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Comment: order! Order!

Why stronger teams mean safer sprints

Words by Kenny Pryde

Wednesday May 9, 2012

On stage three of the Giro d’Italia at Horsens, a piece of spectacularly bad riding by Roberto Ferrari saw six riders hit the deck including the reigning world champion and the maglia rosa. There can’t have been too many times in history where two such prestigious jerseys have simultaneously hit the deck, so hard, so fast and for so little reason. Luckily, both Mark Cavendish and Taylor Phinney broke nothing except wheel rims.

Massed sprint finishes to flat stages are inherently dangerous. You don’t often see a wince-inducing tangle of bikes and bodies in a hill-top finish. The immutable law of cycling is that where there are sprint finishes, there will occasionally be crashes. And in the early stages of a Grand Tour, when riders are fresh and unsure how many chances they are going to get to win, crashes are more likely still.

Needless to say, there was a furore in the Giro and, although all the riders who came down got up to ride another day, it was the most surprising cycling deviation seen since Robert Millar went off course at Guzet Neige. We all gasped at just how far Ferrari leapt to his right, leaving Mark Cavendish no place to go but down. Who knew a Ferrari could handle like that?

For his pains (none, as it happened, since he crossed the line in 10th place), the 29-year-old Androni Giocattoli rider was demoted to last place on the stage, though many were left to wonder just what the UCI commisaires would judge as ‘dangerous riding’ or if they’d throw the Italian off the race. You wonder what a sprinter has to do to actually be excluded? Quite a lot actually.

When Mapei’s Tom Steels launched a bidon at fellow sprinter Fréderic Moncassin inside the final meters of a bunch sprint at Marennes during the 1997 Tour de France, most observers were simply stunned at the Belgian champion’s bike handling skills and dexterity. The UCI Jury was less impressed and Steels was thrown off the race, ‘convicted’ of dangerous riding. It seemed harsh because nobody actually crashed. When Mario Cipollini actually punched Vitalicio Seguros rider Francisco Cerezo to the ground before stage 14 of the 2000 Vuelta had even started, well, that’s a red card offence that even the most lenient UCI judge can’t ignore – and Cerezo wasn’t even a rival sprinter…

In the mid-1990s the UCI actually considered painting sprinting lanes inside the final few hundred metres of stage finishes to help work out who had switched line and who hadn’t. It never got off the page and onto the ground, however. The riders weren’t keen either since some were worried that the paint would be slippery in the wet and make sprints…more dangerous.

But sprinting is essentially chaotic, which is why the ‘safest’ sprints (forgive the oxymoron) are those in which a team succeeds in stamping some semblance of order and authority on them. If you think back to the late 1980s of SuperConfex and PDM teams when Pinball Pete, aka Jean-Paul Van Poppel, was in his prime, Jelle Nijdam, Gerrit Solleveld and John Talen could keep the pace high and make sure everyone kept in line. And if they didn’t Van Poppel was handy enough with his shoulders.

And, in Mario Cipollini’s pomp, the ultra-lean musclemen in his Saeco train – Mario Scirea, Giuseppe Calcaterra and Eros Poli among them – also made sure everyone behaved and stayed out of Super Mario’s way en route to his record 42 Giro d’Italia stage wins. Eat your heart out Alfredo Binda, you thought that your record was safe, didn’t you?

And in more recent seasons, we saw Mark Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad lead-out train maintain order to great effect. The lesson would appear to be that when there’s a dominant sprinter and a team built substantially around that rider, sprinting is safer for everyone involved, even though the stage results are more predictable. We’ve witnessed various short eras where teams and sprinters have helped keep everyone in line, but perhaps now, as Sky and Cavendish try to hone their train-driving skills, we are in for a period of sprint chaos, which increases the risk of someone coming off the rails in spectacularly messy fashion. Yes, Ferrari, the whole cycling world is looking at you. By the way, Matt Goss of Orica GreenEdge gave the team its first big win, but nobody is going to remember that now, are they?

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