish got in trouble early. After going for the intermediate points sprint to protect his lead in the green points jersey competition, he had little time to recover before the race hit the renowned Tourmalet climb. “I was like, ‘Okay this is going to be a long time trial for me today.’ But it worked out. I was never really worried. I knew we had enough time. The important thing is to be relaxed and keep pedaling.”
For most of the day, Eisel and Cavendish rode several minutes behind the grupetto. But they really forced the descents to remain within contact, and actually finished with the pack.
Eisel, now 35, is one of the sports most respected riders, and on days when he is in the grupetto, he is often nominated as its director. He is the conductor of the caboose. And it is a job he takes seriously.
“Directing the grupetto is a delicate job,” Eisel says. It actually starts the day before a hard stage in the Tour de France, when you get out your road book and really examine the stage, all the climbs and the cut-off time that the group must hit to get in on time. If it is a day, say where you have five cols to do, I look at every climb and say, ‘Okay we can lose five minutes here and we can lose ten minutes there. ‘ But I also look at the valleys and try to estimate what the wind conditions will be like to see if we will gain or lose time there as well. If there is a head wind in the valley, that can really make things difficult, and make it hard to gain back any time. You can easily lose even more time. So you really have to do your homework. I get on the internet and type in the names of villages in the valley to get a sense of what the wind conditions will be that day.”
Although Eisel spent much of stage 8 alone with Cavendish, he was confident that the two would make the time cut. Stage 9, however, appeared more complicated. With more climbs, the average speed of the stage would be slower, hence the time cut smaller.
“It’s going to be a tricky one. Am I nervous before the start of these stages? Always! You can never take the mountains for granted.”
But while the stage appeared hard, the grupetto came together early in the stage, providing Cavendish with plenty of company. And despite the hail storms that greeted the riders as they approached the final Arcalis climb in Andorra, Cavendish’s green jersey could be seen tucked neatly in the middle.
Like all of the Tour de France riders, Eisel is enjoying a well-deserved rest day in Andorra. But he knows that stage 10 will also be complicated. Starting in Andorra, the peloton will first attack the Port d’Envalira climb as it races back into France. Again Eisel will have to be on guard as the pack will most certainly splinter over this 2,408 meter climb. Once crested, however, Cavendish and his Dimension Data team will have nearly 175 of false flat, downhill rolling terrain to the finish. Only then can Eisel concentrate on his preferred role, that of leading Cavendish to another sprint victory.
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