If there is one question I’ve been asked most often in my career, it’s probably: Are you a sprinter? Or maybe it’s: Why are you such a nutcase? But no, probably still: Are you a sprinter?
The answer is no. I am an all-rounder. I can sprint as well or as badly as I can climb or time trial; it’s just that sprinting comes a bit easier to me.
I’ve still got the jump I had when I first turned pro. When we do the various tests and studies that we have to do for the team, for the UCI, for the anti-doping guys, on a good day my watts-per-kilo ratio is still as good as it’s ever been, so I can still pump out a bit of power. However, I turned pro very young. I’m still only 28, so it could go at any moment. Cycling history is littered with sprinters who had one or two stellar seasons before they seemed to lose their edge. These days, it’s less common. Guys like Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish have been among the fastest year in, year out for many seasons. They say that Mario Cipollini was like that too: good every year, despite the passing of time. You can’t be quick for a year or two and retire with 57 — 57! — grand tour stage wins to your name, as Cipollini did. Maybe the decrease in doping has changed things? It could well be that. There aren’t as many mystifying performances as there used to be.
The thing to remember is that every sprint is different: One hundred riders with one hundred different stories is one thing, but the variables in the sprint are huge. Most big bunch sprints come in grand tours, so by their very nature, they vary, as they have a different route every year, every day. Even if a stage finishes in a town the race has visited before, there is no guarantee the line will be in the same place, or the route will cover the same corners or rises and falls. There’s also the unpredictable element of the weather: Rain is the most obvious hazard with corners offering the terrifying jolt of sketchy terrain and a slipping tire, but every sprint is also affected by wind strength and direction, something you might not be able to appreciate from the view on TV.
Crashes, or just fear of crashes, play a huge part in sprinting, of course, and you have to live by your wits a little bit. Being nervous about crashing often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it is key to stay relaxed. After all, you don’t need to be sprinting to fall off. Chris Froome once crashed into a race organizer seconds into a time trial, and we’ve all had an embarrassing tumble trying to clip out of the pedals at one time or another. It’ll just hurt more and look more spectacular if you do it 100 meters from the finish line at the Tour de France.
I don’t like sprinting from a lead-out train. It stresses me out, which is the last thing I need. Everybody is relying on you, and you have to fight for your position on the wheel in front miles before the finish. I don’t like fighting in the bunch. Life is too short. That’s just wasted energy when you’re going to need all of it later. I prefer to just ride and keep my eyes on what’s happening. That’s what I’ll have been doing all day anyway; it’s just getting a bit quicker by this stage. If you want to win a monument like Flanders or Roubaix, for example, the last 100 kilometers will be like the last 10 kilometers of a grand tour stage for me: Ride carefully, ride positively, keep your eyes open.
It’s a percentages game too. If I’m left to do my own thing, without anything going drastically wrong like a crash or a course diversion, I usually finish in the top five of a sprint, without needing to weigh up the individuals I’m sprinting against. I don’t want to sound immodest, but if I imagined I was somebody else watching the race, it’s realistic to expect the UCI world champion, who is known to be able to sprint pretty well, to be up there at the finish if he’s in the lead group. That’s just normal. With a lead-out train, you take much of your own fate out of your own hands. Sure, it’s nice for someone like Mark Cavendish when that Omega Pharma-Quick-Step train he used to have with Tony Martin, Mark Renshaw, and everybody drops him off with 200 meters to go, but there are so many things that can go wrong. You lose the wheel. Another team has a faster train, and your guys get burned off early. Your last guy misjudges the distance. The likely result is yes, in theory, you may have a better chance of winning, but you also have a greater chance of going nowhere. I prefer to do my own thing, and if somebody is faster than me, then he is faster than me. No problem. But I won’t be far behind him. And I like podiums, even when I’m not on the top step. I’d still rather be there than in the bus, arguing with the team about what went wrong.
I suppose, in an ideal world, rather than a lead-out, I’ll have a teammate nearby, just in case I can’t handle things on my own. Especially in the national team, that has worked really well, with either my brother Juraj or Michal Kolař close at hand in difficult moments. One man — one good man — can get on the front and drive a group along to dissuade attacks, can drag an escapee back or give up a wheel or even his bike if I am struck by some act of God at the sharp end of a race.
One of my mantras is that it’s good to have a plan, but plans don’t always work. There is an old story from the salesman’s manual: You’re a traveling salesman, and you walk in to see a customer who has bought the same thing off you many times in the past, and he says he doesn’t want any today. What do you do? You sell him something else. And that’s what I have to do, too. Sell my rivals something else.
