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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change