Australia's Michael Rogers celebrates before crossing the finish line at the end of the sixteenth stage of the Tour de France, July 22, 2014. Photo: AFP/ Eric Feferberg/Getty
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Explained: how to win a Tour de France sprint

The Tour de France reaches a climax this weekend as the cyclists head towards the Champs-Élysées final stage. Here's the theories, tactics and sprints behind the race to the finishing line. 

The final dash to the line in a Tour de France sprint finish may appear to the bystander to be a mess of bodies trying to cram into the width of a road, but there is a high degree of strategy involved. It takes tactics, positioning and, ultimately, power.

The perfect sprint
In a perfect race, the best execution of a sprint win does not always come down to one rider. It is often the result of the work of teammates too. The back story to a winning sprint may have started hours before the finish line is in sight.

During the stage, riders who have little chance in the finale will try their luck to beat the pack by being part of a “breakaway” – they jump clear of the peloton and then hope to outrun the others to the line. But if any team wants the stage to end in a mass sprint, it will check the speed of this breakaway and typically calculate how quickly the riders in it could be reeled in. Catch them too soon and new attacks may go clear (meaning more work for the interested teams to chase down), leave it too late and the breakaway wins. In stage 15, this approach got tested when New Zealand rider Jack Bauer spent all day in the breakaway. He finally was caught just 20 metres from the finish line by the sprinters. The sport can sometimes be very cruel.

Commentators typically suggest that on flat terrain, the ideal controllable gap is roughly one minute per ten kilometres between a breakaway and the chasing pack. Towards the end of a stage, the interested teams supply riders to power into the wind and slowly close this gap down. The breakaway should then hopefully be caught with a handful of kilometres left to go.

At this point, the sprint-orientated teams deploy what is known as a leadout “train”. This train is made up of as many riders as possible from the same team. Each team member on the front then rides at a maximum effort before peeling off. The team’s designated sprinter is at the back of this train and is intentionally sheltered by the efforts of those riding in front to save his energy. It has been demonstrated that with four cyclists riding in a line, a rider positioned four men back only has to produce 64 per cent of the power of the rider at the very front.

If the leadout pace is high, the racing will be fast enough to discourage any late attacks from other riders. When viewing overhead TV footage, if the speed is high, the head of the main pack will have a pointed arrowhead-like shape to it. If the speed is at its highest though, you’ll see the peloton instead strung out into a very long, thin line. This is hard work for everyone but actually provides a safer and more controllable path for the riders through the final kilometres.

The penultimate rider in a sprint train is referred to as the leadout. This person puts in the last effort to position the sprinter sheltering behind. Ideally, the sprinter is then finally only exposed at the front with around 200 metres to go. When this happens, a winning sprinter like Mark Cavendish will cover this final portion in around 11 seconds.

Freelancing
If a sprinter doesn’t have the use of a leadout train – which does happen – he can “freelance”. This makes the opposition teams do the work before the sprinter leapfrogs around the group, hopefully ending up directly behind another sprinter with enough time to beat him to the finish line. In this case, a sprinter from one team effectively becomes the leadout for another.

On some occasions, no single team is able to control the final run to the line at all. From the air, the shape of the peleton in this case becomes broad at the front and spread across the full width of the road. When this happens, the chances of crashes are higher as rival leadout trains jostle for position and riders leap from wheel to wheel looking for shelter.

First week desperation
The first stage of this year’s Tour de France was unusual as it was likely going to result in a bunch sprint. The first rider past the post would not only get a stage win for their team but would also get to wear the yellow jersey as overall leader. With such a prestigious prize on the line, this meant more riders were involved and willing to take the risks, ramping up the chances for a crash.

Crashes normally occur when riders touch the wheels of other riders around them or lose control of their bicycles. In stage one this year, aggression played a part as Mark Cavendish and Australian Simon Gerrans battled to follow the wheel of Slovakian sprinter Peter Sagan. Sometimes riders realise they have nowhere to go and have to delay their sprint or wait for a gap to open up. Some opt for more punchy tactics though, using shoulders, elbows or heads to force gaps to open up between them and other riders. In stage one, Cavendish was boxed in, tried to force his way out and took both men down.

One of the most dramatic examples of a sprint crash is the first stage in the 1994 event when a policeman who was manning the finish straight barriers decided to lean out to take a photo of the finish.But he underestimated both how fast and how close the riders were to him. Belgian Wilfried Nelissen (who had his head down) crashed into him and was thrown nearly 50 metres down the road with multiple broken bones. Another competitor, French cyclist Laurent Jalabert took the crash full-force in the face and his bicycle was destroyed in the impact.

