A history of the sprint train: Cipollini to Cavendish
If you lined up 10 of the greatest sprinters from the last 30 years, who would win? Would it be thanks to their own power, or the kind of team that led them out?
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The sprint lead-out we see today, with eight-kit trains resisting any infiltration or attack in the final 10 kilometers, isn’t quite what it was in decades past. Once a one-rider-for-himself wild dash, the sprint has evolved into a team effort. And yet, mid-twentieth century, sprint lead-outs didn’t dominate the peloton as they do today. Sprinters like Belgians Rik Van Looy and Freddy Maertens were protected and delivered but surrounded by much more chaos and they had to compete with attacks that stuck more often. The strategy in getting to the line the quickest changed as a result of many elements—race terrain and distance, gearing, strategy, and the physical attributes (and personalities) of the racers leading the charge.
We’ll look at the development of the sprint lead-out through the eyes of three of the most dominant riders in the 1990s and early 2000s: Italy’s Mario Cipollini, Aussie Robbie McEwen, and Britain’s Mark Cavendish. Each sprinter brought his own style, strengths, and weaknesses to which their teams—and competition—responded with a change in sprint tactics.
It took the arrival of a supremely confident sprinter to bring about a complete and long-lasting change to the aspect of bunch finishes, a rider who could not only win regularly but could also convince his teammates that it was always in their best interests to sublimate their own ambitions and commit themselves to his. Mario Cipollini turned pro in 1989 with the Del Tongo team, where he joined his elder brother, Cesare, who was bringing down the curtain on his long career. A bunch sprint winner at the Giro d’Italia in that first season, the younger Cipollini quickly began to establish an impressive palmarès, particularly when, in 1992, he moved on to the GB-MG team that melded many of the leading Italian and Belgian stars of that era.
“Mario was immensely powerful and could develop huge top-end speed. However, he had a ‘long’ sprint,” Cesare Cipollini said of his little brother. “In fact, you could say that he wasn’t a pure sprinter at all. Guys like Guido Bontempi could explode really quickly, whereas Mario’s speed came in progressione. We knew, though, that nobody else was capable of riding as quickly as him, so he just had to be delivered.” Creating Cipollini’s lead-out train wasn’t planned but came about gradually. At the Tour, for instance, teammates such as Johan Museeuw recognized the Italian had the pace to beat anyone when he got up to speed, so they endeavored to make that happen.
It’s no coincidence that as Cipollini and a new generation of sprinters such as Wilfried Nelissen and Erik Zabel began to dominate, that small group of lone wolves such as Jellie Nijdam and Thierry Marie were edged toward extinction. Better organization among the sprinters’ teams neutered them. It’s extremely hard to escape from a peloton traveling at more than 60 kph, and even if achieved it’s impossible for a lone rider to resist a large group moving at that speed for long. They’d get perhaps a few dozen meters clear before the sprinters’ lead-out riders would bring them back to heel, inevitably drawing them back into the peloton.
Cipollini received more consistent support with his lead-outs when he moved to the Italian Mercatone Uno team in 1994. And not until he swapped that team’s yellow colors for Saeco’s red in 1996 did his train get fully up to speed. “They were all totally focused on Cipollini, all dressed in red, all big, strong guys,” recalls Marc Sergeant, who was one of the lead-out riders at Panasonic for Jean-Paul van Poppel and German powerhouse Olaf Ludwig, the Marcel Kittel of his day. “The Saeco train was really impressive, and I’d say that was the first team that was completely devoted to a sprinter in that way.”
Van Poppel agrees. “Whereas I’d have just one or two riders helping me, Cipollini managed to get six or seven riders working for him in the last 3, 4, 5 kilometers,” he says, confessing that he doesn’t believe it made for a compelling spectacle. “In Cipollini’s era, he and his team were so strong that sprints were pretty boring to watch. You had just one team on the front from 5 kilometers out right into the finish. His successes were almost preprogrammed.”
That Saeco train mixed riders who had been schooled in the Italian tradition of team time trialing such as Eros Poli and Mario Scirea, Cipollini’s closest friend in the bunch, with a final lead-out man who was a top sprinter in his own right, notably Giovanni Lombardi and, later, Guido Trenti. Given their leader’s flamboyance, dressing up as Julius Caesar complete with laurels and toga at the 1999 Tour, or wearing a “skinless” skinsuit, an anatomically correct representation of all of his muscles, sinews, and bones, it was all too easy to miss the beautiful efficiency of Saeco’s high-powered prep that would conclude with Cipollini engaging the turbo and surging clear to win, arms raised in a V with fingers splayed.
