Creating controlled chaos at the Tour de France: Inside Team Sunweb’s winning strategy

Team Sunweb took three stage victories at the Tour through an aggressive, untamable brand of racing. Here's how they made it happen.

Photo: Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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Before this year’s Tour de France, few would have been surprised to hear that Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Jumbo-Visma and UAE-Team Emirates would all come away with three stage wins.

However, equally few would have forecast Team Sunweb to also take a Tour hat-trick. Having come into the race with the youngest squad in the peloton and without a GC contender or single headlining star name, the German-based outfit may have lurked at the back of our attention prior to the Tour’s roll out in Nice last month.

That didn’t stop Sunweb and its swarm of aggressive youngsters. They came out of the race with three stage wins courtesy of Søren Kragh Andersen and breakout star Marc Hirschi, and were arguably the most exciting and explosive squad in the Tour, relentlessly attacking, posting riders into endless breakaways, and generally causing chaos.

Only this chaos was very carefully organized.

“What’s really important for us as a team is that it’s not just guys going out and racing on feeling, it’s part of a plan,” Sunweb coach Matt Winston told VeloNews. “When someone watches us on TV and sees riders bouncing off each other it might look a bit like it’s on feeling, but it’s all part of a plan that we’ve worked really hard to put together in the weeks and months leading up to the race.”

Here’s how Team Sunweb orchestrated perfectly-controlled carnage as they took their fates into their own hands in the biggest race in the world.

Select the stages

Team Sunweb’s riders and staff sketched out its target stages months before the Tour even started. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Team Sunweb’s Tour de France started months before the race rolled out of Nice. From as soon as Europe went into coronavirus lockdown in late winter, the team began to hold regular video calls with its classics, GC and sprint units.

“We started really analyzing and assessing how we wanted to race when the season stopped,” Winston said in a telephone interview this week. “We met as groups to think about tactics and how we approach stages, how we use our riders best. We went through mock scenarios and how we could approach different stages and situations … it helped us to understand what could work for our riders and our strengths.”

With an understanding and early sketch of how they could succeed, Winston and his riders outlined the stages of this year’s Tour that they could win.

“This was the first step that we really went into depth with,” Winston explained. “We went through every stage to understand how each could play to our advantage. If its a GC day then the chances of making it to the finish are slim. The peloton decides what happens on those days, so you have to be confident that a break is going to make it to the finish before focussing on it.”

GC days went out of the window. As Jumbo-Visma, Ineos Grenadiers and UAE-Team Emirates threw haymakers at each other in the mountains, Sunweb’s riders were allowed to sit back and save their legs, charging the cannons in preparation for causing chaos on their pinpointed stages.

Pin down an attack point

Marc Hirschi (Sunweb) soloed for the win on stage 12 of the 2020 Tour de France
Hirschi punched clear on stage 12 in an example of perfect planning. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

While Sunweb was active in the bunch sprints and was almost the only team of the race to operate a full leadout in the bunch gallops, its victories or near-misses came from wiley breakaway moves. Sunweb re-configured the common conception of a breakaway being something to battle into in the first hour of the race, with luck playing as much a part as legs.

Instead, the team dictated its own escapes.

“We said, okay, on this stage, we want to win from the breakaway – but the breakaway doesn’t necessarily have to be the start of the race,” Winston said. “I think that when people say about winning from the break, they assume the breakaway goes at kilometer zero, and off you go, you’re in the break all day. We would have an ideal plan for where we could make the break that would work for us every day. We didn’t wait and hope for breaks … we made them happen.”

Stage 12 into Sarran was an example of planning perfection. Hirschi took victory with a long-range move after his teammates had created chaos as the front group took on two short kickers 50 kilometers from the finish.

“We looked at the two climbs that came close to the finish on stage 12, and said ‘right, this is where we’re going to start the breakaway; we’re going to decide we want the breakaway here,'” Winston explained. “And then Tiesj and Søren attacked. Then that creates a reaction from the bunch and that allows Marc to go across in the wheels and have a free pass.”

