Welcome to my new weekly column which will look at various aspects of racing tactics and strategy. With the Tour of Qatar currently taking place on mostly large and open desert expanses, I’m going to kick off this week with a look at one of the most important yet invisible influences on sprint stages: the wind.
As any racer will tell you, there’s a lot more to a sprint finish than just pointing the fast-twitch men at the line and seeing who’s fastest. It requires a feel for when space is opening up (or closing down), the ability to make split-second decisions in traffic and judging when to crank up the final acceleration depending on road and weather conditions.
Lotto Belisol set the benchmark at the Tour Down Under, propelling the in-form Andre Greipel to dominant victories on all three flat stages. There’s no question they had the strongest, best-drilled lead-out train in the race, but even so they fine-tuned their tactics from stage to stage to ensure Greipel enjoyed an unchallenged armchair ride all the way to the final couple of hundred metres.
For starters, let’s look at the finish of the opening stage.
This was a textbook finish from the Lotto boys. They had already seized control of the front of the peloton before the flamme rouge, with a train of three riders – Marcel Sieberg, Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Henderson – lined nose-to-tail in front of Greipel as they passed under the 1km banner. Job done, Sieberg peels off and Roelandts then takes a big turn on the front, maintaining an excellent pace around the sweeping left-hand bend about 350 metres from the line. This keeps everyone else strung out behind him before he hands over to Henderson for the final lead-out. In fact, Sieberg and Roelandts have done their job so well that the veteran Kiwi rider is barely required as Greipel steps on the gas and powers home unchallenged.
Now compare this to the finish of stage four, where the wind was blowing into the riders’ faces from their left.
The impact of the wind here is two-fold. A headwind slows the speed of the peloton, meaning that a rider or team cannot ride on the front for as far as they could do in still conditions. Therefore the optimum strategy is to shorten everyone’s distances to ensure that you don’t ‘die’ on the front into the wind.
In addition, a crosswind favours any riders who can gain shelter from it. (This is why the peloton shifts from the traditional arrow-head formation into echelons when encountering cross-winds mid-stage.) So when the wind is coming from the riders’ left, it is advantageous to hug the right-hand side of the road so that anyone who challenges alongside you will shelter you from the wind, saving energy.
Hence Lotto’s approach to this finish is subtly different. They are already well placed about 1.5km out – note that they are deliberately over to the far right of the road – but Sieberg allows FDJ and Sky to ease in front and lead under the red kite.
However, this is not Lotto losing control of the sprint, far from it. The move does carry the risk of becoming boxed in at the crucial moment, but it’s more likely that the trains ahead of them will simply burn out and dissipate. And so it turns out. FDJ’s position is short-lived and Sky’s lead-out also starts to falter quickly. Having saved some energy, Sieberg finally moves Lotto up to the front at about 750 metres (rather than 1km-plus) and so the final charge for the line begins, ending with Greipel – again, over to the right – taking an easy victory.