The Vanishing GC Sprinter

Apr 27 2012

Brad Wiggins’ performance earlier this week in the first stage of the Tour of Romandie was a rare treat for the modern cycling fan: a real Grand Tour contender duking it and taking the win in a bunch sprint.

It wasn’t in a Grand Tour, of course, and it took a couple pretty serious climbs to thin out the field, but still—watching Wiggins reach back to his trackie days to hold Liquigas’ leadout, jump from the cheap seats, and even gamely extend his twiggy little elbows in the final meters was pretty damn cool:

The last time I saw something like this, it was 2004 and the biggest race in the US was a mid-April appointment in Georgia. Taking advantage of a field thinned by some late climbs, and leaning on his unique ability to lay down power at a high cadence, Lance Armstrong made a late surge in a fast, downhill sprint. Hate the Texan all you want, but respect the skills and instinct—rest day refills almost certainly didn’t help him here:

For all its current novelty, the sight used to be much more common. Eddy Merckx was a frequent contender and winner in bunch sprint stages, and as recently as the 1980s, Bernard Hinault made it something of a tradition to battle with the sprinters on the Champs Elysees. The Badger barely missed out in Paris at the end of his final Tour win in 1985, and scored convincing yellow-clad wins in 1979 and 1982:

If you’re a retro-grouch, you’ll call it the death of panache, and if you’re a techno-geek, you’ll chalk it up to modern training and equipment allowing cyclists to become more specialized. While a few modern GC contenders—Danilo DiLuca and Alejandro Valverde come to mind—have managed to regularly produce a mean finishing kick, unless El Imbatido can show me something different this summer, I’m inclined to say that both their stints as Grand Tour riders were more triumphs of biochemistry than multi-disciplinary focus.

But I’m guessing the main driver for the decline in overlapping ability is economic. When salaries were low and riders needed off-season jobs, they didn’t really get to train year-round. They came into the season on little or no fitness, and those with the most natural ability ended up winning in a fairly wide variety of finishes. With season-long sponsor pressure to perform dulling the razor’s edge of fitness, a rider’s ability just to perform through an endless barrage of race efforts outstripped the importance of fine-tuning a natural inclination toward sprinting or climbing for a few weeks in mid-July.

With today’s sponsors bankrolling year-round training and massive on- and off-course support, the single-digit percentages that separate the specialist from the rouleur have become minutes on the hills and bike-lengths at the line. As training became targeted toward peaks at Grand Tours or a handful of one-day events, entire teams coalesced around the specific abilities of a given rider. Mario Cipollini’s Saeco team perfected the sprint train, Armstrong and US Postal perfected the comprehensive approach to winning Grand Tours, and nowadays, there’s precious little ground between them—though one does hope today’s GC winners are somewhat less “comprehensive” in their preparation than Armstrong.

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