Friday, March 20, 2009

Tyler Farrar: Man or Myth?

The cycling world is a-buzz, or perhaps more accurately in this age, a-“Twitter” with the promise foretold by Tyler Farrar’s surprising win in the third stage of Tirreno-Adriatico last week.

Judging from the photos, no-one was more surprised than a certain mister Cavendish. I’m sure he would rather see the pictures of him looking astonished to his left as Tyler edged past him in the final meters disappear from the web. Cavendish was as disappointed as much as Farrar was elated at having let this one slip.

But let’s break it down. There are many complex variables in a sprint, a critical one being “luck”—or the ability to make one’s own luck. Farrar made his own luck in textbook fashion to notch “the biggest win” of his career to date. To be sure, Farrar is a sprinter. He’s won sprints before and will again. But it has never been against such a potent gathering of the world’s best. That he outfoxed, outkicked, and outlasted the likes of Boonen, McEwen, Hunter, Hushovd, Petacchi,—and, oh yeah, Cavendish—should not be discounted. But nor does it necessarily announce the arrival of the next great sprinting hope and the demise of the greats.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This was one sprint in one multi-stage race. The stars aligned for Tyler this time and he pulled a coup of great magnitude, but he must prove consistency against this caliber of greats before we necessarily become as excited as he is. Even Farrar noted that Cavendish slowed towards the end allowing him to slip past. Was Cavendish legitimately spent having mis-timed and gone for it too early, or did he think he had yet another sprint in the bag and just let down his guard a fraction—and a fraction too early? The photos suggest that Cavendish was full on the gas and Farrar was simply the fastest man on the day.

But to make this a regular occurrence vs. isolated incident, the Garmin Chipotle team needs to gel a bit more as a lead-out unit for Farrar. The edge goes to Team Columbia in this regard as they’ve had more practice, and a more singular focus in launching Cavendish from their train as the Big Engine That Could. Plus, they’ve arguably got more battle-hardened booster stages for Cav in the likes of Eisel, Hagen, and Griepel. And even aging Hincapie has been known to mix it up in the sprint (he was the second highest-placed Team Columbia rider on this stage). They let one get away this time, and trust me, they’ll be reviewing the game tapes, but they’re not panicking. Yet.

Garmin Chipotle has the building blocks of talent, and Vaughters has the intellect and ingenuity (read “moxie”) to put it together and make it happen. They are perhaps a season or so away from truly establishing their formula in this aspect of racing. Or at least taking their current sprinting construct to the top ranks of the world’s stage and dishing out another royal, nose-thumbing smack down. Vaughters’ renegade, scrappy approach needs a bit of smoothing out to make Farrar’s win truly replicable, and Garmin Chipotle’s sprint successes more the norm rather than the exception at this level, against the sport’s top sprinters.

Is this the one and only time we’ll hear from Farrar? No. Should the current top-rank sprinters take note? Indeed. Should we be more excited than ever for these types of sprint finishes? Youbetcha.

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