If you’ve been watching the races that mark the start of the professional cycling season, you may notice a certain level of chaos that distinguishes these early season races from the more well-organized sprints that happen in later in the season. While a bunch sprint is one of the more dangerous things one can do on a bicycle, there’s a certain choreography to it – particularly during the Grand Tours. Two or three sprinters’ teams organize leadout trains in the final 5 kilometers. A few opportunists rub shoulders behind the sprinter whose train emerges dominant with a little over a kilometer remaining. In the end, the leadout is so fast that at most, only a small handful of riders are legitimately sprinting – everybody else is just too far behind.
This level of coordination, however, is absent in the early-season races. What makes early season racing so different from mid-season racing?
1. Riders are just into the early edges of their fitness. A sprint is controlled when one or two teams can control the leadout by going to the front and going very fast, stringing the field out in a long thin line. This effectively reduces the number of people able to sprint at the front. But at this time of the year, riders don’t have many races in their legs, and their winter training alone simply isn’t enough to punish the others. With nobody fast enough to control the front of the race, a lot of hopefuls start bumping and grinding trying to see the front in the final 5k.
2. Riders vary significantly in fitness level. High-level riders looking to peak for the spring classics are just turning their winter miles into race miles, but neo-pros and others looking to impress may never have stopped training after their season ended in October, in hopes of making a splash with a win against bigger names early in the season.
3. Riders forget how to race bicycles.
I’ll let you in on a secret: some pros are bad at riding their bicycles. They’re pros, yes, but there’s no need to romanticize their ability to ride bicycles. They forget how – sometimes epically.
What’s the result of these conditions of early season racing? Let’s go to the video tape and look at the sprint from Stage 2 at the Tour of Qatar.
:02 – a yellow-shouldered Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli rider swings wildly to his right, sending most of FDJ’s train off on its own tangent.
:26 – Leopard-Trek flies their colors in a well-organized effort at the front. A new team making a big splash in the leadout to a sprint early in the season is reminiscent of Sky’s efforts last year.
:40 – with Fabian Cancellara taking a hard dig, the race strings out briefly.
2:24 – an An Post/Sean Kelley rider flies his colors at the front. Who? Exactly. Good for him.
2:40 – The sprint starts from 9 wheels back by Gert Steegmans, who shows little of his explosive power as he begins clawing his way up to the sprint.
2:45 – Boonen, in the orangish leader’s jersey, finds Steegman’s wheel, bobs his head from side to side. Seconds later, Bos, in the Rabobank kit, moves over onto Boonen’s wheel.
2:50 – Steegmans makes it into the front in time to have Leopard’s final leadout man pull off into his line. Boonen, sensing the interruption from the above action, jumps a few lateral lanes to Bennati’s wheel, momentarily knocking Haussler off. He leaves Bos in the wind. Bos begins to kick around Steegmans.
2:55 – Haussler refuses to get dislodged. Bennati and Haussler open up their sprint.
2:58 – Boonen, fatigued from his wheel-jumping, sits up. Denis Galimzyanov of Katusha takes advantage of the space opened by Boonen.
3:00 – Haussler, mad at Bennati’s fairly inoccuous drift (perhaps a bit gun-shy from last year) , overtakes Bennati in the final few meters, and stares him down.
3:01 – Haussler, Bennati, Galimzyanov, and Bos hit the line shoulder-to-shoulder. Haussler knows he’s taken it.
It’s got all the hallmarks on an early-season sprint – an ineffective leadout, wheel-jumping, nobodies coming out of nowhere, riders starting their sprint from all over the place – and the result is a dense, messy sprint that’s one twitch away from a pile up.