Team Slipstream leads the way during the 2008 Tour of California.
Photo: Jesse Hammond/Active.com
McEwen, Freire, Cavendish, Hushovd, Hunter. Sprinters are different, so the adage goes. They have rock star lives, podium girl fans and that lead out train!
Who can forget the Lion King's ubiquitous Zebra Train, Petacchi's Fassa Bortolo Express, or even Davis Phinney and the Coors Light armada back in the day? These disciplined and professional groups executed wonderfully, putting their rider in position to win time and again. It seems almost too easy. Sit at the back of a big group of teammates, ride the draft and jump to the glory, right?
The race pattern and strategy are actually much more complex. Setting up the train is one of the most difficult things for a team to pull off correctly. It requires a huge level of trust in each other and also communication, because the entire peloton's safety is in your hands. It also demands supreme bike handling skills from each rider, because other teams are also driving their trains and everything's being conducted at warp speed through often narrow and twisting roads.
So, what can your team do?
The first thing you can do is learn to ride your bike. That may sound cliché, but it's the plain truth. The front of the peloton is rife with danger at the end of a race. From the guy who runs up the inside looking for an advantage into the corner, to the guy who changes his line, and yours, half way through for no discernible reason; there are plenty of hazards to avoid so you have to know how to handle your bike
Of course, keeping your body relaxed will help, but you should also practice emergency management—if you have never bumped someone at speed, or had to avoid an errant wheel crossing your line, will you really know how to handle it in a race situation? Comfort in tight quarters only comes about with practice and the development of some skills.
Think of the half circle running from bar-end to bar-end around the front wheel as your own little safety bubble—be cognizant of anything or anyone that enters that bubble. Learn to anticipate what will happen by watching three to five, or more, riders in front of you. Set your body position to an "athletic" stance—elbows out to absorb impacts, hips and knees supple and reactive to quick line changes, shoulders firm, head level. Develop your peripheral vision and a 'sixth sense' for what's going on around you.
Practice a variety of cornering drills
—changing lines, off balance cornering, hops and micro-adjustments to your corner angle. Think outside the box as well; much can be learned from practicing bad technique too—enter the corner too hot, grab too much brake, or just see how different body positions affect your control. Be safe, and of course, bad technique should only be part of a training ride!
Let's look at this from two common scenarios—four or more riders in the train, and three or less. With less than four riders you have limited options, but no less opportunity. It's more a series of individual opportunities than a massive train that dominates the entire sprint. For each member of the team, the most important thing late in a race is the ability to continually protect and advance your position while everyone else is doing the same. Having a strong set up guy or two can help with this immensely. Even just seeing a friendly wheel for a few meters can make the difference.