Riding the Leadout Train

Jul 27 2009

Barry Hoban, who’s spent the past two years losing his legacy as England’s Greatest Sprinter to Mark Cavendish, was never a fan of Mario Cipollini.

Aside from the Italian’s inevitable Grand Tour abandons and grandiose showmanship between stages, I think Hoban also took issue with the fact that Cipollini did so little work coming into the line. The red train simply turned out the watts—to record-setting effect—and Cipo’ took over at 300m to go.

I’m hoping that after yesterday’s Champs Elyssses stage, Hoban, who was always more of a man for the classics will have a little more respect for exactly what it takes to ride that train to the line:

At 0:13 0:22 (video replaced, 9 Aug 2018), Renshaw and Cavendish have to match Hincapie’s by-no-means-soft acceleration across the road, without slamming into the rider in front of them or deviating the slightest bit from their teammates’ slipstream.

Half-wheeling or overlapping simply isn’t an option; other than the crash risk, the places lost by Dean and Farrar as they cross between lines and reintegrate (read: barge and elbow in) behind Cav—though probably into him, at first—illustrate perfectly the high cost of riding in the wind at this speed.

Then there’s the matter of line selection: entering the next-to-last corner, Hincapie had either started to fade, or had eased off, not wanting to pull a Matteo Tosatto. Julian Dean, perhaps sensing a rare gap in the Columbia-Highroad armor, accelerated around the American, and began gunning for the gap between Renshaw and Cav, on what would be a suicidal trajectory around the final bend.

Now let’s look at things from the Briton’s perspective. Renshaw is gunning it hard around the final corner, on a line that practically kisses the barriers. Julian Dean is coming into you with a head of steam on a potential collision course. Plus you’ve already got the bike so far over that you’re “sh**ting yourself”—and this on top of the stress and fatigue from 21 days of all-out racing.

When it all comes out in the wash, and you end up gapping the field with your leadout man, it does indeed make it look like you barely broke a sweat. But a second’s hesitation, loss of nerve, a brush of the brakes, or a shoulder bump you didn’t see coming, and you’re back in the bunch with the rest of the also-rans—or worse—and someone else is saluting the crowd on the backs of your teammates.

Obviously, for riders like Cavendish and Cipollini, the lead-out train is a tremendous tactical advantage. But as riders like Robbie McEwen have shown time and time again, they can be beaten—and regardless of your competition, riding one into the line is seldom ever easy.

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