The spear or the trident: modern cycling captaincy as a work in progress

by Richard Williams

Words by Lars B Jorgensen | Photo by Gomez/CorVos/SWpix.com


History may have taught us that a cycling team is run by spearheaded leadership. The patron. The boss. The complete package. The strong and visionary commander in charge at the Grand Tours.

There is a solid logic to all this. The demands in terms of support and balance within a team may dictate that sole leadership is the way to go. And then – of course – there is the fact that one man can be head and shoulders above the rest of the crop.

It’s been 35 years since Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond left a mark on the issue of leadership that has cast very long shadows. The Tour de France 1986 showed that two great riders within a team, with completely different personas, may clash in a way that can be almost counterproductive.

Fuelled by ambition, a desire to win and brilliance galore, Lemond and Hinault created a spectacle that has shaped the way we see any sort of shared leadership within the same team – in their case the mighty La Vie Claire.

The young American prodigy and the seasoned French warhorse showed a competitiveness and a rivalry that lit up the race. Exciting, intriguing, dramatic. A gift for all spectators who, for decades to come, could interpret the moves and motives that fired up such contrasting personalities on the road.

It’s a fun fact that Paul Köchli, the La Vie Claire team’s Swiss coach and DS, actually wanted to build a team that was strong enough in depth to win the Tour no matter who did it. That mission was indeed accomplished. La Vie Claire dominated the Tour de France 1986 with a 1-2 podium top in Lemond and Hinault plus Andy Hampsten and Niki Rüttiman placed 4th and 7th respectively. And yet the fierce and relentless nature with which Lemond and Hinault went to war is still shaping the way we see captaincy in cycling.

The 90’s gave us team like Banesto where Indurain was seated like the embodiment of an Easter Island statue clad in yellow. After 1991, Big Mig’s position was never questioned, although it’s argued that he should have been leader in the 1990 Tour rather than domestique to Pedro Delgado. He delivered his five Tour victories on the dot. And then there were the seven long years of Lance Armstrong’s bullying, where the power was even more monopolized and never contradicted.

Between those two blocks of dominance we may have had some sparkling issues between 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis and the German Jahrhunderttalent Jan Ullrich at Team Deutsche Telekom. But Riis’ powers were already waning the year after his one and only victory and even in 1996 it was clear to see that it was only a matter of time before Ullrich would be the force of nature he showed in 1997.

The question of rivalry and potential treachery is a sort of journalistic Viagra. There are just more tension and emotions at stake when egos clash than when you see a team where the leadership question is sorted, done and dusted.

The question of rivalry and potential treachery is a sort of journalistic Viagra. There are just more tension and emotions at stake when egos clash than when you see a team where the leadership question is sorted, done and dusted.

Movistar is a team that have tried to field a three-headed leadership in recent years, and failed. In 2019 the “Trident” of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde all finished in the top 10 at the Tour without looking like a serious challenge in terms of overall victory. Or even a credible stab at the podium.

It’s fair to say the tactics at Movistar often are a matter of head scratching for a lot of the wrong reasons. And as documented in the entertaining Netflix documentary from the seasons 2019 and 2020 the management of the Movistar team seems a bit out of tune if not a shambles.

Movistar had another go at this years Tour with Miguel Angel Lopez, Valverde and Enric Mas. The latter showed his gritty consistency while Lopez crashed and even Valverde may be coming to realize that age can be a factor.

For Team Ineos the 2021 Tour may best be remembered as a sort of implosion. The crashes of week one basically robbed the otherwise scarily strong line up of Richard Carapaz, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas of both power and tactical agility.

What looked like a unit that could cause the stratospheric Slovenian (and now double Tour winner) Tadej Pogacar a few problems never really came into play.

In the Vuelta Ineos Grenadiers are giving it another go with a three-pronged strategy consisting of Carapaz, Bernal and Adam Yates. No leader is designated beforehand. The road will decide. And the legs as well. “That will prevail over what we want personally” as Carapaz put it before the start in Burgos on Saturday. There is a rather childlike logic at stake here. The road and the history books have shown us that it may be a tad more complicated than that when two very strong riders are trying to work out the captaincy between them.

Just think about the tricky Wiggins-Froome situation in 2012. Froome wanted to attack in the Alps and at the Peyresourde finish at the times when Wiggins was struggling a little. There was not much love lost between the two. And personal relationships are always at stake in those kind of situations.

The same could be said about CSC-Saxo Bank in the Tour de France 2008 where Carlos Sastre attacked at l’Alpe d’Huez and never looked back in yellow. The Spaniard rode on a team where Andy and Fränk Schleck were the obvious darlings of general manager Bjarne Riis and DS Kim Andersen. Sastre was destined to put the first attack in before Fränk Schleck went on the counter. But it never happened. And although the team routinely praised Sastre’s victory there were some sulky faces at the campfire afterwards. The solid and easy going Sastre left the team at the end of the season after having won Riis and Team CSC their first and only Tour de France.

At a time when some of the top teams like UAE and Bora-Hansgrohe are stacking up talents and GC prospects, they probably will need leadership which is able to connect rather than divide. Ineos showed what might be possible in the 2021 Giro but covid-19 and a cramped race program also was a factor here. As usual, the road will provide us some answers and fresh perspectives before the Vuelta finishes in Santiago de Compostela on September 5th.


Lars B. Jørgensen is a columnist at Danish national newspaper Berlingske, the founder of cycling podcast Souplesse and sometimes a cyclist con amore.


You may also like