What to do with sprinters in grand tours? Peloton’s fleetest riders feeling the pinch

Giro di Hoody: These are hard times for sprinters facing reduced opportunities across ever more challenging grand tours.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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Thursday’s rolling 156km 18th stage to Treviso is the last-chance saloon for Mark Cavendish and the handful of sprinters who’ve survived this far in the 2022 Giro d’Italia.

On paper, the stage looks likely to end in a mass gallop, the seventh and last of this year’s corsa rosa.

For once, there are no major climbs, no tricky uphill finales, or insane urban circuits littered with roundabouts and traffic islands to hamper their collective approach.

Of course, nothing ever goes to script in the Giro, and there are plenty of teams who still need to try Thursday to get something out of this race, and will inevitably send riders up the road.

At 156km, there’s not much tarmac to play with, so the sprinter teams like Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Groupama-FDJ and UAE Team Emirates, even more so now following the late-hour DNF for COVID-diagnosis of GC leader João Almeida, will have to keep any breaks on a short leash.

The fact that this Giro will deliver up to seven bunch sprints is significant.

That marks about one-third of all stages in the Italian grand tour largely ear-marked for mass gallops, a relatively high number for recent editions of the Giro over the past decade.

Also read: What is the future of Cavendish at Quick-Step?

Of course, a few almost didn’t happen, with a breakaway being reeled in during stage 15 just under the red kite in Cuneo.

Stage 1 could also be called a “bunch sprint,” but it’s just that kind of steep, uphill grinder to the castle above the Danube at Visegràd to open the 2022 Giro that reveals just how much the game of sprinting has changed over the past decade or so in the WorldTour.

In today’s peloton, pure sprinters have to be able to climb and negotiate much more elevation across a grand tour to have any hope of winning stages.

Grand tours have gradually become more demanding

Alessandro Petacchi, shown in 2011, won nine stages in the 2004 Giro. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

That wasn’t always the case. Two decades ago, a race like the Giro might have up to 10 stages well-suited for sprinters.

A prolific winner like Alessandro Petacchi could race all three grand tours in one season, and cherry-pick one stage after another.

The most extreme example of this came in the 2004 Giro, when the Italian sprinter won nine stages in bunch sprints, and finished second in another one — ex-U.S. pro Freddy Rodríguez beat him — meaning that one half of that year’s Giro was reserved for sprinters.

Following complaints that grand tours were growing predictable and boring, tour organizers and course designers started to change.

The advent of such “impossible” climbs as Monte Zoncolan at the Giro and the Anglirù at the Vuelta a España proved wildly popular with fans and media alike.

Also read: Giro di Hoody — Cavendish having the last laugh

Those daring, high-altitude additions pumped new energy into both grand tours, eventually forcing the tradition-bound Tour de France to spice up its moribund, textbook routes.

Grand tour course designers began to tweak with the traditional model of what a grand tour looked like. For decades, a prologue was the familiar way to get things going. Today, almost no race starts that way.

Instead, it’s a road stage often finishing up a “wall” or racing across classics-inspired hill country.

Add bits of gravel, undiscovered climbs, or climbing time trials up the side of ski mountains, and grand tours in 2022 look nothing like they did a generation ago.

And that desire for constant excitement and endless drama was only compounded by the advent of social media, where fans could comment and opine in real time across platforms like Twitter.

Even more important was the arrival of live streaming and the live broadcast of stages from start to finish.

Course designers, long used to packing in all the “good stuff” into the last hour or so of racing to fit into the TV schedule of when the live broadcasts picked up in Europe in time for the afternoon crowd, had to change their tune or risk seeing fans tune out.

That meant more climbs, more tricky finales, and no more long, flat “boring” transition stages that used to serve little more than to move race caravan between Europe’s major mountain ranges.

Sprinters are not the only ‘victims’ to more challenging grand tours

The addition of such climbs as the Anglirù have reshaped grand tours over the past two decades. (Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

Today, fans want action from the moment the gun drops every single day.

And that’s bad news for sprinters.

Mark Cavendish is the last of the peloton’s old-school sprinters. At 37, he can still win based on his pure class, but he struggles to make it to the finish line over today’s endless string of “impossible summits.”

In last year’s Tour, there was a daily “Cav Watch” to see if he would survive the time cut. His biggest celebration in his history-making Tour last summer was when he made it to the Tignes summit in the Alps safely within the time limit.

Even “easy days” in the race profile are often littered with fourth, third and second-category climbs.

Also read: Caleb Ewan forced to leave the Giro with injury

Modern sprinters must be as sleek and rail-thin as anyone in the bunch.

The grand tour tendency that started more than a decade ago to roll back flat sprint stages and progressively make them more “interesting” saw a few casualties. Riders like Tyler Farrar and Marcel Kittel simply couldn’t haul themselves over the jigsaw profiles to make it to the finish line to even challenge for a sprint.

Riders like Caleb Ewan have been forced to lose weight and trade some of their raw power for more efficiency on the climbs to be able to survive the intensity and elevation that comes in every stage in a grand tour.

The overall higher level across the WorldTour peloton has filtered down to the sprinters. Everyone is faster, sleeker, and more efficient, and the pure sprinters have been forced to keep up.

Even Milan-San Remo, long considered the “sprinter’s monument,” hasn’t finished a sizable reduced bunch sprint since 2016.

One has to wonder, however, if the harder and more demanding profiles of every single day are starting to snuff out some of the action in the key mountain stages.

If every stage is a full-out classics-style effort, who is going to have anything left to attack in the Giro’s famously challenging third week?

Those old-school transition stages that might seem so boring also provided a respite to the GC contenders to allow them to save their legs for when it really matters.

As Dan Martin pointed out in his latest VeloNews column, modern grand tours are so demanding that they’ve become a race off the back. It’s not riders attacking to open the race, instead a grand tour is reduced to a battle of attrition and a measuring of short, sharp efforts.

There are exceptions, especially in the case of Tadej Pogačar who seems immune to gravity.

Sure, the GC in this Giro is still tightly bound, but no one’s truly attacked yet for fear of running out of gas before the final weekend.

Another factor making it challenging for sprinters was the decision to reduce team sizes from nine starters to eight.

That decision was rationalized to make a grand tour “safer” because there were 22 fewer bodies fighting for space in the bunch. The move was also meant to take away the element of control from the major teams, like Ineos Grenadiers, that could stifle a race by dedicating eight riders to support one rider and snuff out life on the road.

That squad reduction also means that fewer teams are bringing sprinters to the major grand tours. With only eight starters, teams today either fully commit to the GC, or bring a squad built around a train to support a sprinter and hunt stages in breakaways. Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates won’t be bringing sprinters to the Tour.

In fact, this Giro is surprising in that a few teams did pack a sprinter and a GC captain, with teams like UAE Team Emirates bringing Fernando Gaviria and Joao Almeida, and Team DSM with Romain Bardet and Cees Bol and Alberto Dianese for the fast finishes.

There’s no doubt these are hard times for sprinters in today’s peloton.

There are fewer chances, more climbs, and harder finales.

And the irony is that all these innovations and evolutions in course design come at a time when the sprinter depth is unprecedented in the WorldTour. There are a dozen fast men in the bunch who can contest for victory in every major race, yet they rarely match up in the same race anymore.

There’s a sublime beauty to a bunch sprint. From the tug-of-war between breakaways, to the work of a train, to the unbridled raw courage and speed at the line.

For better or worse, that classic, old-school sprinter’s stage is on the endangered list.

Thursday’s stage will be the sprinter’s last chance.

Thursday’s stage is expected to end in a bunch sprint. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

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