On the off-chance that I ever find myself at a music concert with some of the men’s WorldTour peloton in attendance, there would be one rider I’d look for to help me squeeze through the crowd to the front row. Bora-Hansgrohe’s Danny van Poppel is the man for the job.
As he’s proven in the opening two sprint stages of this year’s Vuelta a España, Van Poppel can sniff out a gap in a bunch of riders hurtling along at breakneck speeds in a way which is unfathomable to us watching on TV. He can duck and dive through small openings to put himself into the perfect position: out of trouble, but rarely in the wind. When Van Poppel looks like he might be boxed in, he can wriggle out of situations, chancing his luck like a kid trying to get out of being given detention.
Van Poppel acts on instinct, he has the gift of lightning speed reaction times that are common among many of the world’s best lead-out men – think Michael Mørkøv or Jacopo Guarnieri. He sees the line he wants to take and can adjust quickly if required. He calculates whether to choose the right or left side of the road based on the wind and which wheel he thinks is the right one to follow. In sprints with speeds upwards of 50 km/ph, just a split second of hesitation can be the end of any chance of getting a result. A lead-out man needs confidence in his convictions, he needs to commit fully when the moment is right and he needs to remain calm in the face of chaos all around him.
But among all of this, perhaps the most important key to Van Poppel’s success is his awareness of where his sprinter is. In the second stage of the 2022 Vuelta a España, Van Poppel was leading out Irish rider Sam Bennett who hasn’t won a Grand Tour stage for the last two seasons. As the peloton entered the final 800 metres of the 160km stage, things were crazy. There had been crashes to avoid, roundabouts to navigate, road furniture to hop over, GC teams trying to keep their leaders safe. As this happened all around him and as the stage reached its dizzying climax, Van Poppel did one thing: he kept looking over his shoulder.
Image: A.S.O/Charly Lopez
Three times in the final stretch to the line, the Dutchman checked where Bennett was. He positioned the Irish sprinter perfectly, still leading him out while Trek-Segafredo’s Mads Pedersen (who finished second on the stage) had already opened up his sprint. The speed with which Van Poppel brought Bennett to the front was something to behold, so much so that Bennett said in his post-race interview: “Danny didn’t deliver me, he launched me.”
A day later, stage three of the race was run on similarly flat but complicated parcours. The sprint was even faster, it was more stressful, and, with 800 metres to go, it looked like Bora-Hansgrohe had fluffed it. Van Poppel and Bennett weren’t even in shot of the helicopter picture as it showed the bunch galloping towards the line. The boys in their green jerseys were more than eight riders down the long line which was being stretched out by Alpecin-Deceuninck.
It was Van Poppel, though, who brought things back together. He did it not by putting in a massive amount of work to reposition Bennett at the front, but by waiting. He surfed the wheels until every other team had used up their lead-out man. With just over 150 metres of the stage remaining, Van Poppel got out of the saddle and launched himself, with Bennett tight to his wheel, to the front of the bunch. It meant that Bora-Hansgrohe almost had a two-sprint attack: Van Poppel went full gas, then Bennett went full gas and it gave them the speed they needed to cross the finish line ahead of the rest. “Danny, it was a masterclass,” said Bennett after the stage, gushing with praise for his entire team.
While it was the Irishman standing on the podium at the end of the stage, doing the post-race interviews, having cameras snapping his every move, having flowers and praise showered on him, Van Poppel’s contribution was the deciding factor in Bennett’s win. Sprinting is about more than simply having the fastest rider. The job of a lead-out man is crucial and getting it right is an art form: timing, speed, wind direction, watching other riders, staying safe, remaining calm, being aware of your sprinter. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the peloton, and Van Poppel has just asserted himself in this race as employee of the season.
Perhaps his skillset is helped by the fact that Van Poppel was once a sprinter himself. The Dutch rider has 18 wins on his palmarès, the biggest being a stage win at the 2015 Vuelta a España. He’s been a part of the professional peloton for 10 years, so has plenty of experience in those hectic finishes. Although Van Poppel was never a prolific winner as a sprinter, it seems he’s found his calling as a lead-out man, and the trust that Bennett has in the 29-year-old is creating a match made in heaven at this year’s Vuelta.
The only problem that remains for the triumphant sprinting duo is that there are very few sprint stages left in the race for them to further exhibit their newfound mastery of bunch sprints. They’ll need to make it to the final stage in Madrid for another fully straightforward flat day, and there’s over 4000 metres of climbing to contend with until then.
But whether Bennett and Van Poppel complete the 21 stages of this year’s race, they’ll be able to take something valuable out of these two wins in the opening days in Holland: confidence. For Bennett, it’s the belief he needs that he can still sprint with the best, and for Van Poppel, it’s a newfound status as one of the best lead-out men in the WorldTour.