Sprinting, an art? Come on! That can’t be true: my skills go as far as drawing human beings as stick figures or singing like a four-year-old. No, when I think of art, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling come to mind. Fine pieces that took the artists hundreds of days to create and gave them sleepless nights wondering what they can improve. Works made by free souls who don’t feel bound to any restrictions, laws or norms so that they can embrace their creative nature and focus on their art without any outside influence.
I imagine that they go through a painful process, spending hours on tiny details, always questioning the perfection of their work just to end up drunk in their atelier with their muse, waiting for the next enlightenment to set them free from despair. But when they are done, they have crafted something perfect out of their deepest emotions, with a passion that swings between love and hate, and touches the viewer in a way that hasn’t been seen before.
Now, compare that to a sprint in a bike race. Sprinting is a repetitive process of the same simple actions. Here’s what it typically consists of. First of all, make sure that you are in great condition before a race. Then the night before, prepare for it by looking at the road book and the final kilometres on Google Street View together with your team-mates. Discuss a strategy for the race, especially the final, and follow it as closely as possible the next day. I remember those strict army-like orders in my team where everyone had a specific task.
Once in the race, you check out your sprint rivals and their team. There will be the usual trash talk with them where they maybe try to tell you how bad you look today. Just like Marcel Sieberg, who was the lead-out man of André Greipel for many years, used to do. He was constantly talking to me and others, especially in hard race situations. I sometimes got really annoyed by it because I wanted to focus on keeping position or my rhythm going uphill in the gruppetto. I never figured out if this was a planned tactic from him or just Siebi being Siebi. After a while, I knew that game, laughed it off and answered that I had never felt better and that his rear tyre looked kind of flat.
But actually, I did feel like shit. On the other hand, I also knew that it was a temporary feeling that comes from nerves and tension. When the countdown for the last ten kilometres starts, then it’s forgotten and the focus is only on my gameplan from the night before. In the final kilometres, there is a lot of nervous yelling around me: everyone is trying to be in the perfect position with their lead-out men. For a sprinter, it’s a waiting game to get to the point that is near enough to the finish line that you can still reach it with maximum speed and without imploding legs. Decisions are made in split seconds, elbow to elbow with enemies. Going at full speed towards the finish line, waiting for the perfect moment before starting an all-out sprint to the line, grinding my teeth to squeeze the last watt out of my legs. If everything goes right, a sprinter’s “masterpiece” is a sprint that you can be proud of with your whole team.
I think mine came early in my career, the first time I won on the Champs Élysées, 2013. The speed was crazy fast, but my team’s timing was perfect: John Degenkolb and Koen De Kort brought me into position with 250 metres to go. From there, it was all or nothing. I went early, just after the last turn onto one of the world’s most famous roads. I could feel the old cobblestones hitting my tyre and held my handlebars extra tight. Sometimes it felt like my rear wheel nearly lost traction from them, given how hard I was pushing the pedals. A hundred metres before the line, I saw Greipel and Cavendish coming from behind and in that moment, I tried to give it everything one more time and threw my bike at the line. When I crossed it in first place, I became a part of the sprinting elite at last. That sprint has 100,000 views on YouTube and my bike is still behind glass at the sponsor’s museum.
Marcel Kittel wins Stage 1 of the Tour de France in Harrogate. (Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
An incredible self-confidence combined with a winner-takes-all mentality is what everyone expects of a sprinter. We are broadly perceived as egotistic, lazy riders with big mouths. No chance will be wasted to make ourselves more important than we are. Who can win the race tomorrow? Me, of course! Are you afraid of the highspeed finals? No, the crazier the better! Oh, and we care about our looks. And I mean really care. As if you can push 100 more watts when your hair is perfectly groomed and your socks are just so. It’s going to impress everyone including the girls. And it’s reassuring: I’ve got everything under control. Who can beat me now?
Although I’ve never tried to live up to this cliché, I think that it’s fair to say that I maybe wasn’t a loudmouth but someone who thought that enough gel in my hair was just as important as the aero helmet above it. Thinking that I had to look good under a helmet is absolutely ridiculous, but also implicit proof of my sprinter personality – perhaps it was part of my expectation of winning and need to look good on the podium.
So again, how can this hardcore discipline in this hierarchical and simple sport of rough athletes and “push-and-pull” be an art? Maybe it’s good to take a step back and start looking at the idea of the masterpiece again. Sport and sprints are entertainment for the viewer. Just like watching a good movie with Jim Carrey, or listening to the music of Eric Clapton, people connect with artists and their work, and are inspired by it. It’s the same with sprints: every fan has had moments standing up, yelling in front of the TV to support his or her favourite, just like we all cried when Tom Hanks lost his friend Wilson in Cast Away.
