Ticket to Tour of California is team tactics

Felicia Gomez was speeding toward a top-10 finish in a major stage race when the call came over her radio earpiece.

There's a dangerous breakaway up the road. Chase it down.

Like any pro cyclist, Gomez followed her team manager's orders. She chased down the breakaway, using up precious energy. So instead of a top-10 finish in the Redlands Bicycle Classic, she wound up 35th.

But that's OK. Because Gomez made that sacrifice with the satisfaction of knowing it helped ensure a teammate's victory.

"What makes cycling unique is that you have team members who 100% give up on the race in order for the team leader to do well," said Gomez, a Fresno State associate professor of exercise science who spent five years on the women's pro tour. "There's no other sport like that."

While strange and unfamiliar to the uninitiated, team tactics will go a long way toward determining who wins this year's Tour of California, which begins Saturday in Sacramento and includes two stages in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The reason Levi Leipheimer enters as the clear pre-race favorite isn't just because he's the two-time defending champion and one of the strongest all-around riders in the field.

It's also because he's a member of Astana, one of the strongest teams in the world.

"Cycling is the only sport in the world where an individual wins, but an individual could never win if he didn't have strong team support," said Jonathan Vaughters, general manager of Garmin-Slipstream.

Vaughters likens a team's strategy during a stage race to a space shuttle launch. Without that extra lift provided by the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, which fall away early in the mission, the orbiter cannot carry into outer space.

In much the same way, a team leader cannot win a stage without the support of teammates, called domestiques, who do the dirty work. These duties range from setting a furious pace early in a long climb to fetching water bottles to stopping if the leader gets a flat tire and helping him back to the peloton.

While some teams will enter the Tour of California with one pre-selected leader, others designate two or three potential leaders and wait to see how the race unfolds before settling on one.

Garmin-Slipstream, for example, has a bona fide leader in Christian Vande Velde, who was fifth in last year's Tour de France. But Vande Velde might not be in peak form this early in the season, so fellow American David Zabriskie could wind up as team leader.

And if neither Vande Velde nor Zabriskie are feeling it, Vaughters might elevate one of his two young, up-and-coming climbers, Tom Peterson or Trent Lowe, to team leader.

"Everyone's got a speciality, based on what their strengths are on the bike," Vaughters said. "We try to exploit that and try to create a team that addresses all the weak points by having different riders with different strengths."

Riders generally fall into one of three categories: sprinters, climbers and time trialers.

Sprinters must be able to generate sudden bursts of power and speed -- up to 45 mph -- to help them accelerate across the finish line in what's known as a bunch sprint. But put these guys on a steep hill and they inevitably suffer.

Climbers, on the other hand, can set and maintain a rapid uphill pace but generally lack the power necessary to generate top speeds on the flats.

Time trialers, who excel in individual races against the clock, must be aerodynamic on the bike and able to ride all-out for 45-minute time periods.

"Funny as it sounds, some people are just more aerodynamic than others," Vaughters said.

Could the world's fastest sprinter also be among the top climbers and time trialers? In a word, no.

"That's like saying the world-record holder in the 100 meters should also be the world-record holder in the marathon," Gomez said. "It's comparing apples and oranges. The physiology is totally different."

Most stages in a multi-day event like the Tour of California usually come down to a bunch sprint. However, every rider that finishes in the lead group is given the same time.

The largest chunks of time are gained (or lost) on climbing stages and time trials.

Riders like Leipheimer, Vande Velde and Tour of California wild card Floyd Landis who hope to contend for the gold jersey worn by the overall race leader must excel in two specialities. They are typically strong time trialers who can hold their own on tough climbs, or strong climbers who can hold their own in time trials.

"You don't have to sprint to be a GC rider, but you have to be able to time trial and climb," Vaughters said, referring to the General Classification, which is the riders' overall standings and where you'll find the leaders. "If you can only do one of those two, you can't really be a team leader."