Some of the most exciting moments to spectate during the Tour de France races take place during the sprint finishes. Full groups dashing to the finish line, carefully calculated timings of the breakaway, the thrill of the last few frenzied kilometers…
And as any cycling fan knows, every great sprint finish involves a great sprint lead-out. In this article, we will give you a full rundown of how sprints and sprint lead-outs work at the Tour. The first two stages of the 2018 Tour de France are set to end on a sprint finish, so read on to stay abreast!
What Is a Sprint Lead-Out?
A sprint lead-out is a race tactic used to set up a rider for a sprint finish. One rider on a team will ride at a very high speed with a teammate (the sprinter) following directly behind in his slipstream.
This way, the sprinter can gain speed without expending as much energy as he normally would. Once the sprinter launches his attack, the sprint lead-out swerves off and fades back into the pack.
A sprinter is usually accompanied by an entire team of teammates that “lead out” during the race. A sprinter’s leadout teammates tend to “peel off” one by one as they tire. The last teammate is known as the lead-out sprinter; the best of them are excellent sprinters in their own right.
A common analogy used to explain this tactic is the rocket launch. It is kind of like segments coming off a launching rocket as their fuel is spent. Each of them help take the main capsule into space.
What Does It Take To Be a Lead-Out Rider?
First and foremost, it is experience. The sprint lead-out rider needs to help the sprinter navigate through the chaos of a bunch finish, keeps the sprinter out of any crashes and helps get the sprinter to the perfect place to launch his attack and — hopefully — take the victory.
Sprint lead-out riders usually know how to position themselves to win, but lack the power to actually cinch victory. As Mark Renshaw, chief lieutenant and right-hand man to Mark Cavendish puts it:
“I know the position but I never had the power. I was always good over a longer sprint, I suppose that’s how I fell into doing lead-out. I just missed that little bit extra punch.”
What Can Go Wrong During a Sprint Lead-Out?
The most common problem is when the sprinter gets bumped off the wheel of his lead-out teammate and loses contact with his train. This makes the sprinter lose his precious position in the pack, especially as they enter the final kilometer.
The sprint train can also lose momentum if either one of the riders get tired and can no longer sustain the same pace. This is especially significant if the pair fizzles out too far from the finish line, leaving the sprinter exposed to the wind.
Finally, the sprinter may mis-time the jump such as going too early and running out of steam, or going too late and running out of track for acceleration.
The winning margins in sprints are sometimes so small that photo-finish cameras must be used to determine a winner. Every tactic counts.