Steve Cummings wins Stage 14 of the Tour de France
My favourite moment in this year’s Tour de France, won by Chris Froome, was the stage win in Mende by Steve Cummings, the British rider who now rides for MTN Quebeka.
Several reasons for this. First, that MTN Qubeka is a “wild card” team at the Tour, one of those included by the organisers at their discretion, usually as part of a development strategy.
Second, Qubeka, which is South African-based, is an NGO devoted to improving opportunities for cycling in Africa, and half of its team are African. And since Saturday was Mandela Day, the timing was perfect. A South African friend sent me a link to a South African report that suggested (tongue in cheek) that Cummings had had “the spectral hand of Tata Madiba on his buttocks”.
Third, it was a victory for craft and experience; Steve Cummings is a 34-year old rider who has been riding as a professional for more than a decade, riding for teams such as Sky and BMC, and has also had some success on the track, which tends to sharpen speed.
Although I like the romance of the African connection, it’s the craft element I’m going to write about here. The last four-and-a-half kilometres of the stage to Mende comprises a short-but-tough three kilometre climb followed by a fast downhill to the finish line. The young French climbers Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot crested the climb first, Bardet followed by Pinot. Cummings isn’t a climber, but he is a good time triallist and he’d used that power to get up the hill in third, to general surprise, but was still some way back from the other two.
Fighting for the gap
The trick in professional cycling when fighting for a stage win is not to let another rider get onto your back wheel; if they succeed, they will almost certainly be able to use your slipstream as a springboard to accelerate past you at the right moment. Where the craft came in was two-fold: first Cummings knew that he’d have the advantage on the downhill stretch: climbers are typically lighter than time-triallists. As he said afterwards:
“When the road tipped and went down, the race sort of changed, it was in my favour. I had more kilos, I was more aero than the other two.”
And as he passed the French riders, he went past at some speed, giving himself a moment’s advantage as they were first surprised, and then gathered themselves for the chase. But they were back on his wheel quite quickly. Cyclists say that winning often takes a little luck; you gamble and you might not succeed. For Cummings that bit of luck was that Pinot was immediately behind him, and not Bardet, for Pinot’s known to be careful on corners, and wouldn’t take them as quickly as Cummings was prepared to.
“I caught them and went right to the front ready for the corners. I knew Pinot would be cautious and that he wouldn’t corner as fast as I could. It wasn’t really a risk. I saw that he wasn’t on the wheel and went for it, using my track speed for the final 400 metres. It’s hard for a climber to stay on the wheel of a track rider.”
Sadly I couldn’t find one usable piece of video that shows the whole sequence. The Tour’s video of the day shows him – 2’30” in, commentary in French – catching the French riders at the top of the hill; its video of the last kilometre shows him hitting the corners at speed (Cummings is already on the front when it starts). And you’ll have to click on the links, because embedding them here seems to involve a whole new career.
Bardet and Pinot said afterwards they’d made a tactical error. But they made good in the last week of the Tour, when each of them won on one of the big mountain stages in the Alps.