In defence of the Sky mountain train

It was a rest day yesterday, which presents an opportunity to reflect on the race as a whole. I’d therefore like to offer a counterpoint to the prevailing view that Sky’s mountain train tactics are duller than a conversation that flits from cars to mobile phones and then back again.

What’s a mountain train?

To simplify this, let’s just say that there are two main ways to race up a climb. You can cycle within yourself and save energy for a more explosive effort near  the top or you can try and produce a steady, consistent effort so that you get from bottom to top as quickly as possible.

The latter of those gives rise to the mountain train. This is a long line of riders from the same team who set a strong pace at the front of the bunch. The benefit is that it is difficult to attack when the group is already moving quickly. The downside is that everyone behind benefits from drafting (albeit to a much lesser extent than on the flat).

Why is a mountain train boring?

Because it means fewer attacks and attacks are, for many people, what make bike racing exciting. I’d put it differently though. I think the mountain train is only really boring when it works and you’re also pretty confident it’s going to work in advance. There’s no tension then.

Bradley Wiggins’ mountain train

The mountain train approach works particularly well for a rider like Bradley Wiggins because it plays to his strengths. As a time trialist, he is particularly good at producing decent power for a prolonged period. What he’s not good at are shorter, harder efforts.

If everyone is cycling at somewhere approachign their limit for a prolonged effort, then Wiggins’ limit is higher than theirs. Conversely, if everyone is cycling within themselves and then kicks at the end, Wiggins’ maximum power for that subtly different kind of effort is lower.

So why does this mean that mountain trains aren’t boring?

Because there’s a contrast. Wiggins is one of the few Grand Tour contenders who fares better with this sort of tactic than the alternative. This means that on any given climb, we’re not just comparing riders to see who’s fittest. We’re pitting different types of riders and different approaches against each other. There’s more to ponder.

At present, it looks rather like all the main Giro contenders climb in much the same way and that Vincenzo Nibali is simply the best of them. He would almost certainly have beaten Wiggins as well, but at least the Sky rider’s different strengths would have provided a greater contrast and a little more intrigue.