Although the first few flat stages weren't really sprint stages, or even flat for that matter, the Tour de France turns now to the segment of the race that veteran Tour watchers will recognize as standard first week stuff. Sprints. Stages without selective hills or tricks at the end. Stages made for everyone to arrive together, and wind up the bunch gallop for a fast-flying show.
So what does it take for the guy who wins to, you know, be the guy who wins? A lot of different things. Let's poke around here.
1. Be Wicked Fast
Obvious, but of course you can't enter the conversation without putting together a ripping sprint. Mark Cavendish is hands down the fastest finisher in Cycling over the last couple years. Those kinds of fast-twitch fibers don't stay supple forever, so how long he'll hold the title remains to be seen, but for once there is little doubt. Sprinting is largely a matter of being able to stomp huge wattage onto your pedals in an otherwise effective way, for long enough to win the race. Cavendish is said to put out some 1300 watts in a sprint (for reference, Alberto Contador supposedly averaged 450 watts for about 6km of the Verbier climb in last year's Tour). Tom Boonen of Quick Step, a former Green Jersey winner who unfortunately is home with a bad knee, has allegedly topped 1600 watts, and won more than his share of sprints in the process.
But of course power isn't the only pure physical attribute, and Cavendish excels against the bigger, stronger sprinters in large part because of his low, compact profile which is more aerodynamic than most of the others. And a sprinter's maximum achievable power doesn't mean much if he can't summon it at the end of a long, hard race. Milano-Sanremo, the first "monument" (mega-classic race) of the year, looks good for sprinters but at almost 300km in length, even the sprinters who make it to the last km intact don't always produce. Be slightly wary of guys who rack up sprint wins in shorter, easier races and then show up at the Tour. It's not apples to apples.
2. Time it just so
Being "faster" in one instant isn't all there is to it. How long you can hold your top sprint effort will also determine your ability to win. Cavendish is known for sprinting only the last 200 meters. Australian Robbie McEwen, the top sprinting star of the early 2000s, is famous for winning in the last 50 meters, hiding behind the others only to appear out of nowhere at the very last second. On the other end of the spectrum, Italian Alessandro Petacchi -- a rival of McEwen's throughout the decade -- is known to wind up his sprint with about 400 meters to go, and hold it. His instant speed isn't the same as Cavendish's, but if you're behind him it's fast enough and lasts long enough so it becomes extremely hard to pass him.
It's interesting to watch guys who haven't quite learned this part. Edvald Boasson Hagen, the young Norwegian star of Team Sky, had a strong winter run of sprints, but prior to that he had a habit of starting his sprint at 400 meters and being passed at the end, unable to hold it from quite that far out. I haven't seen him lately so don't quote me on exactly where his window is, but it's inside 400 meters for sure.
Along similar lines, you often see guys passed just after they cross the line. That's an indication that the challenger may have started his sprint too late. If he bangs on his handlebars in disgust, that's an even clearer indication.
3. A Little Help from Your Friends
Why would a sprinter start too early or too late? The front of a bunch sprint is extremely chaotic, and if you're negotiating it alone you have to jump at whatever chance opens up for you. At 450 meters you might find your self completely boxed in, but then someone passes on your left, the person boxing you in moves into the passer's slipstream, and suddenly daylight opens up at 300 meters. Time to go -- another, better chance probably isn't coming. [Also, a rider who starts his sprint at 150 meters on average needs to know the road. If it's slightly uphill, for example, or there's a headwind, that 150 ideal spot suddenly moves to 100 meters before the line.]
Riders can take the guesswork out of timing their sprint by having a leadout train which is arranged to create the perfect opening to fire up the final sprint at the exact moment the sprinter seeks. Lately HTC-Columbia has been the best, certainly in 2009 if not as clearly lately. Regardless, the idea is to have maybe four guys who move to the front with the sprinter, and go at a planned pace -- fast enough to prevent other teams from passing -- for a set interval. Maybe Maxime Monfort or Adam Hansen get on the front of the race with 3km to go and try to take pulls to about 1.5km. Then Bernhard Eisel, a sprinter himself who's content to help his teammate win, will pull at an even higher speed down to about 800 meters. Then Mark Renshaw, another sprinter, winds himself up in full cry for the run to about 200m to go, when he then moves aside for Cavendish to finish it off. Don't quote me on the exact names of who goes where and when, but you get the idea.
