Hedging bets, taking risks and increasing the speed: Why modern day bunch sprints are harder to win than ever

The likes of Tim Merlier, Mark Renshaw and Sam Bennett discuss how faster finishes and an increased level have changed the art of the bunch sprint for good

“I remember when I won a stage of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia in the same year and then I was riding 53/11t, today I’m riding 56/11t. Before you could sprint just about 68kph but now you need to go 70kph, sometimes 72kph. The level is going up.”

These were the words of UAE Tour stage four winner Tim Merlier, just a few moments after he took another convincing victory in the Middle East, beating his fellow fast men, once again, by close to a bike length. The Belgian sprinter’s words echoed murmurings that have been ruminating through the sport in recent seasons: bunch sprinting is not the same as it once was. Gone are the days when a couple of well-drilled teams with lead out trains of six or seven riders would line things out on the front; what we’re now seeing are faster, messier, scrappier sprints, that are harder to win – and more dangerous – than ever.

For experienced sprinters who have been riding and winning WorldTour bunch kicks for plenty of seasons, this shift in the peloton has been tangible. Two-time Tour de France stage winner, Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale’s Sam Bennett, explained to Rouleur ahead of the second sprint stage at the UAE Tour that he now opts to have fewer riders in his lead out train, in order to make it easier for the team to stick together in the final, chaotic throes of a flat stage.

“It’s almost harder to have a full train now. It’s better to have one or two guys in front so you have a more compact lead out train because there are so many teams now, that it’s too hard to keep it all together,” Bennett explained. “In UAE it’s so messy, it’s four or six lanes wide and there’s still not enough room for us all. It’s more competitive and there are more guys there.”

Bennett’s musing that less powerful lead out trains is a better approach to sprinting is reflected in Merlier’s recent two UAE Tour stage wins. The Belgian rider’s Soudal–Quick-Step team were far from the most dominant lead out train in each stage, but Merlier had a trusted final man in Bert van Lerberghe, which was all he needed to weave through the madness and cross the finish line first. With GC rider Ilan van Wilder in the team, Soudal–Quick-Step is a squad that has multiple aims during sprint stages, too: the first is for Merlier to win, and the second is for Van Wilder to be protected in the peloton and shielded from any danger.Tim Merlier wins stage three of the UAE Tour (Image: RCS/Sprint Cycling Agency)

In fact, this is a dynamic that the majority of WorldTour teams are grappling with. Israel-Premier Tech's Pascal Ackermann, an experienced sprinter, explained how he’d noticed this change in the bunch too.

“I actually think, in the past, we had more lead outs. It was full lead outs with five or six sprinters, now it’s just down to three riders because they also take more care of the climbers,” the German rider said.

Sports directors have played a crucial part in the change of focus that sprinters like Bennett and Ackermann mention. With the hectic nature and competitiveness of bunch sprints, it’s a big risk to head to a stage race with sprint wins as a sole focus. Instead, the majority of WorldTour outfits are opting for a versatile line-up which includes riders who can excel on a range of terrain.

“There’s a lot of sprint teams now who generally hedge their bets both ways. There’s not many teams that come with just a pure sprinter any more, there’s always two objectives for a team, with the GC because there are so many points on offer, and for sprinters because they also changed the points over the last couple of years with sprint stages,” Mark Renshaw, a former lead-out man for Mark Cavendish and current Astana-Qazaqstan sports director, commented. “Really, there’s no team that is coming just with sprint objectives.”

As more and more riders in the peloton are now gunning for stage wins, the overall dynamic of racing has changed as a result. The aggressive racing style that has been championed by the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel in recent seasons means that races open up a lot earlier and sometimes the fight for the breakaway goes on for hours. If sprinters want a chance to be in with a shot at the line by the end of all this, they need to be able to handle some difficulties, rather than just relying on coasting to the finish before unleashing their sprint. Two of the most successful sprinters in the current crop, Merlier and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) are prime examples of riders who can make it over some punchy climbs without it having too much impact on their speed at the end.

“In the racing it’s way harder than before, so you need a super high threshold and level to just make it to the sprint and still be fresh,” Ackermann commented when reflecting on how much more challenging stage races have become in recent years.

Speaking the day after the UAE Tour’s first mountain top finish, Bennett echoed his colleague’s sentiment.

“I think the sprinters are smaller and they have bigger engines now. I was saying to the boys and the other sprinters yesterday on Jebel Jais, each year we are going further and further up this climb and with more ease as well,” Bennett said. “It’s changing how strong people are getting. I don’t remember a sprint field being this competitive as it is in this race. Every team has someone who can win. There’s so many lead out trains that it is getting more messy so it’s all about having a big engine and getting to the finish fresher.”

When it comes to the sprints themselves, as Merlier mentioned after winning his second stage in the UAE, the speeds are higher than ever – especially as riders use bigger chainrings on the long, flat roads that the race in the desert offers. The likes of Renshaw and Bennett put much of this increase in speed down to the improved technology and research coming from teams as budgets increase across the board.

“I think the sport has changed since I retired in 2019. Post-covid, there was a big change around the aerodynamics and around the gearing that riders are using on the bikes,” Renshaw explained. “With equipment advances, I think the speed has increased and in saying that, there are now more sprinters on a higher level and It’s more difficult to win than ever with the level of the current sprinters in the peloton.”

The increase in speed of sprints is also forcing riders into taking more risks while racing – gaps open and close in the peloton far more quickly and everyone needs to be alert in order to avoid incidents. Recently-retired lead out man, Shane Archbold, who now works as a sports director for Bora-Hansgrohe, pointed out that the injuries riders suffer in crashes can also be more serious as a result of the fast speeds mentioned by Merlier after his stage win.

“For sure, it’s getting faster. There’s technology, training, nutrition, everything. The guys are getting faster, the bikes are getting faster, the tyres are getting faster, so the speeds are,” Archbold said. “The more the speed goes up, the more the reaction times go down and the less time you have to react. Unfortunately also the faster you go, the harder you hit the ground.”

As crashes have marred the finales of both two sprint stages so far at the UAE Tour, riders seem to have no choice but to accept that these incidents are an unavoidable part of the sport. Some sprinters are faring better well in these modern, messy and extremely fast bunch sprints, while others are trying to get to grips with how to approach a sprinting landscape that looks markedly different from that of five years ago. 

“All the technology is getting so even, it’s more about who takes the most risk because the reward is so big,” Bennett explained. The Irishman summed up the peloton’s new era of fast racing perfectly: "There’s so many guys now that it’s so even, you can’t out-do them with your legs. It’s a bit more crazy than before."

Cover image: Getty 

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