It can be nerve wrecking just to watch a major pro race sprint finish, let alone be in there. We caught up with some of the fastest finishers around, and their key helpers to find out what it’s all about.
Watching a fast moving bunch of top pro bike riders hurtling around greasy corners, dusting the verges with their pedals, grinding their elbows on the barriers, gritting their teeth and swallowing deep as they go through near impossible gaps is one of the most thrilling spectacles you could possibly witness in sporting terms.
One nanosecond of hesitation, a lapse of concentration or the slightest wrong move will more often than not mean the end of the glorious dream for a sprinter, and on many an occasion it could also mean biting the hard stuff at 70kph. It’s a tough and risky business, which is definitely not for the feint hearted.
Finely tuned risk calculation backed with nerves of steel, powered by thighs of dynamite and lungs the size of hot air balloons sharpened with the hunger of a starving lion are basic instincts that any sprinter must have if he has any hope of achieving glory.
Well before any grand tour, or any other race for that matter, a team and its chosen sprinter will have identified potential targets for victory. They will be the stages where they can use their devastating fast finishing abilities to the full. These are of course usually flat stages or races, or rolling at worst; as sprinters are not generally the best climbers; they are the thoroughbreds, it’s all logged in their DNA, as it is with a super climber. That’s not to say that there are not sprinters out there who can climb, or even climbers who can sprint – far from it; but at the sharp end of a sprint finish it’s a rough and ready battle. It’s a risk that most are not willing to take.
Earlier this season we caught up with a number of top sprinters along with their lead-out men and managers to delve a little deeper into their approaches to sprinting. On this occasion each and every one of them had a target firmly embedded in their minds, perhaps the biggest target of them all – Cav.
As he fine-tuned his form for the upcoming and ultimately ill fated Tour de France everybody was out to take a part in a scalping of the Manxman, and some did just that, while others would bide their time for a bigger and better opportunity.
The Tour of Turkey was also one of a growing band of ‘wireless’ races; race radios were banned here, which made for a less predictable and less controlled style of racing, meaning that teams and their trains had to ride a lot more on intuition than they normally do.
Andre Greipel, Lotto-Belisol
At 33 years of age the big and burly German national champion is still one of the fastest sprinters in the pro peloton, as he demonstrated with great effect in this year’s Tour de France.
The ‘Gorilla’ as he’s fondly known as has won multiple stages in all three grand tours; and that’s despite having served a large slice of his early career as a semi-enforced lead out man for the man he now considers his arch-rival – Mark Cavendish.
There’s no edge to the likeable German giant; he’s a straight talking, fast riding hard-man of the pro peloton. Following a rough and tumble early season he was not on his best sprinting form in Turkey, and he knew it. Despite having achieved great success in the same race in the past, this time around he knew that he was not quite sharp enough (yet) to rival Cav and Elia Viviani, and thus put his efforts into taking his chances in breakaway groups, making sure that he gave himself a tough workout along the way. It was a case of self-inflicted race-bred form building, which would pay huge dividends when his prime targets for the season came around; the German Championships and the Tour de France.
How different a sprinter is he to his rivals? “Well, of course, everybody is different in their style and approach. I’m bigger and older than Cav and some others, so I need to approach things slightly differently, to suit me. But I still have the power to reach the speed.”
It’s not only sprinters that aren’t even, the actual sprint terrain and situation vary greatly; “In any sprint we will try our best, but for me if it’s slightly uphill it suits me better. Either way if it’s a flat stage I have to try my best for a result.”
In this year’s Tour we saw Greipel back off a little in a sketchy and wet early sprint. How do you risk assess and know when to put your guts on the line? “I always think it’s a calculated risk. But I will never risk my life for this, and fortunately I think that I have the skills to get me out of trouble most of the time.”
His approach to a wet and difficult race finish changes depending on its location; “It depends on which country you are in; if it’s Italy or Spain you know that you cannot go around the corners like you would usually (because of the painting and other markings on the road), you must be aware of the conditions and surroundings.”
Having ridden as a reluctant wingman to Cav, you must know his moves and strategy inside out? “Every sprint is different. I never really take notice of any of the other sprinters. I rely a lot on my team and just concentrate on my lead-out guys and my sprint only; that’s how it is.”
Elia Viviani, Team Cannondale
He may be just 25 years of age, yet Elia Viviani is a man with a potentially very bright future ahead of him—should he be given a little more opportunity that is.
Elia came from a mixed track and road background, and he first made his mark on the world road stage in this very race back in 2010, when he scored an impressive stage victory. This time around he was to have a firm hold on the teams sprinting reins; and duly repaid the favour by scoring two very impressive stage victories; “It’s my first big race of the year, so I wasn’t 100% sure of my form; but I can feel my legs getting stronger every day,” he told us.
In his own right he is a superb all-rounder, and a prolific winner, who has somewhat been put at the beck and call of his teammate Peter Sagan so far. But it was Cav he outgunned in the two sprints; “He (Cav) was strong at first, and then I could see that he was not quite as powerful, or he was tiring, so took the opportunity, and I went longer than usual, which takes more out of a rider in these circumstances.”
Although he has a strong team around him, he is also a rider who likes to improvise and make his own way to the line on occasion; “I rely a lot on the team to control things and keep the race together, and to figure it out on the road – this time it was without radios. For me it’s better if the sprint is wide open; I like to go long.”
