The Trouble With Sprinting

Feb 21 2011

Theo Bos Waves by EdnlIt’s a complicated thing to be a sprinter in this sport. Riders without that taste for risk and a talent for velocity, especially at the lower levels of the sport, seem perpetually envious of the speed merchants.

But a strong finishing kick is not the blessing that it seems. There are many factors that play into success in the closing kilometers; a few you can control, many you can’t. And there never seems to be a consensus on exactly which matter most.

But the really tough thing for sprinters has got to be specializing in such a volatile currency. Halfway through a stage race, your career can be all but over, but a single win on the final day can suddenly restore the world’s faith. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, a separate group of riders can be contesting a sprint in a similarly difficult (UCI 2.1) event, and yet hardly a career inference is drawn.

A week from now, the sprints of Paris-Nice will render the previous two months’ flat finishes almost meaningless, and—disregarding the classics, where sprints are a different sort of animal—the Giro will do the same three months. Later. But will Tony Martin’s or Robert Gesink’s victories this past week be discounted in a similarly brusk fashion? It doesn’t feel that way to me.

For GC riders, things are more stable. A win in Oman or Algarve—or even a second-place—doesn’t seem to have the same short shelf-life as a sprint. Even for riders who’ve ridden well on tough stages but missed out on the final GC, there seems to be more to carry around in terms of reputation. Certainly, even in the early season, fifth on a tough mountain stage carries more weight at contract time than fifth in similar bunch sprint.

It seems like a strange dualism for a sport that tends to group any victory, regardless of prestige or circumstance, into a faceless tally called “wins”. Even the points system finally established with the WorldTour does little to unravel the curious differences in win value. There’s no question that a win atop Ventoux in the Tour is worth far more than sprinting to second at Vattenfalls, but in fact, the later rated three times as heavily as the former.

Call it a fact of economics, I suppose. A glut of winning opportunities makes success an ever-present possibility, but simultaneously undermines its value when luck, fitness, and skill bring you across the line first.

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