Friday, February 24, 2012

What Makes a Great Directeur Sportif?

What attributes make great directeurs sportif? In this post we cover a few traits that we think are essential attributes of legendary directeurs sportif that we respect.

Cyrille Guimard and protégé Laurent Fignon, riding a Cyfac under bike sponsor's paint job.

Tactical nous
This may seem obvious, but we claim that not all DS are good tacticians. It is one thing to bang on the side of the team car and threaten to run your rider over the edge of the Pyrénées, it is another thing to know just the right moment to attack, or the right moment to feint. To quote Lucien Van Impe, who credits his single Tour de France win to his DS telling him exactly when and where to attack, Cyrille Guimard truly is a man of dizzying tactical intellect. Headstrong Bernard Hinault perhaps explains Guimard best: "Cyrille Guimard does not listen to you, but in the races he is a tactical genius." Even the proud Laurent Fignon conceded, "With Hinault, Guimard already found a champion, whereas with myself, Guimard made a champion." Not only is Guimard a tactical genius, he is also a great scout of talent.

In fact, a deep look into the archives of Cyclingnews reveals that Lance Armstrong agrees (And consensus at the time was that Armstrong would definitely benefit from further tactical guidance). If you read French, an interview in which Guimard commented on Hinault, Fignon, LeMond, and even Andy Schleck is worth reading.

For a different side of Guimard, which may explain how he became a very accomplished DS, you can read our tribute to Guimard the Rider.

Charisma and Charm
Some people just have charisma and charm, and they don't have to even break a sweat to be that way. In the early 60s Raphael Géminiani - nicknamed Gém - had to contend with dwindling funds due to exclusion of most sponsors from involvement in cycling. The Tour de France organizers had forbidden all but bicycle manufacturers from team sponsorship. He had his own bicycle brand, but business wasn't great for them and he had expensive stars on the roster.

Gém's fund-raising solution was simple and bold: he accepted sponsorship from St-Raphael the apperitif company, and claimed that the St-Raphael logo adorning his riders were in fact in reference to his first name Raphael. Tour organizers protested, but Gém took care that his riders had plausible deniability when show up to the start line with St-Raphael logo. Indeed, he arranged with the president of the UCI so that each telegram forbidding that his team start in the illegal jerseys arrive at the start line too late, even though the UCI as an organization was officially against outside sponsorship. Thus, a solution was devised that allowed everybody to keep their jobs while funds were raised.

The Eagle of Toledo brandishing canonized version of Gém's full name.

Part hustler and part director, Gém was also equal parts enterprising and charismatic businessman.

Leadership qualities
For any DS, to have both Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali on your team is to receive both a blessing and a curse. Coppi was a womanizing bon vivant with tremendous natural talent on the bike, while Bartali the Pious prays before a statuette of the Virgin Mary at the commencement of each and every meal. But this blessing and curse is what Alfredo Binda - himself a former cycling champion and first to be crowned world champion - had to contend with in the late '40s. Binda was able to shepherd Team Italy to multiple victories in the Tour de France: with Bartali in '48, and with Coppi in '49 and '52. To top it all off, he guided Coppi to a worlds win in '53.

Now, so far this all seem like a tableau of a very happy and successful team, but we skipped over a very important event. In the '48 worlds race in Valkenburg, Coppi and Bartali hated each other so much that they dared each other to stop racing: both of them ended up climbing off their bikes and retiring. Such was the dislike between them that they wouldn't allow the other the possibility of the other winning. By mighty persuasion, Binda managed to convince these two super-champions to work for each other. Notably in the 1949 Tour de France, they waited for each other to give Italy a 1-2 win on the general classification.

We cyclists know that discipline in training, eating, recovery, and racing are all important. But how much discipline is enough, and how much discipline is too much? A foremost case example of a disciplinarian is the legendary Jean de Gribaldy. Famous for his round-the-clock discipline, he introduced calorie counting in the worst possible way to his team. It's hard to argue against the results he was able to wring out of his starving riders, but they were reduced to sneaking chocolate bars from the back of the airplane because de Gribaldy forbade them from accepting snacks from the stewardess.

For this category, I can think nothing better than Manolo Saiz' constant threats of running his riders over the edge of the mountains, along with his unyielding screams of venga venga venga!!!! No wonder he was once banned from the Vuelta a Espana, having screamed obscenities into a live TV camera that had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time of the race.

