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Coach Carmichael: Focusing on the sprint

Jean-Patrick Nazon (Jean Delatour) and Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) each used their sprinting skills to grab a share of Tour de France glory in Stage 3. Nazon focused on the intermediate sprints to win valuable bonus seconds that put him in yellow, while Petacchi confirmed he is the new dominant sprinter in the peloton after winning his second stage in three days. Winning sprints takes a great deal of power, but it also requires skill and experience. There are other riders with the physiological numbers (power) to match or surpass today’s great sprinters: Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel,

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By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems

Jean-Patrick Nazon (Jean Delatour) and Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) each used their sprinting skills to grab a share of Tour de France glory in Stage 3. Nazon focused on the intermediate sprints to win valuable bonus seconds that put him in yellow, while Petacchi confirmed he is the new dominant sprinter in the peloton after winning his second stage in three days.

Winning sprints takes a great deal of power, but it also requires skill and experience. There are other riders with the physiological numbers (power) to match or surpass today’s great sprinters: Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel, Robbie McEwen, and Petacchi. But these men continue to win sprints because of their superior knowledge of how to get to the line first.

Power alone won’t win you a Tour de France field sprint, you need to know precisely how to apply that power, at what time, and from what field position. Riders bump and jostle for position in the final kilometers of the race because your field position at the start of the sprint has a large impact on your placing when you hit the finish line.

Top sprinters want to stay in the draft behind someone’s wheel until they launch that final acceleration to the finish line. In the absence of a lead-out train, this means lining up behind other sprinters.

Some wheels are more valuable than others, and those trying to start the sprint behind Petacchi, McEwen, and Zabel fight the most intense battles. The man who launches for the line first often loses the sprint to the man who started directly behind him, because that second rider has the advantage of accelerating in the draft before having to fight through the wind himself.

Once the final rush to the line begins, experienced sprinters act mostly on instinct, conditioned by thousands of sprints over the course of their racing careers. Davis Phinney, a teammate of mine on 7-Eleven and the American with the most sprint wins to his credit, once told me his secret to negotiating field sprints.

He said once the sprint began, he set his eyes on a spot directly past the finish line and accelerated straight for it. He didn’t look around to see where anyone else was, or if anyone was gaining on him, he only focused on getting to his chosen spot as fast as he could.

Phinney’s rationale was simple and effective. If you focus on the riders around you, you’ll end up tangling it up with them. If, instead, you focus on your destination, you get there without any trouble. Crossing the crowded street is an easy illustration of this point.

If you look at all the people in the crosswalk, you tend to start bumping into them and it’s difficult to find a clear path to the other side. If you pick a point you’re walking toward, though, the clear path becomes evident and you easily sidestep obstacles along the way.

When you’re riding your bike in training or a race, remember that you will tend to go wherever you are looking. This is why it is best to look through corners instead of looking at the curb, and look beyond potholes instead of at them. The same is true of riding in a paceline or a tightly packed group. Look forward instead of staring at the wheel directly in front of you.

Staying in a tight paceline will be essential tomorrow when the racers compete in the team time trial. Stage 4 is a critical day for anyone hoping to win the 2003 Tour de France. You can’t win the Tour in the team time trial, but you can definitely lose it. The US Postal Service will be the last team to start the stage since they are currently leading the team classification. This gives them the advantage of knowing how fast other teams have already ridden.

The Postal squad is one of the strongest teams in the race, and will most likely be one of the top three finishers tomorrow. They don’t necessarily need to win the team time trial, but they do need to be within one minute of the winning time. Expect Bianchi, ONCE, and Telekom to have very strong performances as well. Tyler Hamilton’s CSC team could have a good performance, but it remains to be seen how Tyler’s collarbone will affect his ability to contribute to the team’s effort.