Echelons during Tour de France 2019

Why there should be a King of the Echelon

In professional road cycling, nothing comes close to the spectacle and suffering of racing in echelons. Nonetheless, a king of the echelon is yet to be crowned. Time to dethrone the King of the Mountain.


cycling peloton broken in echelons because of crosswinds

So you've made it to this blog post which is the first one of (hopefully) a long list. Given this is a new blog about professional cycling with zero backlinks that fails to rank on google (so far), that must be a miracle. I'm not sure what you expect from this blog and, frankly, neither do I. I'm still figuring out what I should be writing about; I have some ideas in the back of my mind, but posting the result of each bike race is not one of them. Let me perhaps start by explaining the name of the blog.


King of the Mountain is so 1930s

King of the Echelon is not even a term in cycling; as opposed to King of the Mountain. Although the best climber classification in grand tours had already been introduced in the early 1930s, it seems to me that the adoption of the "KoM" especially took off since English became somewhat the new common language in cycling. If English is your mother tongue, this statement might come across as a bit weird, but look at this through the eyes of a non-native speaker.


As a child, watching cycling on Flemish TV in the late '80s, I do not remember hearing English in a post-race interview (unless it involved Sean Kelly). In the peloton, there were 3 languages: Dutch, French and Italian. If you weren't a native speaker of one of those, you at least knew/learned the basics; as a rider (starting with swear words of course) and as a journalist.


Things changed since the Lance Armstrong era and the increasing coverage of cycling in the Anglo-Saxon world. Ever since we've seen a constant representation of US (Garmin, Trek, BMC), UK (Sky/Ineos) and Australian (Orica/BikeExchange) teams in the UCI World Tour.


Enter Strava

The popularity of the social cycling platform Strava among pro-riders and amateurs even led to "KoM" (sic) becoming an actual (spoken) word in Dutch in the world of cycling enthusiasts. Nowadays the prestige and the earning of the "King of the Mountain" title depends on the number of Strava segments you take rather than the number of polka dot jerseys in your closet ;-)


King of... what exactly?

OK, so I decided to name my blog after a king of cycling. But which particular skill or discipline? What do I like most during a bike race? What is making me sit on the edge of my seat?


Echelons!


Generally, cycling is not a complicated sport to understand.

  • It's mainly about physical ability,

  • you don't need to be a rocket scientist to grasp the team tactics,

  • and from a technical perspective, there isn't an awful lot more than the concept of drafting to understand

As an occasional viewer you'll realize pretty quickly pro-riders don't manage to drop each other on the flat. But you might be scratching your head when you see the peloton break into echelons for the first time: 1km ago all riders were sitting in the bunch and now they're unable to hold the wheel of the guy in front of them?


Deus ex machina

I won't go into the details of how echelons are formed (plenty of info about it on Google/Youtube) but it needs at least 1 ingredient: crosswinds. Although certain regions are notorious for providing all the ingredients frequently (e.g. Qatar or the United Arab Emirates), echelons always bring an element of surprise: winds must be strong enough, wind direction must be perfect, sometimes crosswinds are expected but they eventually declined during the day (or the opposite way around), ... The stars need to be aligned for echelons to happen.


But when they happen, you'll get to witness one of the most fascinating displays of physical & mental strength, tactics and suffering.


The video below is a great illustration of how a 90° corner suddenly offers the perfect circumstances to set the peloton on fire. Like a Deus ex machina, this insignificant fact completely changes the way the race was developing. Long gone are the viewer's complaints about this flat stage being a snooze fest.



Barbaric

Echelons are ruthless; almost to the level of being barbaric. It requires an exceptional level of commitment from the rider to continue to do his share of the work and not give in to the pain; there's no hiding in echelons. One moment you even think about loosening the rope a bit, one moment you're not paying attention and you'll find yourself in the tail of the echelon, clinging on for dear life. But your fate is already sealed: you will be dropped.


A flat tire or any other mechanical issue means game over. Bridging to another echelon is humanly impossible, even if you're a watt monster like Filippo Ganna. Riders often reveal they realize their highest power output (FTP, Functional Threshold Power) of the season in echelons. It's all about absolute wattage.


Climbers usually get crushed in echelons. In the mountains, they excel because of their high power output relative to their weight (Watt/kg). But in absolute Watts, it is physically impossible for them to match the big powerhouses that pull an echelon.


Like a red rag to a bull

According to generally accepted cycling wisdom, teams & riders try to keep their powder dry until the finale to take maximum benefit from the fatigue of their competitors. Former pro-rider, Tour de France winning team manager (with Greg LeMond) and commentator on Flemish TV José de Cauwer often uses the metaphor of first finishing your competitor's plate before starting your own.


Echelons, however, are the exception to the rule. Teams always grab the opportunities crosswinds offer with both hands; whenever they occur. They know the consequences of echelons are devastating and mostly have a permanent impact on the result of the race. In the 2020 Tour De France, Mikel Landa lost over 2 minutes to his main competitors. In the 2013 Tour Alejandro Valverde even lost 9 minutes!


In a sport driven by marginal gains, these rare occasions yield a massive result. Hence the rider's eagerness to, firstly, avoid missing the leading echelon, but secondly, to maximize his advantage. The most extreme example is the 2016 Doha world championship (see video below) where the Belgian team split the peloton in echelons at a suicidal 170km to go! They did not manage to win the race eventually, but they reduced the peloton to 20 riders bending the theoretical odds of winning to their favor.



Now you know what I find most fascinating about cycling, what is it that made you hooked on the most beautiful sport in the world? Please leave a comment below!


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