30 June 2011

Le Tour De France 2011: The Sprint

Speed... raw unbridled speed on a two wheel machine unleashed in a bunch of riders, pushing their bodies as far as possible to pull inches ahead of one another and ultimately find the glory of a stage win.

That is what the Flat Stage Sprint is all about in cycling.

First thing to say about the a bunch sprint to end a stage... nothing draws you in more than the brilliant announcing of Paul Sherwin and Phil Ligget. A hyperbolic British announce team makes you get into something like you wouldn't believe.

Now... how does  a bunch sprint work? Well, they are usually only going to come about on the flat stages. These stages are devoid of any serious climb and usually end on a straight away. Usually this kind of stage lends itself to an early break away of random riders looking to show off the sponsors on TV or even, if they are lucky, a shot at the stage win. Usually this won't happen, as the Peleton will be able to utilize the reduction of wind resistance and ability to swap out the pulling riders and push the pace.

Once the break away is caught, the various teams with a prime sprinter start to go back and forth for control. Whoever has the setup going into the final kilometer can put their man in the perfect position to have maximum energy saved up when it comes time to let loose and go for the win. One by one, the team mates push as hard as they can and then peel off. Usually this is a team decided order, and serves to save the sprinter and if they can, peel off the other teams setup men as well. in the last 500k you are usually left to the sprinters and 1-2 setup men. The setups go as hard and as long as they can, and once it's time, the sprinter jumps out of the slipstream and launches for the finish. Remember, this is happening with 5 or so teams and a ton of riders who are capable of the win.

The race to the finish is usually insane, with speed and position key to everything. When you make your break is key, and you want to wait until the last possible second or risk running out of juice as someone else zips past. It is a chess match at 50mph.

This years favorites:
Mark Cavendish: The Max Missile is back again to show his dominance (15 stage wins in 3 years). His team is unmatched at the lead out and his own speed is beyond equal. On top of that, the guy is captivating and a rare thing in the public eye: he's raw. There is no filter. Mark is Mark and will always tell you what he thinks and has been known to cry or cheer inappropriately. He's a great one to watch, and as yet, unbeatable when he takes over a race.

Tyler Farrah: Will the American with all the talent put it together? He's got the wins outside Le Tour to show he is capable, but as yet, hasn't been able to lock it in and win a stage. Injuries have played a part (he broke his wrist last year) but this year looks like his best chance yet because he's now team mates with...

Thor Hushovd: The God Of Thunder saw his team merge with Garmin and finds him self in a unique position: setup man. He's the strong man of the sprint, and has his own share of Green Jerseys (the sprinter version of the Yellow Jersey). Will he be able to do the team thing and help Farrah beat the Missile?

The Field: Last year saw the reemergence at 37 of Alexander Pataki. He took enough points to win the Green Jersey in Paris and was a kind of "out of nowhere" guy. Who knows how else is lurking in the Peleton to challenge the favorites?

All in all, I'm looking forward to a great first week this years Tour. The setup is nice for a few stages to feature the sprinters before the sadistic trek into the Pyranese followed by an almost inhumane push to celebrate 100 years of the Alps in Le Tour De France.

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