The method in the mountains: How Grand Tour teams tackle the high hills

That moment that everyone relishes is coming: the Tour de France is heading to the mountains.

After a tough opening phase of the race, the peloton finds themselves in the Pyrenees and the first high mountain showdowns of the race beckon.

If you’ve watched any grand tour in the past eight or nine years, you’ll have seen the rising phenomenon of the ‘mountain train’.

Just as Mark Cavendish had Mark Renshaw at HTC and Marcel Kittel had Gert Steegmans at Quick-Step, the GC riders now have fleets of domestique shepherding their men up until the final stages of the mountains.

But how does it work?

The first thing to remember is that while you or I may ride up a hors categorie mountain at around 8-12km/h depending on the severity of the slope and what you had for breakfast, these guys will be racing up them at speeds of 20-30km/h.

Sometimes they actually have to brake around the hairpins!

By having two, three, four teammates ahead of them on a mountain pass, the pros actually get a drafting benefit.

The magic of science proves that you can get a tangible slipstreaming gain at speeds up to 20kph, proving that while you or I may get no benefit sitting on our mate’s wheel as we climb, these guys sure do.

So, if you place Geraint Thomas behind Wout Poels and Egan Bernal – for example – he can sit pretty and take in the view while his mates do all the hard work, leaving him fresh to attack in the decisive final stages of a summit finish when every watt counts.

Of course, in theory, there’s nothing stopping others simply sitting on the coattails of the Team Ineos train.

But unless you have a real strength in depth of world-class helpers, you’re left isolated, and the Ineos boys are free to toy with you like a herd of cats around a lonely mouse – attacking one by one and forcing others to counter, slowly wearing them down.

Similarly, unless you’ve got a sidekick, attacking a strong mountain train alone means you’re likely to just be neutralised by a domestique, leaving the would-be attacker having burnt a precious match.

Team Sky were arguably one of the first to really exploit the notion of the ‘mountain train’ back in 2012, where they shepherded Sir Wiggo into the yellow jersey.

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One by one, a Sky climber would sit at the front, with his teammates lined out behind him, and pull till his legs gave out, before dropping out of the line, pleading the team car for a Snickers and can of coke.

The pace was so high that rivals with less team support are strangled into submission, on their last legs holding the pace before the action truly sparked into life.

If you want to see how hard these domestiques pull for their teammates, check out how Michal Kwiatkowski felt after his turn on the Col D’Izoard in 2017

While it was Sky that started the phenomenon of the mountain train, several other teams are now equally adept at the tactic.

Teams with a strong climbing force, such as Astana, Mitchelton Scott, and Movistar are able to pull off the similar ploy of setting domestiques to the front to control the pace.

However, the problem is, when Sky or Ineos are there too, they typically have domestiques that are just that bit stronger, making the other teams less effective.

Astana, in particular, have put their fleet of climbing stars to good use through the early part of the year, where they won basically every stage race you could throw at them, bullying their way to success in the Criterium du Dauphine with their climbing force.

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Contrastingly, despite a strong team, Jumbo-Visma lost their hold on a podium place for Primoz Roglic at this year’s Giro d’Italia partly due to a lack of resources to help him in the mountains.

It’s because of more teams getting up to speed with the methods of the mountains that contrary to what we typically think, the epic cols are no longer the place for huge time gains to be made.

Instead, the big chunks of time are typically won and lost in the places people least expect it to happen, such as this year in stage 10’s windswept ripper, or stage 8 and the crash that took Geraint Thomas out of position in the formative moments of the stage.

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Now, let’s not forget ‘that’ attack by Chris Froome in last year’s Giro, where the Brit went away with 80km to go and gobbled down two huge climbs on his own, gaining over three minutes on all his rivals.

Such exploits are rare, and in the more even talent-pool on display at this year’s Tour de France, it’s unlikely to happen in the next few weeks.

But we can always hope. If not, all aboard the mountain train.

Drivers of the mountain train

Here’s a couple of the unlucky souls that will be set loose on behalf of their leaders as this year’s Tour de France hits the Pyrenees and Alps

Wout Poels

This stick-thin Dutchman is more or less the epitome of the mountain domestique. He’s formed a key part of the Team Sky / Ineos force since 2015, helping them to handfuls of Grand Tour wins along the way.

You can be sure to see him in the final throes of the high mountain showdowns in the next few weeks, with Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas sitting on his wheel.

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Though the former Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner is capable of winning mountain stages himself, the fact that he normally rolls in several minutes behind the leaders having ridden himself to a standstill several kilometres before is a testament to his dedication.

Mikel Landa

Having lost shedloads of time in stage 10’s crosswinds, this Spanish star is likely to once again have to ride for others – namely Nairo Quintana – when he’s more than capable of winning a Grand Tour himself.

Landa is a seasoned super-domestique in the mountains, having formed a key part in Froome’s 2017 Tour win, Richard Carapaz’s Giro win this year, and more other acts of selflessness than you’ve had hot dinners.

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Indeed, such is the potential of the Basque rider that for many years, there’s been a campaign to #FreeLanda on social media from those who feel he needs to be let off the helper’s leash.

It’s not uncommon to see the motto on spectator’s roadside banners too, so keep an eye out for it in the next weeks.

Main image courtesy of ASO.

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