Talking Tactics: Hutarovich’s lesson in sprint-craft

Last week we featured the excellent work of the Lotto Belisol sprint train in helping Andre Greipel to dominate at the Tour Down Under. This week I’m taking a look at the sprint-fest that was the Tour of Qatar from the viewpoint of Mark Cavendish and the man who finished right behind him on the final two stages, Yauheni Hutarovich, who will have learned some valuable lessons in the race-craft of sprinting from his grandstand view of the former world champion.

Other than on the opening stage, where it contributed significantly towards Brent Bookwalter’s win from the surviving break, the wind had little effect on the race overall. Consequently we had day after day of perfect conditions for sprinting, with wide, flat and straight roads. Perfect for Cavendish, in other words. And with the likes of Greipel and Peter Sagan absent and Sacha Modolo – who beat Cavendish at the Tour de San Luis – withdrawing after an early crash, it provided a gift-wrapped opportunity to rack up the wins both with his Omega Pharma-Quick Step train and, when required, without it.

Two second places behind Cav was a good return from Qatar (image courtesy of Ag2r)

Two second places behind Cav was a good return from Qatar (image courtesy of Ag2r)

We all know about Cavendish, but what of Yauheni Hutarovich? The 29-year old Belarusian champion has just switched between French teams, from FDJ to Ag2r La Mondiale. He’s quick – he beat Cavendish in a straight fight on stage two of the 2010 Vuelta a Espana – but despite this profile-raising win and a number of others he has never quite translated this into further victories in the biggest races. His finishing burst is among the quickest around, but a lack of tactical nous and a consistent sprint train have left him stuck in the second tier of fast-twitch men. Finishing a close second to Cavendish – a feat he also managed at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne last year – should add to both his confidence and his data bank of experiences.

What lessons will Hutarovich have taken from his two narrow defeats? Let’s start by looking at the finish of stage five.

Hutarovich essentially does everything right here. As the OPQS train takes up a strong position in the closing kilometres, it is the Belarusian who secures the prize spot in Cavendish’s wheel. And although OPQS take control in the final kilometre, it appears their train peters out a bit too quickly, leaving Niki Terpstra to do a very long turn on the front.

As a result, it’s not quite the optimum lead-out. The pace is perhaps a couple of kph below what it might be, as a result of which Cavendish feels the need to go a fraction sooner than ideal. Hutarovich is able to pull up to the Manxman’s shoulder but no further, as a second kick allows Cav to retain a slim advantage.

Against less fearsome opposition, Hutarovich’s sprint would have been enough for victory but it’s hard to beat Cavendish if you allow him to dictate the final kick. Perhaps he might have been better served by jumping early and grabbing the element of surprise, but it’s a marginal call. A rival in less good form might have faded before the line, gifting the Belarusian the win. Who knows? Fundamentally though, this was a good sprint by him, and not one after which he should have felt discouraged.

On the final stage, Hutarovich again locked on to Cavendish’s rear wheel and again finished on his shoulder, but this time I doubt he could have reversed the result. However, by following Cav he benefitted from a masterclass in how to win a chaotic sprint from a terrible starting position without the benefit of a lead-out. Start the video below from about 5:00.

On this occasion, OPQS were not able to provide a textbook lead-out. In the final kilometres, they found themselves boxed in on the right as a succession of teams desperate for a win – Sky, IAM, Cannondale, Argos-Shimano, FDJ, Saxo-Tinkoff, Astana – all muscled their way to the front, giving OPQS nowhere to go other than keep their man protected from trouble.

The screenshot below is taken at 5:42 and shows the situation with around 600 metres remaining as the riders approach a gentle right-hand bend. Cavendish is circled at bottom-left, about 35 riders back and jammed in against the left-hand kerb.

At this point it looks like Cavendish's chance of victory has gone - far from it

At this point it looks like Cavendish’s chance of victory has gone – far from it

It’s here that Cavendish’s race-craft comes into play. As the road eases round to the right, space starts to naturally open up on the left. With lead-out men peeling off, this also helps to thin out the traffic. Cavendish waits patiently, then locks on to the wheel of BMC’s Adam Blythe (who is just in front and to the right of him in the screenshot) as he accelerates into an opening and uses him as his lead-out to launch himself up the left.

All the while Hutarovich is right on Cavendish’s wheel. Although he can do no more than edge up to his pedals, he gets an armchair ride to second place. It’s an object lesson in how patience can be a sprinter’s most effective weapon at times – and also the value of taking the time to closely analyse the finish and plan tactics accordingly. If you allow the video to run, you can hear Cavendish explaining to other riders who are presumably wondering where the hell he appeared from:

It widens up because it bears right. It’s gonna open on the left, so I just waited on the left, waited, waited.

Instinct. Planning. Patience. All sprinters possess raw speed, but it is the combination of pace plus these other three factors that form the race-craft of the best sprinters which allows them to win from less than ideal positions. It’s what allows Mark Cavendish to be at the sharp end of sprints so consistently in a variety of racing situations. The very best sprinters know how to win the chess games as well as the lightning duels. It’s a lesson that Hutarovich and others like him would do well to learn.

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