Sounds simple, but there's only room for one leadout train to dominate the race. You will sometimes see competing trains, and if they're of equal strength, then chaos ensues. But for the last two years HTC have had their act down pat: they ride fast enough to make it very hard for anyone to challenge their position on the front, and they usually have their timing down well. Garmin have been desperate to elbow HTC out of the way and set up their own train for Tyler Farrar. It hasn't often happened yet, but with HTC's grip on the front slipping lately, the opportunity for Garmin or another (healthier) team is there.
Another main reason riders like their own leadout train is to save energy. In theory a guy on his own can just muscle into someone else's train, or sit behind it, and get almost the same advantage as the guy with the train. In practice, that isn't really the case if there's more than two sprinters vying for the win, which is usually the case, especially at the Tour. So what happens is a shoulder-to-shoulder scrum breaks out around the wheel of a Cavendish, as the #2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 guys all want that coveted spot behind #1. This kind of position battle takes energy, and in order to beat Cavendish you can't afford to squander any resources. If you don't win the battle, being forced backward or to try your luck out of a different line of riders, then your chances are even dimmer. And even if you do win the battle for his wheel, you're still sprinting against the top guy from one bike length further back.
Anyway, the other things teams obviously do for their lone guy is get him drinks and keep him sheltered. As has been much discussed already they also try to get him up close to the front in the middle of the race, though not everyone can be in prime position at one time. Physics and all. And in the middle portion of a stage a good team will control the race to assure a sprint happens. They do this by riding at the front and keeping an eye on potential attacks. And when the inevitable break is up the road, a good team will keep the pace high and reel in that break at the right time. It's all about maximizing a sprinter's chances.
So Does It Work?
Ah, the best laid plans... Today was an example of how drawing it up on the board and making it happen aren't the same thing. Every stage is different, different winds and roads and sensations in everyone's legs for a million different reasons. But while predictability rules at times, this year it doesn't seem likely.
Check out the above picture from today -- there's nothing resembling order. HTC Columbia started the sprint action, by slowly reeling in the break and winding up the final KM, intending to train Cavendish right to the line. But they didn't have two major elements: adequate speed and control. In past years George Hincapie would make sure they were exactly where they needed to be -- he is one of the true masters of finding a position in the bunch. But now he's at BMC, shepherding Cadel Evans into safety rather than taking Mark Cavendish into sprint position. HTC also couldn't keep the pace high enough to dominate the last few km. The key is to go so fast in your leadout that another leadout train has to go full gas just to keep their position 20 meters back. HTC have managed this at times this season in smaller races (after two rather expert years of sprint train execution), but the Tour de France is far more competitive in every respect than other races, and HTC simply didn't have the firepower to seal the deal.
Even still, Mark Renshaw towed Cavendish close to his dropoff point, and perhaps Cav could have won anyway, but he gave up after a few hard turns. Cavendish doesn't disparage his chances lightly, so I would assume he's off form, or was today anyway. Don't count him out. Alessandro Petacchi had a teammate or two around, and while he didn't have a train to lead him all the way, it was enough support and he found himself where he wanted to be to launch his patented extra-long sprint. Robbie McEwen tried to poach the win as he cleverly has done so many times, and Edvald Boasson Hagen got towed nicely into position, but once Petacchi was out of the bunch it was all over. Today was a day where nobody's tactics were all that significant and the sprint devolved into luck and chaos. Petacchi's luck and legs were a little better than the rest, and that was enough.
For more analysis, check out the chat in our last post-stage chat. Lots of great insight today about the finale.
Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport