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
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May could live to regret not putting Article 50 to a vote sooner

Today's Morning Call.

Theresa May will reveal her plan to Parliament, Downing Street has confirmed. They will seek to amend Labour's motion on Article 50 adding a note of support for the principle of triggering Article 50 by March 2017, in a bid to flush out the diehard Remainers.

Has the PM retreated under heavy fire or pulled off a clever gambit to take the wind out of Labour's sails while keeping her Brexit deal close to her chest? 

Well, as ever, you pays your money and you makes your choice. "May forced to reveal Brexit plan to head off Tory revolt" is the Guardian's splash. "PM caves in on plans for Brexit" is the i's take. "May goes into battle for Brexit" is the Telegraph's, while Ukip's Pravda aka the Express goes for "MPs to vote on EU exit today".

Who's right? Well, it's a bit of both. That the government has only conceded to reveal "a plan" might mean further banalities on a par with the PM's one-liner yesterday that she was seeking a "red white and blue Brexit" ie a special British deal. And they've been aided by a rare error by Labour's new star signing Keir Starmer. Hindsight is 20:20, but if he'd demanded a full-blown white paper the government would be in a trickier spot now. 

But make no mistake: the PM didn't want to be here. It's worth noting that if she had submitted Article 50 to a parliamentary vote at the start of the parliamentary year, when Labour's frontbench was still cobbled together from scotch-tape and Paul Flynn and the only opposition MP seemed to be Nicky Morgan, she'd have passed it by now - or, better still for the Tory party, she'd be in possession of a perfect excuse to reestablish the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. May's caution made her PM while her more reckless colleagues detonated - but she may have cause to regret her caution over the coming months and years.

PANNICK! AT THE SUPREME COURT

David Pannick, Gina Miller's barrister, has told the Supreme Court that it would be "quite extraordinary" if the government's case were upheld, as it would mean ministers could use prerogative powers to reduce a swathe of rights without parliamentary appeal. The case hinges on the question of whether or not triggering Article 50 represents a loss of rights, something only the legislature can do.  Jane Croft has the details in the FT 

SOMETHING OF A GAMBLE

Ministers are contemplating doing a deal with Nicola Sturgeon that would allow her to hold a second independence referendum, but only after Brexit is completed, Lindsay McIntosh reports in the Times. The right to hold a referendum is a reserved power. 

A BURKISH MOVE

Angela Merkel told a cheering crowd at the CDU conference that, where possible, the full-face veil should be banned in Germany. Although the remarks are being widely reported in the British press as a "U-Turn", Merkel has previously said the face veil is incompatible with integration and has called from them to be banned "where possible". In a boost for the Chancellor, Merkel was re-elected as party chairman with 89.5 per cent of the vote. Stefan Wagstyl has the story in the FT.

SOMEWHERE A CLOCK IS TICKING

Michael Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has reminded the United Kingdom that they will have just 15 to 18 months to negotiate the terms of exit when Article 50 is triggered, as the remaining time will be needed for the deal to secure legislative appeal.

LEN'S LAST STAND?

Len McCluskey has quit as general secretary of Unite in order to run for a third term, triggering a power struggle with big consequences for the Labour party. Though he starts as the frontrunner, he is more vulnerable now than he was in 2013. I write on his chances and possible opposition here.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Emad asks if One Night Stand provides the most compelling account of sex and relationships in video games yet.

MUST READS

Theresa May is becoming adept at avoiding defeats says George

Liv Constable-Maxwell on what the Supreme Court protesters want

Theresa May risks becoming an accidental Europe wrecker, says Rafael Behr

Get Morning Call in your inbox every weekday - sign up for free here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.