Sure enough, the tactic worked a charm, with the Swissman punching clear on the Suc au May climb with 25km to go.

“We decided that Søren and Tiesj would go on the cat 3 climb and I would wait until the next climb,” Hirschi said after taking the stage. “Then at a moment, I saw there was a lot more jumping from the bunch and just went for it, and followed Bob Jungels. The guys sat up ahead and brought me to the front and then the gap opened and we went full-gas, before I then attacked on the last climb.”

Get rider buy-in

Teamwork makes the dream work – Sunweb’s all-in approach paid off at the Tour. Photo: Frank Faugere – Pool/Getty Images

Team Sunweb’s ability to ignite stage after stage at the Tour came through manoeuvering several riders into the pointy end of the racing rather than relying on one man. To watch the white-and-black clad team in action almost harkened back to the finest of Quick-Step performances on a cold day in the Belgian spring as rider after rider attacked, counter-attacked, and then attacked again for good measure.

“We said that we wanted to race aggressive finals, what we called ‘en block,’” said Winston, now in his second year with Sunweb. “So everyone is there at the front supporting, whether it’s the sprint guys, or one of the guys that’s got the go-ahead to attack and go for the stage.”

Sunweb’s Tour team was stacked with versatile climber-puncheurs, all of similar yet complementary strengths, with Hirschi and Kragh Andersen backed by Tiesj Benoot and Irish veteran Nicholas Roche. No single rider was a “captain” or “protected rider;” instead they raced as equals, for Team Sunweb.

“We worked really hard both before and during the Tour to create an open, honest, equal environment,” Winston said. “We really built this atmosphere that it didn’t matter, who was crossing the line first, but that it was Team Sunweb crossing the line first.”

Free of a GC man to protect or a single star rider to support, Sunweb rode in a gung-ho, all-out, “nothing to lose” style that paid off three times. The egalitarian atmosphere in the team made it work.

“We made absolutely sure there are no egos in the team,” Winston said. “When you start bringing an ego in, when you have to attack and start sacrificing yourself, are you going to do it, and then are you going to go 100 percent? And when you get guys that don’t want to really put themselves on the line, then maybe their attack is not going be as strong or maybe doesn’t put people in the red the way we need it to.”

Sunweb’s “en bloc” race style and commitment to team rather than personal success reaped rewards with Kragh Andersen’s first stage win, taken with a late breakaway in Lyon.

The whole team committed fully in the final 10 kilometers of the stage, setting off a rolling wave of attacks from Benoot, Kragh Andersen, and Hirschi before the young Dane countered his Swiss teammate’s jab with a race-winning punch to ride clear in the final four kilometers. It was Sunweb’s second stage win of the Tour. There was more to come.

Have a Plan B

Kragh Andersen won stage 19 after the team had been planning on a sprint finish. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Of course, in the whirlwind of the Tour de France, the best-laid plans can easily go up in smoke, and when they do, a plan B, C, D, and E need to be ready. Having gambled on working for Cees Bol in a possible bunch sprint on stage 19, Sunweb rolled out its backup plan when a strong group of rouleurs and classics riders went clear at the front of the peloton in the final hour of racing.

“Quickly we reverted to ‘Scenario B’ after the intermediate sprint where we saw groups going clear and we knew what was going to happen,” Winston said after the stage.

With Kragh Andersen and road captain Nikias Arndt in the front group, Sunweb played the strength in numbers as the bunch surged and counter-surged on the roads into Champagnole. Kragh Andersen chose his moment to go, while Arndt stifled the chase and held out for a potential catch and bunch sprint. Sure enough, the 26-year-old had the legs to hold off the chase, making it a hat-trick for the team.

“We’re taking the race in our hands,” Kragh Andersen had said six days before, when he opened his Tour account in Lyon. “Maybe we don’t realize it’s the Tour de France – we’re just racing and it happens to be on the biggest stage in the world.”

Team Sunweb went into the Tour de France with the tag of underdogs. Thanks to careful planning, cohesive teamwork, and eight sets of strong legs, they came out of it as the team of chaos, confusion, and most importantly – the team of success.

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