Cycle Sport’s Our Man in the Bunch series ran through the 2012 season, to popular acclaim. An anonymous professional rider sent us a series of dispatches from the peloton, covering all subjects from money, through media to management and more. We reproduce the series here.
Words by Our Man in the Bunch
Illustration by Simon Scarsbrook
This article originally appeared in Cycle Sport January 2013
You’ve seen it on the television. A flat stage of the Tour. There’s a break, then a chase and catch, then a lead-out, then Mark Cavendish wins. If you have the fastest sprinter in the race on your team, it’s generally left to your team to control the stage. And, as we talked about last month, letting the break go is the first part of your job.
The composition of the break is key. First, no sprinters allowed. Not only do they have a potential free ride to the finish, their team will not have to chase. Second, don’t let too many riders up the road. In short, neither quality nor quantity.
On flat stages, achieving that isn’t normally difficult, because most of the riders in the bunch are aware that their chances of staying away are minimal, so there simply aren’t as many riders wanting to get up the road in the first place. Also, if there are any small roads at the start, it’s a great opportunity to get your whole team to the front and ‘block the road’ once a couple of riders have gone clear. By that, I mean riding side-by-side, right across the road, so that riders simply aren’t able to get through to attack even if they want to. It’s unsubtle, but it’s surprisingly easy to do, especially if there’s the will from other teams.
It sounds almost like cheating, but there are no rules against it.
Once the break has gone, you want to let them get a reasonable gap — you might think it would be easier to keep them close to make your job easier, but the problems with that are that, firstly, the break might get demoralised and give up, and secondly, there might be some riders from the bunch who decide they are capable of bridging across on a climb, increasing the strength of the break. Once the gap is up to five minutes or so, depending on the size of the break and the length and profile of the stage, you need to start riding on the front.
The fewer riders you use at this point, the better, because you want to save as many as possible for the final lead-out.
There are some big ‘engines’, as we call them, who are perfect for this. I’ve seen riders like Grischa Niermann and Lars Bak control a three or four-man breakaway single-handedly, an ability that is priceless for any team, but especially a sprinter’s team. The rest of the stage should be relatively simple — make sure the gap is gradually coming down. You don’t want to catch them too early; all that does is spark new attacks from fresher riders. Ideally, you want to make the catch somewhere inside the last 10km.
Then comes the most important part of the day: the lead-out. These are becoming increasingly complicated, with more and more teams wanting to have a full lead-out. Just a few years ago, there was often only one team with the resources, ability and desire to make a full lead-out — think Saeco for Cipollini or Fasso Bortolo for Petacchi. When one of those teams took it up at the front, they were almost left to get on with it. The speed would be high, but you could see that they’d take a few breaths on the run in to a corner or roundabout, safe in the knowledge that other teams or riders wouldn’t be attempting to chop into their train. It was a luxury; these teams could judge things perfectly, saving enough energy to ensure that the speed continually ramped up right to the finish line.
These days, and especially this year without HTC, things have been different. Every sprinter wants a lead-out from his team — Sky for Cav (except at the Tour, perhaps), Lotto for Greipel, Argos for Kittel or Degenkolb, GreenEdge for Goss, Garmin for Farrar, etc. Basically, try and take control from too far out and you’re going to run out of gas too early and get swamped by other teams.
Four to five kilometres is about as far as you can expect to control things even with a full team commitment. Once you are in control, there is only so much you can do to ensure you remain in the front with the whole train. If it’s windy, you need to hug the opposite side of the road to that which the wind is coming from, which means that, if another team wants to come up, they’ve got to do it into the wind, using extra energy.
It’s the same for the sprinter himself; when he launches his sprint, he will hug the barrier so as not to give any shelter to riders coming from behind. You can also sway across the road gently, particularly on rolling roads. The problem when controlling the bunch on rolling roads is momentum. If you’re riding on the front as a team, on a downhill, your speed will scrub off quite quickly when the road begins to rise again, while riders and teams in the shelter behind can keep their extra speed and momentum from the downhill and use it to sail past.
One way of solving this is to move gradually from one side of the road to the other as the road tilts upwards. If you were riding on the left, the riders directly behind you would be going almost exactly the same speed, with no more momentum than you, while the riders behind you on the right will have clean air in front of them. Moving slowly over to the right-hand side of the road will prevent teams from collectively moving in front of you, or individual riders from attacking.
Once in the final kilometre, if you’re still in control, tactics are minimal. If the sprinter thinks his last man is slowing, he might leave a small gap and take what is called a sprinter’s run, increasing his speed, still in the slipstream, and coming around the wheel when he gets back up to his team-mate. If the team really slows down far too early, the sprinter will have to gamble and let a couple of other riders come past. Cav did this on stage 18 of this year’s Tour. Despite some great help from his team, notably Wiggins and Boasson Hagen near the end, he sensed that his lead-out would be finished too soon, and allowed a rider or two from Lotto-Belisol to come in front of him through the last corner. As it was, he still ended up doing a long sprint and made everyone else look very average, but it’s that sort of tactical and positional awareness that separates riders of similar straight-line sprinting speed.
Wind and echelons
One last critical factor when considering your tactics for any given stage is the wind. If you’re on home roads, or you do your homework, you can wreak havoc in the peloton. If you’re a team with a GC contender, there is the possibility to put huge time gaps into your main rivals, before you even hit any mountains or time trials. This happens virtually every year in the early stages of Paris-Nice. If you’re a team without a GC rider, it’s simply a chance to increase your odds of a stage win.
With a headwind, a tailwind, or no wind, the biggest benefit of slipstreaming comes from sitting directly behind the rider in front. Once the wind changes to a crosswind, that advantage comes from sitting to the side of the rider in front. Whatever size of road you are racing on, there are only a limited number of riders who can gain this advantage before the whole width of the road is used. At this point, you’ll see riders clinging on for their lives in a line at the back of the echelon, hugging the edge of the road.
When an echelon first forms, the front group rotates into the wind just like any other pace line, with the riders hitting the wind at the front normally riding at over 550 watts before the next rider comes around them and they get back into the slipstream. As for the riders in that long line down the edge of the road, they will have to produce a similar amount of power constantly. The fact that this can only be sustained for a short period of time is what will create the first split. It will happen; it’s just a matter of when.
This year’s Paris-Nice is a good recent example. On stage two to Orléans, the bunch split to pieces, with half of the GC hopefuls effectively eliminated. Leipheimer, Westra, Valverde and eventual overall winner Wiggins were all in the right place at the right time.
Up a rung
For a masterclass in echelons, you need look no further than the Tour of Qatar each year. It’s the only race I’ve ever been to where you’ll often see experienced professional riders warming up before the stage. On the start line, far from the relaxed chatter you might normally see at other races, riders are nervously edging forward, with heart rates racing before they’ve even clipped both feet in.
This location, despite its barren landscape, could make for a more interesting World Championships than ever when they take place here in 2016. Contrary to the normal weak early break with the big-hitters waiting until the last lap scenario, we could see the favourites having to be part of the action from the start. That’s the thing with racing in the wind: if you don’t make the first move to split the bunch, someone else will — flick or be flicked, as they say in Belgium.
So there you have it, the enormous topic of professional cycling tactics covered in two issues.
In fact, I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I hope that I have shown you that there is often more going on in races than meets the eye, even for the more experienced and knowledgeable fan.