‘I don’t think, only follow’ – the art and science of a sprint train

How do you build a perfect leadout unit? What does it take to deliver a sprinter to victory through the melee of a WorldTour sprint? VeloNews spoke to those who know at February's UAE Tour.

Photo: Getty Images

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“We’re in an era now where there’s probably six or eight sprinters that are all probably equally matched. The only thing that really separates them now is who’s got the best leadout.”

Nathan Haas’s words spoken during February’s ill-fated UAE Tour ring very true. With little to separate the strength and skill of the world’s top sprinters, the difference between the top step of the podium and fourth-place anonymity can lie in the work of the leadout man.

A perfectly executed sprint train will deliver their leader to the front of the pack or on the correct rival’s wheel at the right time, in the right location. The sprinter then has the ‘simple’ task of finishing the job.

With five opportunities for bunch finishes looking likely at the UAE Tour, the race attracted nearly all the grand tour super-sprinters and the fastest of leadouts. The battle for early-season bragging rights was won by Pascal Ackermann, Caleb Ewan, and Dylan Groenewegen, who netted one victory each. Behind them, Sam Bennett and Fernando Gaviria both grabbled second places.

But what does it take to deliver a sprinter to victory in the elbows of a sprint finish? VeloNews spoke to some of those inside the leadout to find out.

The trust

As a sprinter ducks, dives and muscles his way through a charging bunch kick, he has to invest all his trust, reputation and earnings into the teammate he follows. Even a glimmer of doubt in his leadout man will lead to failure.

“Trust is the key part,” Michael Morkov told VeloNews.

The Danish champion is regarded as one of the best leadout men in the pro peloton, recently leading Elia Viviani to handfuls of wins at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and now in 2020, working with new teammate Sam Bennett.

“To do a good leadout you need to have that trust from the sprinter, they need them to stay with you and not doubt if a situation looks wrong,” said Morkov. “If they hesitate for one minute, it’s gone.”

Groenewegen, who was delivered to a stage 4 victory by a fleet of Jumbo-Visma leadout riders, echoed the sentiment. “You have to take risks and trust your teammate to make good moves,” he said. “You follow him and do not think.”

Similarly, Ewan’s leadout man Roger de Buyst says that part of his success in delivering the Australian to the final is that his teammate places utter faith in him.

“He trusts me and knows I’m screaming at the guys in front and taking the responsibility so that he doesn’t have to,” he said. “He knows that and believes in that.”

Morkov (far right) celebrates as his sprinter Bennett takes the opening stage of Tour Down Under. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Training through racing

Trust, however, has to be earned. And earning trust doesn’t come through a training drill, or a cringe-worthy team-bonding game, but through racing.

“I guess it’s like anything — the more times you do it, the better you get at it,” Ewan told VeloNews. “So it’s just about gelling. And there’s not so much you can do outside of racing, because it’s hard to replicate a race.”

The need for racing experience as a leadout unit ahead of grand tours makes lower-tier early-season races a vital part of the season for a sprinter, with the likes of Tour of Valencia and Vuelta a San Juan drawing in the fastest of finishers. The lower-pressure atmosphere allows riders the opportunity to learn each other’s body language, reactions, and movement patterns.

Neil Stephens, boss of Gaviria’s team UAE-Team Emirates explained that “the sprint leadout doesn’t begin in the final kilometers of a race but it starts in winter,” he said. “We prepare it in a January training camp but it only truly comes together in early season races which we’ve done in Argentina and Colombia.”

The importance of a team giving their leadout unit a block of early-season racing is epitomized in Lotto-Soudal’s team selection for the UAE Tour. Belgian rider de Buyst, one of the heart of Ewan’s leadout group, was sent to the race to prepare for riding the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France with his leader later in the year.

And the consequence?

The 26-year-old, who lives just outside of cobbles heartland Flanders, had to miss out on the first major milestone of any true Flandrien’s year, the ‘opening weekend’ of the classics. ”Yeah it’s bad to miss it,” he said. “But riding with Caleb now is so important for the season to come. We need the time together.”

DeBuyst (second right) had to sacrifice an appearance at ‘opening weekend’ to start perfecting Ewan’s 2020 leadout unit. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The bond

Cavendish and Renshaw, Seiberg and Greipel … the list goes on. Most of the great sprinters are able to call their leadout man a friend. And so is the case for Gaviria and Max Richeze, Bennett and Shane Archbold, and Ewan and De Buyst.

Argentinian veteran Richeze is up there alongside Morkov as being regarded one of the greatest leadout men in the bunch right now. Richeze’s move to UAE-Team Emirates this year has seen him reunited with old friend Gaviria, having raced with the Colombian for three prolific seasons at Quick-Step.

“We know each other so well, we just take a look at each other without any words, and we know what to do,” Richeze told VeloNews. “I understand the tone of his voice, what he needs, where he is. It was easy to come back together with him. It just works.”

The South American bromance is more than reciprocated. Gaviria told VeloNews after narrowly missing out on victory in stage 4 of the UAE Tour, “I don’t think, only follow Max. He’s a really good friend, I know him 100 percent and understand him – that is important.”

Richeze cited the reunion with Gaviria as a key motive behind his move from Quick-Step. Such consideration is typical of the influence that being paired up with the right sprint wingman can make in contract considerations. In 2020, Shane Archbold joined Bennett in a joint move from Bora-Hansgrohe to Deceuninck-Quick-Sep  – the duo came as a pair, no questions asked.

“We’ve known each other eight years now and have always got on well,” said Archbold. “Understanding each other’s body language and reactions is a massive advantage. Sam wanted to keep working with me, I wanted to keep working with him.”

Gaviria and Richeze’s friendship goes back many years having worked together at Quick-Step Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The science

While a summit finish can boil down to a W/KG competition, a sprint is largely an artform of instinct and reactions. But that’s not to say science has no role whatsoever, with hours of analysis and planning underlying every sprint.

“In advance of every race you sit together and analyse the finish, the road, the bends, the weather condition, everything,” said Ralph Denk, manager of Pascal Ackermann’s Bora-Hansgrohe team. “Then you decide how many kilometers from the finish or on what side you go… Of course this will very likely change but you need some plan.”

Subtleties such as which side of the road to take can make the difference between shelter or exposure to wind, or being subject to rough, broken roads. And even a split second lost to the impact of a pothole can mean the difference between first and fifteenth.

And the video analysis returns after every stage, with teams deconstructing and debriefing what went wrong, what went right, and where the seconds were gained. “Watching the final kilometers with the leadout boys is crucial,” said Denk. “It helps us understand what to do next time or what we need to change.”

Morkov explained that he also used video replays to become familiar with Bennett’s sprint style before the Irishman joined Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

“I study all the previous bunch sprints, but I did spend a lot of time looking at Sam’s sprints on YouTube before he joined,” Morkov said. “It showed me his characteristics in a sprint, and how he moves. It helped when we started to work together.”

Bennett left UAE Tour without a win, but with leadout expert Morkov and old friend Archbold leading him out, more success will come soon enough. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

However, no matter how much analysis and research a team invests into preparing, analyzing and debriefing a leadout, anything can happen in the heat of a sprint.

“Leadout and sprints are becoming more scientific, so to speak, even though there’s no science in that actual moment,” Haas said. “The whole thing is about instinct, connection and nerve.”

And that’s what separates the best from the bunch. You may have the biggest legs, but without a seamless sprint train and connection with your teammates, you’re left behind.

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