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How the slowest sprinter won Thursday’s sprint

There’s no winning without the legs, but Cav proves that a sprinter doesn’t have to hit the highest speed to be first.

Sprinting is about timing as much as speed. On Thursday, the slowest man won the sprint.

Okay, obviously Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is not slow. Quite the opposite. But on Thursday he had the lowest top speed of the three riders who ended up on the podium, at least according to data released by the Tour de France. He hit 73.3kph, while second place Marcel Kittel (Etixx – Quick-Step) hit 73.925kph and third place Daniel McLay (Fortuneo – Vital Concept) hit 73.458kph. [73kph is roughly 45mph -Ed.]

So how did Cavendish win? How does that happen? Data from each of the top-three sprinters’ bikes tells the tale.

Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) had the lowest top speed but was on the top step of the podium. Why? Image: ASO/Dimension Data
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) had the lowest top speed but was on the top step of the podium. Why? Image: ASO/Dimension Data

The Tour de France organization and its partner Dimension Data gathered this data, which show each of the top-three riders’ top speeds and where those top speeds fell within the final kilometer. The chart also indicates speed in the form of a heat map. The red parts indicate top speeds. Green is slower, while blue is the slowest color.

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It’s easy to assume that sprints are decided in the final 200 meters. But the data suggest otherwise. Cavendish’s sprint was all about timing and momentum.

Cav was the only rider not to have a brief slowdown as the peloton wound through a roundabout at just under 750m to go, so he didn’t have to re-accelerate. Then he was able to maintain a steady pace (meaning he was well-protected within the bunch) at least 100 meters later than his two rivals. Kittel and McLay both had to punch it earlier, at 500m to go, but Cavendish made his first acceleration around 400m.

The result is that the Manx Missile didn’t slow in the final meters, as both Kittel and McLay did. And his slightly delayed acceleration was enough to put him out front and keep him there. Cavendish won thanks to his superior positioning, his momentum through that last roundabout, and his patience in opening up his sprint a bit later than the others.

This is backed up by a study by Paolo Menaspa that suggests that positioning correlates better to sprint success than peak power output. Through extensive video analysis of pro sprint finishes, Menaspa and his team was able to determine the ideal position (sixth, plus or minus two spots, in case you were wondering) for a sprinter to be in at 1km (or 60 seconds) from the finish line.

Of course, there’s no winning without the legs. But as Cav proved, a sprinter doesn’t have to hit the highest speed to be the first across the finish line.