WHO WILL DOMINATE THE SPRINTS?
Three-time green jersey winner Robbie McEwen talks us through the sprinters
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.”