Ultimately the perfect sprinter is a rider who expends as little energy as possible on the day, is deposited by others in the right place at the right time and has the ability to make fast judgement calls as the shape of the peloton changes around them. Marcel Kittel and his Giant Shimano team have shown everyone else how it’s done so far in 2014, but the prestige sprint stage on the Champs Élysées this weekend will give his rivals (Cavendish excepted) a final chance to put the theory into practice.

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Can the disciplined Democrats defeat Trump’s maelstrom of chaos?

The Democratic National Convention has been exquisitely stage-managed and disciplined. But is it enough to overcome Trump’s news-cycle grabbing interventions?

The Democratic National Convention did not begin auspiciously.

The DNC’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was unceremoniously launched as if by an ejector-seat from her job on the eve of the convention, after a Wikileaks dump of internal emails painted a picture of a party trying to keep the insurgent candidate, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, from blocking Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination.

One email, in which a staffer suggests using Sanders’ Jewish faith against him as a candidate in order to slow his insurgent campaign, was particularly damning in its optics and Schultz, who had tweeted with some hubris about her Republican opposite number Reince Priebus during last week’s Republican convention in Cleveland, had to fall on her sword.

Clinton’s pick of Tim Kaine as a running-mate – a solid, safe, and unexciting choice compared to a more vocal and radical campaigner like Elizabeth Warren – was also criticised, both by the media, with one commentator calling him “a mayonnaise sandwich on wholewheat bread”, and by the left of the party, who still held out hope that the Democratic ticket would have at least one name on it who shared the radical vision of America that Sanders had outlined.

On top of that, Kaine, who is a Catholic, also disappointed many as a vice-presidential pick because of his past personal history of opposition to abortion. Erin Matson, the co-director of the reproductive rights group ReproAction, tweeted that Kaine being added to the ticket was “tremendously disappointing”.

On the other side, Donald Trump had just received a poll bump following a terrifying speech which recalled Richard Nixon’s 1968 convention address. Both speeches appealed to fear, rather than hope; many are calling Trump’s keynote his “Midnight in America” speech. Just before the Democrats convened, analyst par excellence Nate Silver and his site, 538.com, forecast Trump’s chance of victory over Clinton in November at above 50 per cent for the first time.

On top of that, Bernie Sanders more vocal supporters arrived at the Democratic convention – in Philadelphia in the grip of a heatwave – in relative force. Protests have already been more intensive than they were at the RNC, despite all expectations to the contrary, and Sanders delegates disrupted proceedings on the first day by booing every mention of Hillary Clinton’s name.

But then, things appear to turn around.

The second day of the convention, which saw Hillary Clinton formally nominated as the first female presidential candidate in American history, was less marred by protest. Bernie Sanders addressed the convention and endorsed his erstwhile rival.

Trump’s inability to stop prodding the news cycle with bizarre non-sequiturs turned the focus of what would otherwise be a negative Democratic news cycle back onto him; an unforced error which led to widespread, if somewhat wild, speculation about his possible links with Putin in the wake of the news that Russia had been behind the email hack and lightened some of the pressure on the Democrats.

And then Michelle Obama took the stage, delivering an oration of astonishing power and grace (seriously, watch it – it’s a masterclass).

Compared with the RNC, the Democratic National Convention has so far been exquisitely stage-managed. Speakers were bookended with pithy, designed-for-virality videos. Speakers started on time; headliners played in primetime.

Both Trump and Clinton have now addressed their conventions before their headline speech remotely, via video link (Trump also engineered a bizarre early-convention pro-wrestling-style entrance), which put observers of both in mind of scenes from V for Vendetta.

But the imagery of Clinton’s face appearing on screen through a graphic of shattering glass (see what she did there?) will likely be one of the moments that sticks most in the memory of the electorate. It must kill the reality TV star to know this, but Clinton’s convention is getting better TV ratings so far than the RNC did.

Michelle Obama’s masterful speech in particular provided stark contrast with that of Melania Trump – an especially biting contrast considering that parts of the latter’s speech last week turned out to have been plagiarised from the former. 538’s forecast saw Clinton slide – barely – back into the lead.

A mayonnaise sandwich Tim Kaine might be, but he is nonetheless looking like a smart pick, too. A popular senator from a key swing state – Virginia – his role on the ticket is not to be a firebrand or an attack-dog, but to help the former secretary of state reach out to the moderate middle that Trump appears to be leaving entirely vacant, including moderate Republicans who may have voted for Mitt Romney but find Trump’s boorish bigotry and casual relationship with the truth offputting. And the electoral mathematics show that Trump’s journey to victory in the electoral college will be extremely difficult if Kaine swings Virginia for Clinton.

Ultimately, the comparison between the Democratic convention in Philadelphia so far and last week’s chaotic, slapdash and at times downright nutty effort in Cleveland provides a key insight into what this election campaign is going to be like: chaos and fear on one side, but tight discipline on the other.

We will find out in November if discipline is enough to stop the maelstrom.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.