By Chris Carmichael
The first week of the Tour de France is traditionally the time for the pure sprinters to shine. This year, however, the organizers have added specific challenges that have made it more difficult for the sprinters to prevail. Instead of long, straight, and flat finishing stretches, we’ve already seen two steep uphill finishes (Stages 1 and 4), one legitimate flat sprinter stage (Stage 3), and one roller-coaster of a finale with a slightly uphill finish (Stage 5). Each type of finish presents its own challenges and suits a slightly different approach.
Like anything uphill, these sprints are very difficult, and they are also very different than sprinting on flat ground. The starting speed for an uphill sprint is typically slower than for a straight-line, flat-ground surge for the line. This works in favor of athletes with explosive power and a great jump. Smaller riders who may not have the peak power output to compete with thundering herd of field sprinters can gain an advantage over their heavyweight competitors in these uphill finishes.
Take Stage 4 yesterday. The finish was a 2-kilometer climb with some seriously steep pitches in the middle and a more level road in the final 300 meters. Alberto Contador attacked on the steep grade and was immediately followed by Cadel Evans and Philippe Gilbert. All three men are known for their explosive accelerations, although Contador is more known for explosive attacks in the high mountains. But behind them, Thor Hushovd and Joaquin Rojas – two riders who have made their careers by being super-fast sprinters – pounded on the pedals and reeled in the attackers. Though the win came down to a photo finish between Evans and Contador, Rojas and Hushovd finished in the same small group.
One of the most important things to remember about uphill sprinting is to keep it short. After your initial acceleration, it is very difficult to maintain your top sprinting speed very long in an uphill sprint. As a result, you have to be patient and wait until you are closer to the finish line to launch your final surge for the line. As we saw in today’s finish on Stage 5, a Team Sky rider launched early and gained a pretty sizable gap, but on the final rise to the finish he couldn’t maintain the speed and was swamped by the sprinters who waited.
The best workout for developing the power for uphill finishes focuses on specificity. I recommend HillSprints. Find a short, steep hill that has a flat run-in to the base. For the workout you want to come into the hill at a high rate of speed (20-22mph), wait until you feel the gradient bite into your momentum and start to add resistance, and then with your hands in the drops, jump out of the saddle and sprint for 15 seconds. Recover for 5 minutes by spinning easily, and then repeat. It’s important to give yourself plenty of recovery between sprints in order for each effort to be effective. Beginners should do four sprints, intermediate riders 6 sprints, and advanced riders should do 10 sprints (and advanced riders may want to break this into two sets of 5 with a longer recovery period – like 15 minutes – between sets).
Sprints on flat ground start at incredibly high speeds and get faster from there. As a result, they require massive amounts of power and that’s why the bigger riders like Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi, Tom Boonen, Joaquin Rojas, and Andre Greipel are more successful than smaller riders who may also have plenty of explosive power. Mark Cavendish is somewhat of an anomaly in that he is a relatively small rider compared to other sprinters, but there’s no doubt he packs quite a lot of power.
Leadouts are crucial for flat finishes because the sprinters need support riders to keep the speed as high as possible before they launch their final acceleration. The high speed also strings the field out into a long line, eliminating most riders from contention. This not only reduces the number of athletes who have a legitimate chance of winning, but it also keeps everyone safer. When flat sprint stages lack a high-speed leadout, the peloton swarms across the road and the chances of a crash increase dramatically.
Head and tailwinds have a big impact on flat sprint finishes. If there’s a headwind in the final straightaway, you have to treat the sprint almost like an uphill finish and keep your final acceleration short. When you come off the wheel of your leadout into a strong headwind, the resistance is so great that you don’t accelerate to as high a maximum speed and you also start to slow down sooner. If there’s a tailwind going into a sprint, you often have to launch your final acceleration further from the line so that you don’t get swarmed by riders behind you.
There are two workouts that I think are crucial for cyclists looking for success in flat-ground sprints. The first is a HighSpeedSprint. Since most of us don’t have access to motorpacing or a leadout train, the easiest way to practice sprinting from a high starting speed is to do downhill sprints. Find a straight road that is slightly downhill (1-3%, not 6-8%). Roll into the sprint at 23mph or faster so you’re already pedaling fast (100+rpm) in a big gear (53×14-15 or even bigger). With your hands in the drops, jump out of the saddle and sprint at hard as you can for 20 seconds. Spin easy for 5 minutes for recovery between sprints. Beginners should do four sprints, intermediate riders 6 sprints, and advanced riders should do 10 sprints (and advanced riders may want to break this into two sets of 5 with a longer recovery period – like 15 minutes – between sets).
In flat-ground sprints, you typically have to accelerate hard at least once before your final surge for the line. In the final kilometer – whether it’s the Tour de France or your local criterium – you have to jump hard to respond to accelerations or move into a better position, then wait for a few seconds, and then launch your final sprint. To practice this in training, I recommend LinkedSpeedIntervals. Think of it as a three-stage sprint: roll into it at 20-22 mph with your hands in the drops, cadence around 90-95 and a gearing of 53×15 (or similar if you’re riding a compact crankset). Jump out of the saddle and sprint for 10 seconds. Sit and continue to ride at maximum effort for a count of 5 (just count in your head, this is no time for looking at computers). Then shift into one harder gear, jump out of the saddle and sprint again for 10 seconds. Now sit and keep riding at maximum effort for a count of 5 before shifting into one harder gear and sprinting again for 15 seconds. Spin easy for 5 minutes between efforts. Beginners should complete 4, intermediate riders 5, and advanced riders 8 of these intervals. If you bog down in the gears, especially for the last of the three sprints, start the efforts in a lighter gear.
A successful sprinter has to be able to read the finish and adjust his strategy very quickly. The finish of Stage 5 was more of a roller coaster than either a hill sprint or a high speed flat finish. Inside the final kilometer there was a rise, a dip, and then a final gradual ascent to the line. Stage winner Mark Cavendish used his team to keep the pace very high, but the slight descent disrupted the leadout and we saw riders surge forward. He had to shift into position behind these opportunists and bide his time, waiting for the slight uphill to blunt their speed and reduce the amount of real estate he had to cover with his final acceleration. But he timed it to perfection and crossed the line first to claim his first stage win of the 2011 Tour de France, and the 16th Tour stage win of his career.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, or www.trainright.com.