To the untrained eye, a bunch sprint can look like chaos. Going at speeds that can reach above 40 miles per hour, those who have the bravery, quick thinking and plenty of fast-twitch muscles launch towards the finish line, and in a flash, it’s all over. Bunch sprints, or gallops as they’re sometimes called in the cycling world, are more than just the fastest rider across the line. They require massive amounts of teamwork, skill, and training by the entire team to deliver their sprinter into a winning position.
The strategy behind the sprint
One look at the stage profile and the entire peloton knows what lies ahead, and its sprinters are chomping at the bit. The terrain must be mostly flat, as pure sprinters generally carry more muscle mass than their climber counterparts. However more all-around riders, like Peter Sagan, can sprint with the best of them and mix it up in the sprint.
Those teams that have a rostered sprinter, and have an interest in the stage win, will start setting the tempo on the front of the peloton, usually during the latter part of the stage. Their responsibility is to keep the pace high, to keep their sprinter near the front and in a good position and deter other teams from coming to the front. On the approach to the finish, the speeds will rise, making it more challenging to keep control at the front. It’s here where we start to see which teams possess the mettle and top end speed to hold off challengers.
The lead-out train
The concept is simple; however, with a handful of teams attempting the same strategy, the execution is not. In a lead-out, teams organize their trains around 20 kilometers to go (depending on the terrain and situation) and begin exchanging pulls at the front of the race. The designated sprinter sits behind the train and is sometimes followed by a sweeper, who sits on his back wheel to keep “free agent” sprinters from getting a free ride to the line. As the finish line nears, each rider pulling on the front is charging forward at their maximum capacity until exhaustion. They pull to the side, letting their teammate do the same. If all goes according to plan, the sprinter is left with a final lead-out rider in the closing meters, they burst out of the slipstream and accelerate to the finish.
Who is the sprinter?
Generally, those riders who show an ability to accelerate and hold an immense amount of speed when it counts are the type of riders who become sprinters. They have the same burst of power akin to track and field sprinters, however, need to summon that speed at the end of a three- or four-hour endurance race. In the cycling world, we see most sprinters come from a track background, where they race fixed gear machines on a banked, oval track called a velodrome. Because of the short, powerful races and massive fixed gears, track riders develop a smooth pedal stroke, tactical awareness, and the fast twitch muscles needed to be a successful sprinter. Not only that, sprinters have to be fearless. Jostling, ducking, and diving for position while traveling at high speeds isn’t for the faint of heart, and it’s those who take chances and never hesitate that take top honors.
In stage races like the Amgen Tour of California, sprinters aren’t just focused on stage wins, they also have their eyes on the Visit California sprint jersey, which, in most races is usually green. The jersey is awarded to the most consistent sprinter and is determined by a cumulative total of points, which are awarded during intermediate points of the stage and in the final sprint. Called “intermediate sprints,” the first three over the line collect three, two and one point, respectively. At the finish, significantly more points are on offer for the top 10.