Plan, prepare, execute – a guide to sprinting from the best in the women's peloton
The sprinter’s mantra. Fast legs, quick thinking and team tactics with three of the best women in the business, from the day before to the post-race appraisal
Chloe Hosking (Trek-Segafredo)
The Australian has many big wins to her name from a decade in the sport, including La Course, a Giro stage and the Commonwealth Games road race
The day before a race, if I haven’t had the opportunity to look at the last three kilometres in person, I go to Google Earth to see them frame by frame. I’ll be watching for any road furniture, the lines I want to take, if the corner’s coming up, if the road seems to be going up a little.
If I have the luxury of doing a finish I’ve done in the past, I’ll watch the YouTube videos and see how it played out. Then I look at the weather. I want to know where the wind’s coming from – is it a headwind? Then you’ve got to go later. Is it a crosswind? Then you need to be protected on one side. Is it a tailwind? Then I can go earlier. Obviously, you adapt for it in the race.
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Afterwards, I talk to the team about the order of the girls [leading out] in front of me or or whether I want them to work earlier for me before I look after myself. I’ve been on big and small teams; I’ve had the big lead-out and also had the situation where I’ve had to surf trains, and I like sprinting both ways!
The Leamington Spa stage that I won in the 2017 Women’s Tour, I’d done the Google Earth recon that afternoon in my hotel room. I saw it was dragging up a bit because the road was wider then it came to a really sharp right-hand corner. I said to my room-mate Romy Kasper: this is my sprint.
So I went into the team meeting and said “I want to sprint today”. At that time, Marta [Bastianelli] was also racing on the same team, so it was really me taking responsibility. That’s a big thing for a sprinter when there’s other sprinters because you’re putting pressure on yourself to deliver a result.Image: Getty/Luc Claessen/Stringer
I’ve become much better at dealing with that. When I was younger, I think I shied away and didn’t react well to it, but I’ve worked with sport psychologists over the last years to find ways to thrive.
When I was on Wiggle [in 2015-16], it was pretty clear we’d sprint for Jolien [D’Hoore] and we had a really good working relationship. I think that I’m a great lead-out rider and I helped her to a lot of results so I was happy to do that. There was a bit of give and take, she switched it and would do that for me in smaller races. It’s hard because we’re athletes, we all have egos and we all want our own opportunities. But at some point in time, you need to step back and be like ‘this is my job and I’m being told right now that I have to sprint for this person. I’m going to do as much as I can to execute that role.’
Of course, there will be clashes. Marta and I had them, like when she sprinted in Sweden [at Vårgårda], I did too and we were sixth and seventh. That’s where the team dynamics come into play and you need to resolve those issues really quickly or it can turn into a poisonous environment.
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There’s this stereotype of sprinters [having big mouths and big egos] too, but I think we’re all athletes and we all want to win, so it’s unfair to lump us into that selfish category and not put anyone else in there. Because it’s not the reality. You do see more often that sprinters can be quite confident – and we need to be that way because at the end of the day, we’re sprinting at 60, 65 kilometres an hour. We need to have an element of fearlessness, sometimes that can come across as bravado. But if you get any sort of athlete in a room by themselves, you’ll see how much actual insecurity there is and how fragile we are. We need validation just as much as anyone else. So, please be kind to us!
Letizia Borghesi (Aromitalia - Basso Bikes - Vaiano)
Sprints aren’t always won in big bunch finishes. 2019 Giro Rosa stage winner Letizia Borghesi on catching a break
After the early kilometres of racing, the pace starts to shift and that is generally when breakaway bids start firing off the front. The peloton slows then speeds up abruptly, changing with the rising and falling of the road. When the speed knocks off, that’s the perfect time to go for it. You have to get a run from behind, pick the right side of the road or get on the wheel of a fellow attacker. It doesn’t matter how many kilometres are left till the finish, the important thing is having total belief in it. Besides, a breakaway does not always go away with the aim of making it to the line, sometimes it’s a tactical gambit.
