How Does a Tour de France Sprint Work?
Your guide to the organised chaos that is a Tour de France sprint finish. – Joe Lindsey
We have a whole separate piece on the breakaway, but we’ll recap shortly here: primary responsibility for holding a steady gap to a breakaway lies with the race leader’s team. But protocol, sportsmanship, whatever you want to call it, holds that on days that are likely sprint finishes, sprinters’ teams also contribute a rider each to the chase. They may contribute more than one as the race goes on, particularly if the break is proving more unruly than expected and harder to catch.
The riders who perform this thankless task are as essential as they are invisible –sturdy rouleurs like Lotto-Soudal’s Adam Hansen, who can put out dependably high power for hours on end.
The 2017 Tour is the first in history to have all stages broadcast start to finish; typically, broadcasts would show only the final two or so hours, meaning that the yeoman’s work of holding a steady gap takes place entirely outside the TV audience’s view. When you see riders from teams like Lotto-Soudal, Quick Step and Katusha finishing far down the standings in the “grupetto” even on flat stages, remember: they’re not out of shape or sick; they just did a lot of work early in the race that you didn’t see.
As the race gets closer to the finish, the pace creeps up. An ideal catch comes with roughly 10-20 km to go. Once the catch is made, the sprinters’ teams will keep the pace very high, to discourage counterattacks from developing. At this point, the race will be traveling at about 50 kilometres an hour.
With about 10km to go, you’ll see the team “trains” start to form. These are four-to-six rider pacelines that move to the front of the peloton and lift the pace even higher. There are three goals: discourage breakaways by holding a pace so fast that solo riders can’t get clear; keep their team’s designated sprinter protected up front, where there’s less risk of crashes; and keep that sprinter in good position for the final showdown.
Early on in a train, the sprinter’s teammates will rotate through a paceline, trading pulls, but from 10km down to about 1km to go is a chaotic time in the race. One team will hit the front hard with five riders, and things will briefly organise behind them. Then another team’s train will come forward and overhaul the first. Or the first train will somehow disintegrate as one or more riders discovers that they don’t actually have the legs that day to produce the supra-threshold efforts they need to.
Power files, which you’ll sometimes see posted to training sites like Strava or TrainingPeaks or SRM, can be fascinating ways to understand this crucial point in the race. In 2016, SRM analysed Stage 1 power for Christophe LaPorte, the leadout man for Cofidis who became the team’s sprinter when Nacer Bouhanni didn’t start; LaPorte’s mean power for the last three kilometres was 499 watts, with an average speed of 68 km/h. In the last 2km, it jumps to a massive 607 watts— and keep in mind that as a leadout rider those values are largely before the final, frenzied 30-second bunch sprint.
As these trains duel, crashes are a constant risk as riders jostle and bump for position. Remember that one of the roles of a train is to keep a sprinter in protected position, especially in the final two kilometres, when the train leads out the sprint. A leadout works like a single-pull paceline, where each rider in line does a max-effort pull and then swerves off and fades back into the pack— kind of like segments coming off of a launching rocket when their fuel is spent. At the end of the line is the sprinter, who will sit relatively protected from the wind until the final 200 metres, when he opens his own sprint. (Again, protection from the wind is relative here, as you can see from LaPorte’s power numbers the last few minutes of the race).
Leadout trains can seem like fine-tuned machines, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. A sprinter can get bumped off the wheel of his teammate and lose contact with his train. He can get squeezed and have to brake, and lose precious position in the pack (sprinters want to be in the top 20 or so riders entering the final kilometre). Or the train itself may lose momentum if even one rider is tired and can’t sustain quite the same pace. And of course, there’s also usually a fight to get on the back wheel of whichever sprinter is thought to have the best form or chance that day.
Trains can form and fall apart in the matter of seconds, even as the race shifts and morphs all around like a murmuration of starlings. Complicating things is that not all sprinters have leadout trains. You’ll see BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, for example, mixing it up in some sprint finishes, but his team is focused on protecting overall contender Richie Porte, not delivering him to the front.
When the television coverage switches to an overhead shot, particularly right after the finish when they show a slow-motion replay, watch for the green jersey as he looks for the right wheels to follow and tries not to get boxed in between two slower riders, or between a rider and the barriers. Watch also for the way that these riders fight to defend a position, or take it from another rider. Live and at full speed, it’s easy to miss; it’s often easier to see during the replay. But the little nudges with the head, dropping an elbow over another rider’s elbow to assert position, or shouldering past another rider are, as much as raw power, the stuff of which great sprinting is made. Sprinters’ bike-handling skills are literally marvelous.
Into the last 500 metres, typically the trains have been reduced to maybe one teammate, in the throes of a final, desperate, hypoxic lunge. This is the leadout rider. The leadout is a decent sprinter (like LaPorte, or Dimension Data’s peerless Mark Renshaw), but their value lies in producing an acceleration that is almost as high as their teammate can muster. At the last possible moment, the sprinter slingshots out of the draft and goes around the leadout for the win. That’s the theory, anyway. If everything in your leadout train goes perfectly to plan, you might win 30 per cent of the time (that’s according to Rolf Aldag, a former leadout man who’s now a director at Dimension). That’s what riders like Quick Step’s Marcel Kittel look for; Kittel in particular benefits from a textbook leadout; his team has one of the best and when it’s clicking, he’s tough to beat. (So is Lotto-Soudal’s Andre Greipel).
But leadout riders aren’t robots, and all sprints are different. Sometimes the train fizzles too far from the line, leaving a sprinter exposed to the wind. Or the sprinter mis-times his or her jump, going to early and flaming out, or going too late running out of real estate before the finish line comes. That’s when things get messy. Stages that finish on slight climbs, or into headwinds, are notorious for messy sprints. At that moment, it’s every sprinter for himself, and that’s where riders like Sagan and Cavendish excel.
The winning margins in sprints are sometimes so small that photo-finish cameras must be used to determine a winner. Stages have been won and lost by less than the width of a tyre, which is why in the final few metres, you’ll see the riders throw their bikes forward toward the finish line.
Sprint stages overall aren’t always the most exciting to watch; sometimes the action can seem static, the tactics inscrutable. But there’s little in sports that surpasses the thrill of those last few frenzied kilometres: the catch, the leadouts and the final dash to the line.
Fastest road stage: Mario Cipollini, 50.4km/h, 1999
Top speeds in finish sprints: 65-70km/h
Peak wattage output: Andre Greipel, 1,900 watts