WHO WILL DOM­I­NATE THE SPRINTS?

Three-time green jer­sey win­ner Rob­bie McEwen talks us through the sprint­ers

Procycling - - Contents - Writer Ed­ward Pick­er­ing Photography Getty Images

T

he bunch sprints of the Tour de France are the most keenly con­tested of any bike race. As tech­nique and tac­tics have im­proved and de­vel­oped, the mar­gins be­tween the top riders have nar­rowed, and the fin­ishes have be­come closer and more finely-bal­anced.

Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, a sin­gle sprint train tended to dom­i­nate the lead-out at the Tour, cul­mi­nat­ing in Mark Cavendish and his HTC team. HTC took the tac­tics and the­ory de­vel­oped by riders and teams like Mario Cipollini and Saeco, worked at ev­ery de­tail and made them­selves al­most in­vin­ci­ble on the flat stages. Teams couldn’t com­pete head to head with that, so they evolved a sys­tem of guer­rilla war­fare, with late at­tacks by smaller cap­sule-style lead-out trains at­tempt­ing to come past the dom­i­nant train in the fi­nal kilo­me­tres. Marcel Kit­tel’s Ar­gos-Shi­mano team were bril­liant at this in 2013 and 2014.

For Rob­bie McEwen, who won three green jer­seys and 12 stages at the Tour in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this process has reached an­other log­i­cal con­clu­sion, which is a tense stand­off.

“It’s gone away a bit from the full-team lead­outs, to smaller sprint groups, maybe four or five guys,” he says. “You don’t get nine guys on the front any more. It’s ambush sprint trains. Who­ever blinks first and starts a lead­out is not go­ing to win. An­other team will come over the top of them. You used to see one train at the front, but now you’ll see four or five dif­fer­ent trains surf­ing off each other and any of them could be the one that gets it right on the day.” How­ever, the cu­ri­ous thing is that while the sprints are more frag­mented, the pat­tern of a sin­gle sprinter dom­i­nat­ing any given Tour still holds. Cavendish dom­i­nated each year be­tween 2008 and 2011. 2012 was the ex­cep­tion to this rule, with Cavendish and Greipel each tak­ing three stage wins. In 2013 and 2014, Marcel Kit­tel won four stages each year. It was An­dré Greipel’s turn in 2015, with four stage wins. And fi­nally, Cavendish bounced back last year with four stages.

“That’s partly a con­fi­dence thing on the part of the guy who is win­ning,” says McEwen. “And it gets per­pet­u­ated by the other sprint­ers. When some­body gets into that win­ning mode, the oth­ers tend to start fol­low­ing to get on his wheel. But when four or five guys are think­ing that, they spend en­ergy mess­ing each other up, while the guy they are fol­low­ing gets an easy ride. He wins again, so the next day ev­ery­body fol­lows him even more.”

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