Sprint stages are run over largely flat terrain and invariably follow a similar pattern. A breakaway group is allowed to establish a significant lead over the peloton, which eventually decides to give chase. More often than not – but not always – the escapees are brought to heel in the closing kilometres, setting up a bunch sprint.
Whatever the size or maximum advantage of the inevitable breakaway, the ‘catch’ frequently does not occur until the final 15km. Indeed, it is common to see the escapees left dangling 30-60 seconds off the front of the peloton until they are ready to make their move at the optimum moment. Leave the catch too late and the sprinters’ teams may not have enough time to organise themselves properly. Doing it too soon opens up opportunities for a secondary counter-attack. 10-15km out is about ideal.
The serious racing occurs in the final 5-10km, and again it’s a matter of striking the right balance. The peloton will want to travel fast enough to discourage late attacks and prevent riders from bunching up too much, which can lead to accidents. But if a team commits to set too fast a pace too soon, they will run out of steam and lose control before the finish. It’s common to see several teams jostling for supremacy at the front of the bunch, with their designated sprinter sitting at the back of a ‘train’ of three, four or more teammates. Other sprinters who do not have their own train will often be seen latching on to the back of other teams’ pace lines.
With the peloton typically travelling at speeds in excess of 50kph by this point, every change of direction can cause serious problems and increase the likelihood of a crash. Roundabouts and bends string the peloton out, emphasising the importance of securing a position near the front of the line. Even a slight touch of the brakes can lose a rider 20-30 places in an instant and eliminate them from contention.
In the final kilometre, a well-organised team will still have two or three teammates in front of their sprinter, with the final lead-out man typically hitting full gas from 400-500 metres out, looking to put their sprinter into position to launch their final acceleration at 200-250 metres. On a downhill finish or with a tailwind, the sprint might start 50 metres earlier. Conversely, when faced with an uphill run or a headwind, a sprinter might wait until as late as 125-150 metres.
The worst place to be before starting that final burst is at the front. Any rider immediately behind the front man will receive the aerodynamic benefit of sitting in the hole in the air created by the man ahead of them. The aim of any sprinter in the final is to gain enough of an advantage to break the ‘tow’ of any following riders, hitting a peak speed of up to 65-70kph.