But that’s only the visible tip of the iceberg. To deliver top results and performances, you have to work hard. Very hard. I remember spending three weeks at high altitude before the Tour de France. We did long rides of six hours on big climbs. And for what? Just to barely make it into the gruppetto on the high mountain days in the race. When our sessions were shorter, our coach treated us with some nice sprint training – six times ten seconds of sprints in three series and a squat weightlifting session. Walking upstairs afterwards, my legs felt like they were being cut by knives.
On top of the training, you need talent – simply because it’s easier to start working very hard from an already higher level than the opposition. Then, it’s about dedication to your goal. It doesn’t matter whether that’s winning on the Champs-Élysées or painting something that ends up in the Louvre, right next to that famous road. Without a vision, you are lost.
And most of all, it’s about the team. You will not make it to the top by yourself. These points are universal requirements for success and nothing new.
Sprinting becomes an art for me when you take all these basics and combine them with self-control, self-confidence, instinct and experience. If you can’t stay calm in a final of the Tour de France where you’ve got three helicopters above you, tens of thousands of fans screaming one metre away from your face, changing road furniture everywhere and 200 other riders that want to win or make sure they sit in front of you, then you’ve got no chance.
Marcel Kittel talks to the media. (Image credit: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)
From the outside, the actual sprint itself looks like an easy formula with only a few variables – sit in front, wait for the last 250 metres and then go full gas. But if you put in all these aforementioned factors plus the fact that you are very fatigued, it blows up to the mother of equations where the only constant can be yourself.
You have to accept that there is no absolute control and you’ve got to embrace the chaos. This chaos constantly creates new situations and mastering it with your intuition and experience is an art too. In the fight to get to the front, for every gap closing, there will be a new one opening somewhere else. Without a certain calmness or the so-called “sprinter’s eye”, you will not see that. It’s called the flow – when you can focus only on what is important, easily changing wheels by slipping through the peloton. You’ve got the instinct for it and just like that, you’ll be in position when it’s necessary. On days when that happens, it feels effortless and you can’t remember what you did before the sprint because you were just going with the flow.
That special state is only achieved when you are mentally ready for it and that includes the right amount of self-belief in your own ability. Because you can do it! You’ve trained hard, you’ve done it many times before and your team is there to help.
Self-confidence means awareness for your own physical and mental capacities. That also includes your ability to accept every race as a new chance. Lost today? Try again tomorrow. Believe me, that mentality is often the hardest part for a sprinter. That is something I had to learn. For example, at the 2016 Tour, I finished behind a superstrong Cav in the first two bunch sprints.
After stage 3, I asked the team to come together for an extra meeting to discuss the problems that we had in the final and how we could do it better. Et voilà, the next day we won the sprint. I could have panicked but we worked on it as a group, we improved and had champagne with dinner.
To the outside world, sprinters look like the hard guys, but there is a huge amount of doubt in many situations. With a winner-takes-all mentality, you know that the loser gets nothing. So it slowly starts to eat up your self-confidence. In this situation you’ve got two options.
One is that you are aware of this and you can handle it by keeping your self-confidence high. Being able to do that says a lot about the strength of the athlete. But the second option is the one I enjoyed very much: it’s the team and the people around you who realise that you need some positive support and lift you. When you are living your sport 110 per cent then it’s sometimes difficult to keep concentrated on what matters. As stupid as it sounds, losing a smaller preparation race might upset you so much that you are about to lose focus on the real goal a couple of weeks later. It’s the job of your coach and team to give you the space and talks for self-reflection after a difficult period. Sprinters that can deal with defeat quickly and easily are the top performers. But it’s incredibly difficult at times to do that.
Every new race is like an empty canvas with a rough sketch outlined on it. Over the hours, with every pedal stroke of you and your team-mates, the canvas develops and fills up. Finishing it is the task of the sprinter, but it’s like all he’s got is a thick brush: he has to use it in a way that ensures he doesn’t mess up all the fine work that is done before.
It takes a calm head, the knowledge of when to apply more pressure and change colours. When to touch the brakes or switch position is not a conscious decision anymore and depends on your gut feeling and knowledge. It takes years of training and learning from mistakes to get there. But when you finally inspire fans with a simple and effortless looking sprint, then you can call yourself a master of your art.