Talking Tactics: When sprints go wrong

Sometimes the pros make sprint stages look too easy. A break slips away, a gap is established, the chase is measured to ensure the catch is made neither too late nor too soon, the sprint trains form, the fastest man wins. Easy.

Except, of course, it’s anything but easy. Routine? Frequently. Simple? Never.

What can go wrong?

Tactics are implemented and revised throughout a flat stage, in particular in the final 10km, where split-second decisions are made at speeds of 60kph or more. Get it wrong and 200km of work can go to waste in a second.

We can learn more about the tactics of a sprint stage where things don’t go according to plan than by looking at the 95% that do. Stage two of this year’s absorbing Tirreno-Adriatico is a perfect example. Let’s take a look.

This stage was billed as the first big showdown of the year between the fastest pure sprinters in the peloton: Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol). However, the pair finished fifth and seventh as Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) claimed victory, his first win since stage three of last year’s Giro d’Italia. How did this come to pass?

For the purposes of this column, let’s focus on what went wrong from Cavendish’s perspective. Three important factors conspired against him even before the run-in to the finish:

1. A long stage. At 232km, this was an abnormally long day in the saddle – not far short of six hours. A typical flat stage tends to be no more than 200km – UCI regulations cap races at 250km, with the exception of Milan-San Remo – and that extra 30km means riders and teams are more tired, increasing the likelihood of error.

2. Rain equals panic. On this stage, it wasn’t just six hours of racing but six hours of being pelted by torrential rain. Not only does the fatigue factor increase, but in the closing kilometres it also results in a more crowded, more skittish peloton. Normally it is left to the sprinters’ teams to drive at the front, while the GC men settle into the snug comfort of the middle of the pack. But on a wet day, the GC teams will often move forwards to protect their main men. The end result? Instead of four or five teams contesting position, it can be ten or more. This disrupts sprint trains and makes it even more difficult for anyone who gets caught up further back.

3. Favourite and race leader. Finally, there was the double whammy of Cavendish being not only a favourite for the stage but also the race leader after OPQS had won the team time trial the day before. This placed the full burden of controlling the race firmly on his team, with other sprinters’ squads such as Lotto, Cannondale, Ag2r, FDJ and Lampre having even less reason to contribute to the chase.

Add those three factors together and OPQS found themselves in the unenviable position of being hung out to dry in the pouring rain.

What went wrong?

So, that’s the theory. What actually happened?

As the video begins, OPQS have already ceded control of the peloton to (from left to right as we look at it) Lotto, Cannondale and Sky, and with several of the GC teams crowded around them. With the day’s break caught relatively early – about 30km out – this provided plenty of time for teams to get nervous, and too great a distance for OPQS to retain control.

With 3km remaining Cavendish’s team are on the back foot, stuck behind this leading wave of riders with neither the energy nor the space to assert themselves. On a shorter stage, in better conditions and with more help from other teams earlier, this would probably not have been the case.

Entering the final kilometre, OPQS’ train is going nowhere fast. As Cavendish himself said afterwards:

I was 30 riders back in the last kilometre but I still fought and had a chance with 300 metres to go, even less than that.

In the final kilometre, a sprinter ideally wants to be no more than 10-15 riders back. Any further and there is too much ground to make up and too many other bodies to dodge around.

As the riders round the right-hand bend with around 450 metres to go (about 2:55), you can just see the blue-jerseyed, white-helmeted Cavendish latching on to the lead group of about ten. He’s arriving late to the party, having expended more energy than desired to get there.

As the coverage switches to a head-on shot, Cavendish does not become visible until after the 200-metre board, when he suddenly pops up screen-left carrying immense speed and attempting to squeeze into a small gap alongside the barriers. Here’s what happened next, in his own words:

I came to the right but the peloton swung on the right at the same moment. I just had to slam my brakes with 200 metres to go and so that was the end of the chance of winning.

This is apparent from the video as several riders drift slightly to the right just as Cavendish is trying to force through, in particular the black-and-yellow liveried Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka). Cav stops pedalling to avoid contact. Momentum killed. Game over.

The unintentional baulk was not Ciolek’s fault – it was just one of those things that can happen to a rider trying to charge from a less than ideal position. The more a rider and/or his team gets their tactics wrong at the end of a stage, the more likely it is that something will work against them in the hurly-burly of the finish. Small errors, big impact.

Of course, it wasn’t just Cavendish and OPQS who got it wrong. Lotto appeared to have the best lead-out in the final kilometre, but Greipel was unable to take advantage. And Cannondale also misjudged their effort, leaving Peter Sagan a sitting duck on the front with 300 metres left. He finished ninth, before demonstrating his true speed by winning the following day.

It goes to show that even the best teams get it wrong sometimes, and when they do even such supreme talents as Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan cannot always make up for it. As in so many aspects of cycling, tactics and teamwork are crucial to individual success, and their importance only becomes truly apparent when things go wrong.

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