What is... a Satellite Rider
A term often used in regards to team-based tactics in cycling races, but what is... a satellite rider?
A satellite rider is a rider that is sent forward during the build-up phase of a race - to a breakaway or group ahead of the team leader - as a pawn that comes into play later in the race for said team leader.
Most recently, the concept of satellite riders came into play during the sixth stage of Itzulia Basque Country 2021.
With a short, climb-filled stage on the menu, many riders would likely attempt to venture into the daily breakaway. A key aspect to this stage is its uphill start. The Arribinieta, Elkorrieta and Azurki climbs would make the initial breakaway attempts harder to control for the team of the leader.
As this was the finale of the Basque stage race, it was the last chance for riders to attack the race leader, in an attempt to turn the race upside down.
For contextual purposes, Brandon McNulty led the general classification by a mere 23 seconds over Primoz Roglič - arguably the best one-week stage racer over the last three years.
A number of teams were represented in the top 10 within a 1:30 deficit to McNulty. Thus, a number of teams were incentivised to make an early move - as 1:30 would be impossible to overtake on the final Aratte climb alone.
On the third ascent of the day - the Azurki climb, teams activated their satellite riders.
Antwan Tolhoek and Sam Oomen broke away for Roglič.
Astana sent Omar Fraile forward for Ion Izagirre.
Enric Mas and Carlos Verona were Movistar’s satellite riders for Alejandro Valverde.
An arquably questionable decision, but Marc Hirschi followed Sam Oomen to the breakaway - despite his team pacing back this breakaway in the background.
On the descent of the next climb, Astana’s Aranburu dropped the hammer, with absolute devilish descending. His team leader - another daredevil in regards to descending, Izagirre, was glued to his backwheel. Additionally, Valverde and Roglič were capable of following the Astana riders.
Unfortunately for McNulty and Pogačar, a gap opened up behind Roglič. Their positioning going into the descent was not optimal, reducing their ability to respond quickly to the sudden blitzkrieg by Astana.
Aranburu pushed forward and brought Izagirre, Roglič and Valverde to the first group - where their satellite riders were all present. Now, the second phase activated.
The satellite riders that were in the breakaway, were now able to pace hard for their team leaders, to expand the gap on Pogačar and McNulty.
Hirschi was called back by the UAE DS to help out McNulty and Pogačar in the chasing group.
As a direct consequence of moving these pawns into the breakaway earlier in the stage, these teams obtained a numerical advantage in regards to domestiques over the chasing group.
Eventually, this move led to Primoz Roglič winning the overall classification of Itzulia Basque Country 2021.
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