After building up a bit of a lead, you start calculating. It’s about collaborating, while understanding who’s working and who isn’t. The bigger the lead grows, the more motivated everyone is to keep the pace going. At a certain point, when you realise that it’s going all the way, you convince yourself that today is your day. Everything seems different to all those other races, your thoughts are much clearer. It's like your brain is working faster.Image: Getty/Luc Claessen/Stringer
The closer you get to the finish, you need to hold on to that precious lucidity. The adrenaline increases and you know that you need to gamble and go all in: this is your chance and it isn’t to be wasted. When you think back to those decisive moments in the winning break later, all the suffering is cut from your memory, it’s like it never existed. But of course the next day, you pay for it.
In the closing kilometres, the size of the advantage doesn’t matter – all you need is the certainty of not being caught. Then the race within the race begins among the breakaways. You need to get rid of anyone who has not been working or is hanging on; a little rise or sharp corner is handy for this. A late attack can pay off but if it doesn’t work, there’s no point persisting and wasting valuable energy.
You have to fight the fear that the peloton will catch you, as well as the temptation to take the lead. If you’ve got the nerve, force your rivals to do the work and slot into their slipstream as soon as they do. Channel the nervous energy and use those brief moments to recover and gain a breather. Then make sure you’re in the right gear and your hands are on the drops.
Sheyla Gutiérrez (Movistar Team)
One of the most versatile racers on Movistar Team, the Spanish rider is a Giro Rosa stage winner with a pedigree in one-day races.
Before a sprint it is important to have and visualise the best possible plan, to know where you will have room to pass and what the road is like. During the race a lot of different things can happen and when the sprint comes, it’s chaos. When I watch it on TV afterwards, I’m not fully aware of what we've been through!
You're under a lot of pressure, knowing that the slightest mistake, whether it's yours or another girl’s, can lead to a crash. And, at that speed, it’s going to hurt. But you have to try to not think about that and fulfill your aim – for me, that’s dropping off my sprinter at 200 metres to go. It's very important to have the utmost self-confidence: if you slow down, touch the brakes or stop pedalling, somebody else will take your place. So it's a question of hammering those pedals and holding on.
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It's often a psychological game too. If a sprinter shows that she’s strong and she can win, she acts as if that space belongs to her, but you don't have to let yourself be intimidated. I use my body and say “I'm here too and I'm going to fight, just like you”. At Movistar Team, we now have Emma Norsgaard who is in very good shape this year. Going all out for a team-mate is nice and even if I’m not sprinting for the victory, it’s a great way to get motivated for my own opportunities later in the season. Image: Getty/Luc Claessen/Stringer
When you see a sprint from the inside, thanks to the on-bike cameras, you become aware of the myriad movements and how fast you have to act because everything happens so quickly. You know where you want to go and who you want to follow, but you have to trust your instinct and find your own way, because the sprint is often chaotic. In the heat of the moment, you are capable of doing things that you previously didn't think possible.
I'm usually one of those riders who goes early because I have a long sprint and not so much power. In my case, I need a little bit of uphill, a short rise perhaps, where strength is a factor. When I've been given more freedom, I always go that way.
Often the mental images you get from the finale are not always accurate because even your vision is blinkered and distorted in a sprint. So it's good to analyse what went wrong and what needs to be corrected with the team afterwards, even though you often already have an intuition of what happened. You see that maybe it was better to take a different side of the road or anticipating other riders.
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I have a lot of sprint finishes etched in my mind. For example, the 2016 World Championships in Qatar, which was one for the pure sprinters. I’m not one of those, but the day before our race, I saw Iván García Cortina sprinting to seventh in the under-23s. I said to myself “how did he get up there? What a madman!” And the next day, without thinking about it and knowing that I wasn't the fastest, I did the same and finished eighth, which is a good result in a World Championships. It was surprising to see the sprinters I beat and how I got up there, almost subconsciously. Watching it back now still give me goosebumps.
They always say that sprinters are crazy, but it’s all about not being afraid. Sometimes it's just about closing your eyes, going ahead and doing it.