Basically, I will try to ride as “normally” as possible until the last couple of kilometers. The most common shape for stages in grand tours now is that the first hour of the day is a crazy rush to get somebody in a break; then it calms down. With the better communication between the team cars, riders, and race organization, people have become very experienced at knowing what is needed to bring that long escape back. And you don’t want it caught too soon, as that would just encourage some other guys to go, and it gets messy again. You may feel it’s unlucky when a break gets recaptured within 2 kilometers of the line after 100 kilometers out in the wind, but it’s not really luck; it’s the masterplan working.
So, we’re all together with about 2,000 meters to go. Yes, somebody may break away, and you have to be alert to who it is, but if the bunch is traveling fast enough and there are sprinters’ teams and lead-out trains with a lot to lose, it is unlikely to succeed. Stay cool and play close attention. With 500 meters left, I will pick the wheel of the rider who I think is most likely to give me the best route to the line.
This is another moment where being a solo artiste is a big advantage. Let’s say that at the team meeting this morning, you agreed on the order of the lead-out, who was going to pull over when, and when you would be let loose at the line. Let’s say you’ve looked at the course in the road book that the race organizers give us all, and we settle on 300 meters as the ideal point to begin the sprint.
OK. Now I’m there, with 500 meters to go, the crowd is screaming, banging on the barriers with anything they can find, and the wind is in my ears as I hit 50 kilometers per hour. Suddenly, I realize there’s a headwind that we hadn’t planned for. No way do I want to hit the front at 300 meters, I’ll just get buffeted and then swamped. How can I get that message to everybody in front of me, a-reeling and a-rocking as we already are, holding each others’ wheels in the mayhem and the maelstrom of noise? No chance. That is one plan that can’t be changed.
My agent, Giovanni Lombardi, was one of the lead-out men for Mario Cipollini when the Lion King was in the rainbow jersey of world champion. He told me a story that in one of Super Mario’s earlier teams, they had both Cipo and Johan Museeuw, who was also really fast in those days. They claimed to have a system of whistles they could use to communicate. I find that hard to believe. There’s no way you could hear, no way to change plans. It might have worked if they had some sheep to round up, perhaps.
To be honest, when it’s a messy sprint with the different trains getting in each other’s way, breakaways being caught, lead-out men pulling over, that’s when it suits me best. Without anybody else to worry about, it’s easy for me to change plans.
Take Australia in 2018, for instance. It was my first race of the year, literally the first time the rainbow jersey had been seen since the podium in Norway. I had no condition and no real expectation. I was there to get fitter in the warm weather, to chill out away from the media frenzy in Europe, and to enjoy a bit of bike racing. The real training would begin in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, a month later. In that Australian race, if I’d had a train, I would have said, “Forget it, guys, not today; we’re not here to win this one.” Or if I’d not felt too bad and felt I owed the team a result, we could have organized, and I would have stressed about staying with them and not letting them bury themselves for me without good reason. With half a dozen hammers battering away for your benefit, you want to make sure that if you’re the nail, you’d better be sharp.
None of that, thank goodness. I just enjoyed the ride in warm weather, wearing shorts and short sleeves. All of a sudden, there were two kilometers left. I got focused, and the rainbow jersey had its first win of the year. Nice.
There are some basic rules to follow. If it’s a downhill finish, or fast because of a tailwind, I like to start farther back from the front than usual, so you can hit top speed before you get to the front. That creates a bit more momentum and makes you harder to catch. If there’s a headwind, then you want to stay covered up until the last possible moment. Preferably, get on the wheel of the sprinter with the most powerful train, as they are likely to drop him off earlier than he would like, and you can use his speed for an ultra-late charge as he begins to die away in the wind.
Uphill sprints need fewer tactics. It’s usually just a macho strength battle, and the strongest guy of the day will be the winner, which isn’t always the case in other finishes. If it gets too steep, I am likely to get out-punched by the real climbers … I’m thinking about “Purito” Rodriguez and Chris Froome when the Tour de France finished on the Mur de Huy, for example.
Apart from that, I love those messy sprints when everybody is all over the road, and I can duck and dive my way to the line. I’ve never ridden the Giro d’Italia, and maybe I will one day, but I have a feeling I’d like the finishes there. They always seem to have a 90-degree bend 50 meters from the line or something crazy like that, finishes so narrow you could reach out and touch both barriers. Plus, they tend to go through the finish line and then do a lap of the town before the end of the stage, so you can have a good look at it in advance. One day, maybe.
So, that’s all there is to it. You have all my secrets. Not really secrets, just common sense, but it’s all I’ve got to give you. It’s up to you now!