Train-spotting

I love nothing better than the adrenalin rush of a good bunch sprint. But one of the things that attracts me to the sprints is the way they showcase teamwork in a sport in which the plaudits are generally bestowed on individuals.

The high-speed sprint train

Cavendish owes most of his victories to the sterling efforts of his teammates (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

In recent years no team typified this better than HTC-Highroad. Time after time they would get on the front of the peloton to chase down the day’s breakaway, with big-engined riders such as Lars Bak and Danny Pate spending umpteen kilometres with their noses to the wind. The relentless Tony Martin would take the train to the final kilometre before a George Hincapie or a Matt Goss would drop off Mark Renshaw close to the 500-metre board. In turn, he would lead out Mark Cavendish to deliver the money-shot of crossing the finish line first at speeds touching 70kph.

The HTC-Highroad train was a thing of beauty. Nine men working in perfect harmony, united by the common objective of delivering Cavendish an armchair ride to the finish – a feat he accomplished 30 times at Grand Tours in just four years.

Of course, teams can set up trains on any type of stage – even on a mountain parcours where they can slowly grind down the opposition to set up a decisive attack. Not so much a bullet train as an old diesel chugger, but just as beautiful to watch nevertheless.

Sky’s low-speed mountain train

Such a moment occurred on stage three of last week’s Volta ao Algarve, as a team effort by Sky propelled Australian Richie Porte to victory on the summit of Alto do Malhao.

Porte won courtesy of Sky's mountain train (image courtesy of Sky)

The train took shape early on, with the team leading the chase of the day’s breakaway. Xabier ZandioKonstantsin Siutsou and Lars Petter Nordhaug were the pawns sacrificed to set up the closing gambit. Vuelta runner-up Chris Froome buried himself on the approach to the final climb to soften up the peloton before handing over to Edvald Boasson Hagen. The Norwegian, who was actually the race leader at that point, unselfishly rode full gas, lining out the bunch and putting other riders into the red.

Bradley Wiggins then took over at the beginning of the final, steep 3km section. His metronomic pace – perhaps only half the speed of a sprint train, but just as devastating – detonated the bunch completely, reducing what had started out as a group of about 50 riders to a mere dozen.

By the time Wiggins peeled off and Porte launched his attack with just over 1.5km to go, his rivals were too punch-drunk to respond and he cruised to a solo win which set him up for overall victory. Without his team’s efforts, Porte would have found it difficult to win that day. With them, victory was a mere formality – a fact he was quick to acknowledge after the race:

They [the team] were incredible! You don’t really want to single out one person as they were all incredible. You see [Xabier] Zandio and Kosta [Siutsou] on the front the whole day. [Chris] Froomey, Thomas [Lovkvist] and did brilliant work, then Edvald and Brad on the climb. It just worked like clockwork. It’s a team victory but to then get the glory of riding across the line first is great.

It is a truism in modern cycling that no rider can win any race without the help of his colleagues. But the importance of the team is rarely demonstrated as clearly as it was here. So keep your eyes open: train-spotting is fun!

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