Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
By Peter Cossins
Since the emergence of Jean-Paul van Poppel and, particularly, Mario Cipollini as the dominant performers in bunch sprinting, this aspect of racing has remained largely unchanged. The strongest sprinters, including the likes of Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel, have employed a string of domestiques to chase down breakaways and lead them out in the final gallop to the line.
When researching Full Gas, I asked Greg Henderson, who started out as a sprinter but then found his niche as Greipel’s lead-out man, for his perspective on this most combative and intense of finishes. The Kiwi describes a bunch sprint as being a crescendo: adrenalin and speed building steadily, then more rapidly, then insanely fast in the final kilometre. As a consequence, he says, everything takes place in slow motion.
“That might seem bananas, but it’s true,” Henderson insists. “In high-intensity situations the body does seem to do that, to make things move a little bit slower. It’s quite a weird sensation. That slow-motion effect is the same physiological adaption you get when you’re in car accident, for example, or when you crash your bike. You get the same massive adrenalin rush. The funny thing is that after the sprint you get back on the team bus and you only have a rough memory of it. You can’t remember exactly what happened.”
Henderson also confirms what Mark Cavendish and other sprinters say about there being no time for tactics in the final two hundred metres of a sprint. “It’s purely instinctive at that point. If you have the legs, the only thing you’re looking for is the line – if you’re boxed in, you look for a place to get out. There’s not a lot going through your thoughts at that moment, basically it’s just ‘go’ time and all you’ve got to worry about is the line.
“In fact, the only tactic we had apart from trying to stay together was for me to make sure that we always sprinted down the barriers. That way the others can only come past you on one side. There’s no point in sprinting down the middle of the road, because then the other sprinters can come past you on both sides. The key is to reduce the opportunities the other riders have to pass you.”
Over the past three or four seasons, bunch sprints have become more chaotic, particularly at the Tour de France, which always boasts the strongest line-up of sprinters. “It’s gone from having one or two sprint trains and the other sprinters having just one or two guys to look after them to pretty much every sprinter having a train these days,” says Kittel’s former road captain Koen de Kort. “It’s a lot harder to get it right now. It’s become a lot more frantic. It was easier when I was on the team with Marcel as most teams tended to look to us and one or two others to lead out. Now, it’s chaos.”
Henderson agrees with de Kort’s assessment. “You could argue that in terms of the number and quality of sprinters, the sport is in a bit of a golden age. There’s no one train that’s dominant any more. All of a sudden there are six or seven teams that were capable of a good lead-out, which hasn’t made it more dangerous, but harder to control the front and harder to win,” he reasons.
Returning his focus to the sprinters’ teams, the New Zealander says, “Because of the trains now, you can’t open it with 5k to go like they used to back in the day because everyone can match everyone else and, as a consequence, no one can hold a lead. Instead, from five ks to go you’re waiting and just trying to hold your position because you can actually only go flat out for the last 2k. Until that point, you’ve got to hang on to as many matches as possible and then light them in the last 2k when the fast guys can actually go full gas.”
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