The 2021 Tour de France provides numerous chances for the world’s best sprinters to ride to glory. But it’s much more than all-out power.
This year’s Tour de France is 3,414km long and will be decided in the mountains and the two time-trials – on stage five and, like 2020, stage 20.
But that’s not to say drama and intrigue won’t unfold elsewhere, specifically the flat stages where the sprinters, the rocketmen, take centre stage.
From the outside, it’s all down to the one who can generate the highest power output. But that’s not necessarily the case; the sprint is much more nuanced than that.
It’s also about tactics, positioning and knowing when to strike. Here, we unravel the mysteries of the sprint…
EWAN THE WORLD STAR
The 2021 Tour de France features eight stages designated as flat by organisers ASO. So there are plenty of opportunities for the world’s best to write the headlines.
That includes arguably the best sprinter of the past few seasons, Lotto-Soudal’s Caleb Ewan. The 26-year-old Australian, who uses Campagnolo’s carbon-fibre Bora Ultra WTOs, won five stages of the Tour de France editions in 2019 and 2020. By the time you read this, there’s a good chance he’d have added to that tally with three of the first six stages labelled ‘flat’.
Ewan also has five Giro stage wins to his name including two in 2021. A stage victory at the Vuelta a Espana in 2015 completes the GrandTour set.
Key to Ewan’s success, and many of his contemporaries, is coming from a track background. Ewan won omnium gold at the UCI Junior Track World Championships of 2011 plus countless national titles.
Learning within the tight confines of a velodrome honed the young sprinter’s bunch awareness; the ability to move out at the right moment, to work his way through the pack at the right time; and to develop an efficient pedal stroke.
All of these skills he’s effortlessly transferred to the even greater hustle and bustle of road sprinting.
ALL ABOUT THE FAST-TWITCHERS
Ewan, plus the likes of fellow Campagnolo-using and Tour sprinters Christophe Laporte (Cofidis, Solutions Crédits) and Greg van Avermaet (AG2R Citroen Team), will deliver a maximum power output of around 1,600-1,700 watts.
That’s much greater than the likes of climbers like UAE Team Emirates’ Brandon McNulty, racing the Tour for the first time this year, whose numbers will be more about a high power-to-weight ratio than absolute power on the flat.
But when it comes to the sprint, it’s all about an all-out 15-to-30-second burst compared to maintaining a good power output on climbs that can take over 30mins.
Much of a sprinter’s power is down to genetics and their prevalence of fast-twitch muscle fibres. These generate high levels of power but fatigue quickly.
Then you have endurance-friendly slow-twitch fibres that enable the Tour riders to cope with the magnitude of racing over 3,000km in 21 days. Both are trainable but, though there’s evidence you can turn a few fast-twitch fibres into slow-twitch, the same’s not true the other way around.
This has two major influences over a sprinter like Ewan’s training programme. Firstly, to maximise those fast-twitchers, sprinters will spend more time in the gymnasium than many of their team-mates in an effort to build explosive power.
Broadly, this will be high-weight, low-rep workouts in the winter to build power and vice versa in the summer for repeatable strength.
As expected, legs are the primary focus via squats, deadlifts, leg press, calf raises and box jumps. Secondly, this high propensity of fast-twitchers means, ironically, that the sprinter will have to spend many miles building endurance.
It’s all very well being able to drop huge wattage for a race-winning short period of time, but no use if you’re not in position through lack of stamina.
Which brings us to tactics and, specifically, the leadout train.
This high-speed support staff sends the main sprinter to (hopefully) victory in a multitude of ways. But the key is being in a strong position with around 2km to go. Here, the sprint team crank up the pace, aiming for the second last rider to go with around 1.5km left. This rider is often termed the ‘speed pilot’ and would aim to hit the front with their sprinter sheltered behind.
Then with around 500-200m to go, the sprinter would come around the side and aim for success.
That’s a simplistic description of an incredibly complex organism.
Take former Lotto-Soudal rider Greg Henderson, who once recalled his time in the leadout train. “I’d always leave one lane open down the protected barrier side so that the main sprinter could come down it, but no-one else,” Henderson said. “Everyone knew not to follow our main man because I’d close the gap. And lots of guys couldn’t handle that. They’d panic. And that gave us an advantage at every race. The sprint’s very much about mind games.”
Finally, there’s aerodynamics. When it comes to wheels, a set like Campagnolo’s Bora Ultra WTOs feature deep rims to ensure a drag-cutting edge, while the lightweight means the likes of Ewan can accelerate incredibly quickly when needed.
Then there’s the rider’s aerodynamics. In the case of Ewan, this is incredible, his frontal profile so low he’s nearly parallel with the road.
Again, this cuts air resistance and boosts speed. And there you have it.
A glimpse into what it takes to have won a sprint at the Tour de France, and what it’ll take to win further sprints, culminating with the final stage down the Champs Elysees on Sunday 18th July.
By then, the green jersey will have found a permanent home for 12 months. Will it be adorned by a Campagnolo sprinter? Only time will tell…
© TDW / Getty Images