Manolo Saiz telling moto crew what he would like do to them personally, as shown on live Spanish television.

At the same time, empathy might be just what is needed to help a rider along, and to show that there is still humanity in the sport. Once again, Raphael Géminiani is perhaps the best example we can offer. His star rider Jacques Anquetil may have come across as cold and calculating, but deep down inside he craved the adoration that his rival Raymond Poulidor seems to earn effortlessly. Géminiani seems to have understood this better than most. Using encouragement, insult, challenge, and intimidation at different times, it can be argued that Gém, as he was affectionately known, brought the best out of Anquetil in the context of that era.

In 1965 the great Jacques Anquetil was persuaded by his manager/DS Raphael Géminiani to try the ridiculous: win the stage race Le Dauphine Libéré, and win the epic Bordeaux-Paris race which starts the following day. Nevermind that Bordeaux-Paris is a 560 km long epic race run partially behind a derny. Anquetil did win Le Dauphine against unyielding rival Raymond Poulidor (who reasonably had no plans to ride B-P the next day), but the effort was definitely non-trivial.

Following a plane ride and despite a long rain, Anquetil started quite strongly in Bordeaux-Paris on the first day. On the second day however, he faltered and seriously considered quitting, going as far as dismounting his bike and entering the team car. It took a mixture of charisma, charm, and denigrating insult for Géminiani to convince his star to re-mount the bicycle and rejoin the race, but that he did. At the time, Anquetil's double was considered one of the finest sporting accomplishments.

As a closing comment, don't forget that back in his riding days, Gém was known as Le Grand Fusil, aka Big Guns, for his terrible temper.

Attention to Detail
Not only does a great DS has to good manager of people and tactics, one also has to be a good manager of equipment and technical details. Failure to do so can lead to catastrophe, as Cofidis' Alain Bondue learned in the 2003 Tour de France when star rider David Millar dropped a chain in the prologue that everybody was sure he'd win, due to missing a front derailleur. All seems to have ended well for Bondue anyway, as he said he preferred team management to on-the-spot DS duties.

Innovative Mind
Paul Koechli is best known as the coach of La Vie Claire back when they had Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond as co-leaders. What he was prior, and what he has become since, is an innovator in sports training. From his perch in a snowy hamlet in Switzerland, he was one of the first to introduce the use of HRM and power measurements to professional cycling. He introduced the idea of meditation to none other than Bernard Hinault - can you imagine what it took to persuade the Badger to calm down, close his eyes and clear his mind for even a minute?

Teflon-like Ability to Avoid Blame
What happens when the rider whom you say was "like a son" turned out to be a doper? Enter Bjarne Riis' elegant back-pedaling. As Ivan Basso's fortunes rose, the duo of Basso and Riis were like a couple enjoying a honeymoon: manager Riis proudly announced that Basso was like a son to him and Basso pronounced Riis  "The person I owe the most to, outside my family." The exposing of Basso's relationship with Eufemiano Fuentes definitely put an abrupt end to that honeymoon, forcing Riis to take strong action at the eve of the 2006 Tour de France. Riis quickly claimed non-knowledge, although Riis had had to soften his rhetoric.

With the Alberto Contador case having just been exposed, how will Riis steer his team away from the storm?

A Great Belgian Woof-Shrug
Finally, as this blog is about classics races and most classics races are in Belgium, surely a great Belgian woof-shrug is a great asset for a DS. Just ask Wilfried Peeters. What is a "woof-shrug"? It's that forceful shrug accompanying an "oompf" sound, or "boff" if you are French, blowing hard enough to balloon your cheeks out. It's a universal declaration that things have gone awry, and that you are really really doing your damnest best, and that you kindly ask the self-flagellating monks brewing beer to pray for you, too. And in a hard race, appropriate moments may come more often than hoped.

Is a Shining Palmarés as a Rider Useful to a DS?
Many of you must wonder, what about history as a rider? Doesn't that help? We claim that it does not. We really wanted to say that it does help, but we just can't see it as an important factor. For every Alfredo Binda and Bjarne Riis - former very successful riders who became successful DS - we can offer Wilfried Peeters and Alain Bondue or even Manolo Saiz, a man who looks like he never rode a bike in his life.

Who do you think are the best of the current crop of directeur sportif? Are there important traits that we missed?

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