With heavy racing schedules and varied demands, do sprinters get much chance to hone and focus their skills for a specific race? “Not really; well, not the sprint specifically. All sprints are different and there are so many races, so it’s not easy to focus on one specific sprint, just to work on your form, and that high end form comes mostly from racing.”
Graeme Brown – Belkin
Brown is a rider with a very long and impressive palmares listed behind him. His biggest successes have arguably been on the track, where he’s scored both Olympic and World Championships wins.
On the road he’s put his track racing skills to good use, and has scored many single day victories and stage wins in races all over the world; predominantly is short-medium length stage races.
As a sprinter he has always been a rider who has pretty well found his own way to the line. He has a great tactical acumen, and an elbows out and aggressive sprinting style; “I don’t really sprint anymore; I just lead-out. At one time I would look for gaps and opportunities and take risks, but not anymore,” he mused.
Somehow he has never managed to cut it fine enough to score a grand tour stage victory, and in recent years his skills have been put at the service of another former track ace; Theo Bos, for whom he acts as a key lead-out rider; “Theo is a totally different type of sprinter to how I was. He likes a wide open and straight road (I used to like this too, but not now) and a good lead-out train, he’s very powerful.”
Being a part of one in later years was not something he was accustomed to at first, having ridden for smaller Italian teams during his early pro career; “It took a bit to get used to riding a train, but I do like it.”
Race radios also seem to play a huge part in the final of a sprint stage these days; do they change the way the team sprints? “I can take them or leave them; but I really do think that they should be utilised. We have the technology, so why hold things back. We should embrace that. Sure, at times it does make the racing a little more predictable, but I prefer to have radios.”
Henk Vogels, Drapac Porsche
Vogels served out a long and distinguished career as a pro rider; and spent much of his competitive time racing between European and American teams. In his own right he was a great sprinter, with a distinct liking for the northern classics, although he was to ride much of his time in the service of others – including Stuart O’Grady and then Robbie McEwan. He was instrumental in the many of the greatest victories achieved by these riders, and others.
In recent years he’s moved on to become a respected team manager, and is currently behind the wheel and the tactics of the Drapac team.
Drapac were racing as comparative underdogs in Turkey, with the young flying Dutchman Wouter Wippert strutting his sprint against the best in the world; “It’s a great race for us, a big opportunity – although we are not expecting big results, we’re riding against some of the best in the world, it’s more about experience and development, and the riders are learning very well, and without pressure.”
Despite their domination on the home front of the NRS it’s a whole different ball game when you’re up against the likes of Cav and Greipel; “In the NRS we do have sprint trains; there are some very good and strong teams out there. But, of course we’re here in Turkey to learn and progress more than anything. If Wouter or any of the others can get the attention of a big team or make a breakthrough, that would be a great result for us.”
Unfortunately it hadn’t all been sweet for the team, and Henk lamented slightly the lack of radios; “Riders do need communication during the race; for example, we had a really wet day here, and the descent was treacherous, I had riders on the ground because the rain came suddenly and I couldn’t warn them how bad the situation was ahead, a lot of riders went down – with radios that could have been avoided.”
Adam Hansen, Lotto-Belisol
One of the great under-sung heroes of the peloton is Adam Hansen, a rider of huge strength and great class, and one who has been instrumental in the fulfilment of many of team leader Andre Greipel’s successes over the years.
With Greipel not quite on fighting form in Turkey, Hansen and his teammates were given much more of an open hand when it came to playing their own race cards. He duly responded by showing great climbing form, which earned him a fine seventh place overall in the race; “I’m usually the guy that starts it all and then takes the lead-out train to the front. I must wait as long as possible and get the whole train in front of the peloton.”
As we can see from the outside that doesn’t always work out; “It’s difficult sometimes, because in some situations I must go early to get them out of trouble or to hold our position. But too early is also not good, so timing is often difficult to get spot on.”
In an ideal situation that train should have its carriages in perfect order; “I should put Sibi (Marcel Sieberg) in first place with 1km to go (meaning he should be right behind me), and in this case we should win every time… Sounds easy; but of course others have different ideas.”
Belief in your leader is vital; “If our train is right Greipel can will most times. We believe in him 100%.”
Hansen and Greipel also previously rode as teammates with their now arch rival Cav’. Does this help in the process? “Experience is gained every time you sprint, you do learn things…”
Cameron Wurf, Cannondale
Former Olympic rower Wurf is a latecomer to competitive cycling, and yet within just a few years of starting out he is already a pro in Europe; and cutting his teeth in the grand tours.
Wurf is a strong all-rounder, and a rider who can be seen throttling away on the front of the peloton in the closing stages of a race, pulling things together tightly for his team leader and sprinter Elia Viviani; “Elia is going great right now, and my job (and the rest of the team) is to try to control the pace and limit the gaps on the breaks, and then to try and pull them in at the right time and to lead him out,” he told us of his role.
It was also one of the first times that he’d ever raced without a radio, which was refreshing change for him; “I really enjoyed racing without the radios. It was a whole lot more relaxed in the peloton too; there was nobody screaming in your ear, the whole thing felt a lot more intuitive. It also made the racing better, we could allow a move to go and just hold it at two to three minutes without needing to hear about it all of the time, and that worked out much more relaxed for us when it came to controlling the race for Elia.”