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, 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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7 Responses to “Riding the Leadout Train”

  1. Duncan 27 July 2009 at 9:41 am #

    Awesome article with some great perspective. The pros always make it look easy when it fact it never is.

  2. KMac 27 July 2009 at 10:36 am #

    I was hoping you would comment on that unbelievable leadout and Cavendish’s strength and trust to hold Renshaw’s wheel. I couldn’t agree more, and would just add that Hincapie’s move/burst at the 1K banner was equally important in the final outcome. I think Cavendish could also win in the McEwen style as necessary as well, though.

    So, Cosmo, have you re-examined your take on Astana and Johan’s picks for the Tour team at all? I agreed with you at the time (and still do) that the “two team leaders” strategy was pretty fraught with challenges, but do you have to hand it to the guy (1st and 3rd on the podium), or do you think he just got lucky given all the talent he had, and that it should have been easier? Either way it made for a compelling drama. It will be pretty exciting to see Lance and Contador (the Accountant?…) as competitors next year if Lance can maintain or improve upon his form.

  3. god of thunder... 27 July 2009 at 10:46 am #

    i won’t argue that its easy, but i would be far more impressed to see what cav could do on a team like silence lotto for example. still i just can’t get all gooey about such a one-dimensional braggart like the versus crew does. i also ran into this little gem last night which they never aired, showing how blatant and highly dangerous the little man’s stunt was:

    http://www.steephill.tv/players/tinypic/?title=tdf-09-st14-cavendish-finish&id=33c11z5

  4. Don 27 July 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    Nobody seems to agree with my opinion, but I’ll say it anyway: Renshaw’s line was effectively a chop of the Garmin train. Not illegal, not even against the etiquette of sprinting, but pretty dick. Rather than set up for the corner on the outside, he used the absolute narrowest approach possible (hence Cav’s shitting himself), knowing that he had Dean to his inside.

    Yes, that’s sprinting, and yes, you run the risk of getting the door closed when you move up the inside on a corner. Still, you could argue that the move on the inside had already been made, and Renshaw took advantage of Dean’s survival instinct to secure the win. Hence, chopping.

  5. frankielof 27 July 2009 at 6:16 pm #

    I’d have to say that Don is off on the assessment that Renshaw chopped Dean’s line. Renshaw took the proper line through that corner in order not to lose momentum. On the other end Dean tried a typical cat 4 move by trying to move up in the line by shortcutting the corner and in the process of shortcutting it lost his momentum and then completely shutdown Thor’s sprint by boxing him on the barriers. Go back and look at the video again. It’s a rookie move at best.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think Cav needs to be knocked down a peg or two (come on he gets in Thor’s face and tells him that he doesn’t deserve the Green Jersey??!!??), but he has nerves of steel and is almost unbeatable when his train is working.

  6. il Ciclone Rosso 31 July 2009 at 11:41 am #

    Cav has the unique ability to win sprints with the benefit of a train, or on his own (a’la McEwen). He is a very good bike handler and has a lot of explosiveness from the track. His abilities are very impressive and along with those abilities come the big ego; perfectly understandable to a point.
    It’s only a matter of time, however, before someone stronger/faster/with an equal or better train shows up and sticks it to him, more than once. I hope he handles it with professionalism. Most of the time, he’s been pretty gracious in the few defeats he’s experienced, but will that continue? Petacchi was once the “unbeatable” guy. No matter how good you are, sooner or later some one will arrive who’s better.
    Cav is a breath of fresh air to cycling, but his (reported) attitude toward Hushovd stunk to me. He may be faster in a sprint, but Thor is a multi-talented rider who brings a variety of options to the table for his team. He not only sprints, but time trails reasnoably well and can race competively on the pave’; can Cav do all that? Hushovd has also “paid his dues” and should be afforded respect accordingly. Our boy has the chance to put his “mark” (sorry, no pun intended) on cycling and I hope he does it with a gracious and professional attitude we can all respect and future riders (i.e. my kids) can look to as an example.

  7. Frankielof 6 August 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    I’d be interested to see what Barry Hoban has to say about Cav? Many years ago I saw an article from him in CycleSport were he claimed that Cipollini wasn’t a “real” sprinter because he used a lead out train and never finished the Tour. I’d agree that not completing the Tour is a strike against Cipo, but he did complete the Giro at least 3 times, so he could get over the mountains if he wanted to.

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