The most impressive demonstration of the tactic came in the 2002 World Championships, focused on and around the Zolder motor-racing circuit in Belgium. With new rival Alessandro Petacchi, another in progressione sprinter, working as his lead-out man, Cipollini took the rainbow jersey at a canter. “We were a team in the truest sense, absolutely united. No one person was more important than another, not even Cipollini,” Scirea said of Italy’s victory at Zolder. “That was the real power of it, and it made you feel invincible. That team was a kind of machine, programmed to win. Unless you’ve been in a train like that you have no idea how beautiful it can be.”
At the Grand Tours, the organizers were quite complicit in asserting the dominance of the sudden glut of talented sprinters. The opening week of each included a number of stages almost certain to conclude in a contest between whichever combination of Cipollini, Petacchi, Zabel, Marcel Wüst, Oscar Freire, Tom Steels, Robbie McEwen, and several others happened to be in the field. Such was the grip that they held that these races became formulaic and sometimes dull. It extended to other races, too. From 1997, Milan–San Remo, perennially a hunting ground for breakaways of the strongest riders in the bunch, became the preserve of sprinters, to the point where organizer RCS investigated changes to the route to tip the balance back toward the possibility of a more unpredictable finish.
The most interesting of this cohort of speedsters from a tactical perspective was Robbie McEwen. Much smaller but more explosive than the in progressione stand-outs such as Cipollini and Petacchi, the Australian had lots of raw speed and talent, but for several seasons he struggled to use them to his advantage because his style was quite different. Rather than sitting in behind sizeable teammates almost all the way to the line, McEwen preferred to find his own way in a sprint, sometimes sticking with a teammate but often choosing to come off a rival’s wheel in the final 200 meters and use their speed as the launch pad for his final kick.
It wasn’t until he joined Lotto in 2002, his seventh pro season, that he found a team with the confidence to back him and enable him to become a regular winner in the biggest races. That year, McEwen’s status changed thanks to two stage wins at the Giro and two more at the Tour that helped him claim the points title. It presaged a golden period during which he took 23 stage wins at the Giro and Tour in Lotto colors.
“You get some wins behind you and everybody wants to ride for you. You also get more respect from other riders in the bunch,” McEwen explained at the end of that season. “Instead of wanting to get past me to sit on Erik Zabel’s wheel, they want to get on mine. Guys like Mario Cipollini and Zabel have profited from that tactic for years: They’ve just been sitting there behind their team, nice and easy, waiting for the final 200 meters, by which time I’ve already done half a dozen sprints to get into position—fighting for a wheel, moving myself up in the wind and wasting energy. Their team pulls the sprint, everybody fights to sit on their wheel. So they’ve had an armchair ride to the finish. I’ve always had the speed, but until now I’ve always been coming from ninth position and finishing second or third. This year I’ve been starting third or fourth and winning a lot more races.”
McEwen’s build and style mirrored that of Mark Cavendish, who also has the speed of mind and reaction to “buzz from wheel to wheel,” as he has put it. Doing so requires another quality, an astonishing memory for the sprints they’ve contested and for picking up the strengths and weaknesses of their rivals. Given that he tended to come from behind in sprints, McEwen needed to be particularly adept at this. “Intelligence is certainly as important as good legs,” he reflected toward the end of his career. “Every sprint is a lesson whether you win or lose. After a sprint, I know exactly what I’ve done right or wrong . . . I can remember almost every sprint I’ve ever done, and what the others have done too. This enables me to know how I can repeat successful situations and how someone else might react in any given situation.”
Another part of that process was knowing when and to what extent to take a risk, when to lean on someone to ease them out of the way, when to aim his wheel into a gap that bigger men not blessed with the agility and handling skills he had developed racing BMX as a kid would consider. “I’ve always had tunnel vision when sprinting—if I see a gap, I go through. I don’t really look for riders, just for gaps. I look for where I want to go, not where I don’t want to go . . . The gaps don’t need to be that wide, just a little bit more than the size of your handlebars,” he told Procycling.
Cavendish’s subsequent capture of 30 career Tour wins suggests he may well have pushed McEwen harder than anyone that day. Little more than a year later, he left the 2008 Tour a week before the finish to prepare for the track events at the Olympics with four stage wins to his credit. A year on from that, he claimed six, the best bunch sprinting haul at the Tour in recent history.
