Is winning more important than how you win?

Posted: October 1, 2014 in Opinion, Racing, Road
Tags: , ,

I guess this post is inspired – maybe the wrong word – perhaps in response to so many of the negative comments I came across in articles about Simon Gerrans after the Road World Champs.  A lot of Anglophone cycling fans seem the think Gerro is nothing but a wheel-sucker.  They give him no credit for his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time; to seemingly nominate races he wants to do well in and then go and do well in them; even just for finishing at the pointy end of so many tough races.

Is Mark Cavendish a wheel-sucker?  He must be: he sits on his team-males wheels, and any other wheel he can find, until the last 200m where he unleashes a withering sprint to try and steal victory.  I know its not quite the same, but Gerro is a handy sprinter – especially from a small group.

Did he do the wrong thing only pulling one turn in the run into the finish with Cancellara at Milano-San Remo the other year then coming around him to take the win?  Maybe ask Gerry Ryan (OGE Team Owner) if he did the wrong thing!

Cancellara towing Gerro and Nibali to the finish line in the 2012 edition of M-SR.

Cancellara towing Gerro and Nibali to the finish line in the 2012 edition of M-SR.

I’m still relatively new to the sport and don’t fully understand ‘old skool’ race etiquette and the like, but this is World Tour we’re talking about… not some C-grade race at the local combine.

Should he have chased on the weekend when away with six others trying to close down Kwiatkowski and falling agonisingly short of a rainbow jersey?  No one other than Gilbert was doing a turn so why single out Gerro?  Gerro had Michael Matthews in a group not far behind and it very easily could have come back together and if it did, I’m sure he would have been expected to lead Bling out so it was important he save as much energy as possible.  If he had been the odd one out and had chased, you can bet he wouldn’t have won silver.

I did pose the question of wheel-sucking to a couple of old-skool coaches who have done a bit of racing, at home and abroad, in their time and they both came back with very similar responses:

At Continental level and below, the wheel suck isn’t tolerated as well as at the Pro Tour level, they will be abused verbally and be pulled or pushed off wheels.  One of the reasons for this is that riders are hoping to be noticed so will do whatever it takes to ensure they have the best chance.  Another reason is that there aren’t as many cameras around so you aren’t going to get caught on film shoving some guy into the gutter.

And this:

It’s is a bloody-well race, not a bunch ride! No one pulls a turn in Europe unless it is to their overall advantage in some way. Why oh why do we beat up on the gift that Gerrans has?!? He is capable of getting into race winning selections (small bunches) and then outsprinting them! Your typical ITT beast or Dutch/Belgian stomper who also escapes in these groups generally lack the sprinting legs, sprinters cannot get up the punchy hills or spend that amount of time in the lactic-anaerobic zone before they blow (if it is flat)… Gerrans has all that covered and does it so easily that we write him off as a wheel sucker…

As well as this:

Sorry, in Europe nice guys finish last and end up working as domestiques for their career.  If that is what they want and find fulfilment in that role – all good, however, don’t go whinging about “wheel suckers”.  That word roughly translates to “smart tactician” in continental Europe. Over there, strong teams will dispatch wheel suckers if they don’t want them around and conversely a “good tactician” can wheel suck all day and avoid getting binned in a race.

What about advice for the kids:

Do everything you can that is technically allowed to win a race, if you aren’t doing that, then um… have a go at triathlon, it might be more your thing. Only expend energy IF it is in YOUR best interests (e.g. you’re working for someone else in the team or your contribution to the breakaway is required for YOU to obtain the desired result on the finish line). You don’t pull a turn because people are yelling at you to do it, you pull a turn so you end up better placed at the end of the race (i.e. in your best interests).

And still some more advice (by the way, CyclingDad doesn’t necessarily endorse this advice):

Kids can do all of the above, negotiate a chop, set up a gate keeper to back the wheel sucker off or… put them in the dirt!  It sounds terrible but at least getting them to gain the skills and knowledge about it while not condoning it helps prepare them for what can happen.  Oh, and if you suck a wheel at Footscray, you’ll get a punch in the mouth!

And one final word:

Aussies in particular view cycling in terms of strongest over smartest (and cycling as an individual rather than team sport). Best evidence of this IS the world championship results (put Caleb Ewan to one side for the moment). We are monsters in the ITT world, but when it comes to the art of road racing, you only see brief sparks of brilliance in the Elites (Cromwell and Gerrans) and the odd anomaly like Caleb (who did spend half an U19 season in France learning the art, prior to his stint in the jayco u23s).  Simon rode like a consummate professional European road racer to achieve the silver and deserves it entirely.

So, is Simon Gerrans a wheel suck?  Not in anyone with any knowledge in the art of cycling’s opinion. And in terms of winning… it doesn’t happen that often, especially at World Tour level, so do whatever you can to give yourself the best chance.

In the pro tour, 'wheel sucker' translates best to 'smart tactician'… and they don't come any smarter than our Gerro.

In the pro tour, ‘wheel sucker’ translates best to ‘smart tactician’… and they don’t come any smarter than our Gerro.

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