A combination of the skills Cavendish had learned during so many years of track racing, his immense self-belief and drive, and a Highroad team not only completely committed but also almost unfailingly capable of putting him in exactly the right place to succeed, raised the art of bunch sprinting to a new level. The confidence of Cipollini, the verve of McEwen, and the power of Saeco had been mixed to create an unprecedented winning machine. Highroad adopted a new strategy to achieve this, putting together a train that could provide the bunch with momentum from the very first kilometers of a stage right through to the final 200 meters, where the objective was to deliver Cavendish with a clear run to the line. When it got rolling, every member of the team would have a place in it, including GC specialists such as Kim Kirchen, Tony Martin, and Michael Rogers. All lent their weight to Cavendish’s steamroller, designed to suppress breakaways and crush the hopes of his rivals.
Going into the 2011 Tour, by which point Cavendish had accumulated 15 stage wins as well as another 10 at the Giro and Vuelta, HTC-Highroad had become so accomplished that they expected to do this without the slightest bit of assistance from rival teams.
According to Brian Holm, HTC-Highroad directeur sportif during that race, which the Manxman concluded with another five victories and the points title, the tactic played out like this: first, the team had to ensure there were no more than five riders in the break. Allow two or three more than that and the Highroad-propelled peloton could find itself in a duel that was slightly too balanced for comfort. When the right breakaway had gone clear, the team’s two “diesels,” Lars Bak and Danny Pate, would sit on the front of the bunch and set a tempo that would keep the escapees within a manageable distance of between 3 and 5 minutes, depending on how hilly the stage was. Toward the end of the stage, emerging GC prospect Tejay van Garderen would assist Bak and Pate with their spadework, closing down the breakaway’s advantage completely within the final 10 kilometers. The key then was to push the tempo up steadily to discourage other riders from breaking away. With 3 kilometers remaining, Tony Martin, who went on to be crowned world time-trial champion a couple of months later, would add the first hard injection of pace and sustain it for a kilometer or more.
As the German pulled aside, Peter Velits, another GC hopeful, would come through and maintain that pace for the next few hundred meters, ceding his place at the front to Bernie Eisel, the “train driver” and team captain, the most experienced rider and the directeur sportif ’s voice in the peloton who through all this would have been shouting instructions to his teammates. The Austrian, a bunch sprinter in his early pro years, would pilot the train into the final kilometer, before passing driving duties to two Australians, firstly Matt Goss, a world-class sprinter in his own right, and then, inside the final 500 meters, Mark Renshaw, reputed as one of the best lead-out riders the sport has seen. By the time Cavendish came out of Renshaw’s slipstream with around 200 meters remaining, his speed would be above 40 mph. A sudden injection of 1,600 watts of power would boost him to 44 mph and above.
The key to success was not so much the speed, but the organization, the faith all nine of the Highroad riders had in each other and their ability to stay together, to avoid losing a wheel and run the risk of letting a rival rider infiltrate or disrupt the line. When they achieved this, Cavendish usually ended up collecting the winner’s bouquet. Holm’s colleague Rolf Aldag explained that other teams generally couldn’t find a way to derail the Highroad express that season.
“They tried multiple times and then gave up. There was no way to attack that train, because even if you got around Tony Martin, no other team had the strength to keep it going all the way to the line. Get past Martin and you’d find yourself up against George Hincapie,” Aldag explained, underlining the pure power of every one of the locomotives in that Highroad line.
It’s interesting to note Filippo Pozzato’s analysis of Highroad’s rivals during that period when Cavendish was bagging handfuls of victories. “Racing as it is today plays in Cavendish’s favor. There’s no team like Cipollini used to have at Saeco, which would bring him onto the finishing straight at 65 kilometers per hour,” he said. “The speed’s lower in the final kilometer and that plays in Cavendish’s favor because he’s a pure sprinter. Over 50 meters, he has frightening acceleration, like no one else in the peloton . . . Cavendish is most dangerous in that split second when the group starts slowing down, which is when he uses that kick.”
Cipollini offered a similar take, commenting, “However good Cavendish may be—and I think he’s exceptional—there’s no doubt that he would have problems if my train were still operational. That’s my belief, anyway. If you compared a video of the last 3 kilometers of one of my sprints and the last 3 kilometers of a flat stage now, there’s certainly a difference. If you take Cavendish into the last 500 meters in the right way, he’s going to be really, really hard to beat. His jump is sensational. If, however, the speed is extremely high, a bigger, heavier rider than him will be at an advantage. That’s why I say he’d have struggled against my Saeco train.”
Adapted from How the Race Was Won: Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory by Peter Cossins with permission of VeloPress.