The battle of the minds behind sprint cycling

Germany sprint king Greipel’s dominance was clearly visible in the recently concluded Tour de France.

Greipel has won 10 individual stages on Tour de France [Getty Images]
Greipel has won 10 individual stages on Tour de France [Getty Images]

Sunday’s traditional finale to the Tour de France saw Chris Froome and Team Sky paraded through Paris to celebrate three weeks of almost total domination.

From the flatlands of Holland, through the Pyrenees and then the Alps, Froome became the first British rider to win this iconic event for a second time .

In addition to Froome in yellow, the fans who thronged the Champs Elysee were left with another familiar sight from this year’s race – German speed king Andre Greipel powering away to win yet another sprint stage, his fourth of the Tour.

Training the body
To train his explosive finish , Greipel follows a motorbike which steadily increases pace to 60kmph, before repeatedly practising sprinting off the wheel, reaching speeds of 73kmph.



The 2010 green jersey winner Alessandro Petacchi would do 20-second progressive sprints from a standing start, ten times in a row with 100 seconds rest in between. 

Head down, face racked with pain, his monstrous thighs generating speeds of over 70km per hour, Greipel has been a force of nature on the flat roads this year.

Not even 26-time stage winner Mark Cavendish could live with him. Cavendish used his trademark nous to wriggle through a tiny gap and burst away to take Stage 7 but apart from that, he was well and truly eclipsed.

Sprint cycling is a mental game more than anything and, according to Robbie McEwen, an Australian sprinter who racked up twelve stage wins on the Tour between 1997 and 2010, Greipel’s dominance perhaps resulted from the enormous stress release of winning early.

Greipel outclassed his rivals to win the second stage and seemed to have the edge from there on.

“For sprinters, it’s only stage wins that counts so that takes a lot out of you,” McEwen told Al Jazeera.

“There’s a massive amount of pressure on the guys who haven’t won yet. And that builds and builds. Once Cavendish had been beaten twice by Greipel in week one, his confidence really took a knock.”

Sprinting is cycling’s biggest test of mental agility. An entire day’s riding comes down to a few kilometres of steadily increasing mayhem, at speeds reaching over 70kmph.

Amid the jostle for prime position around bending roads, confidence and aura count more than anything when it comes to spotting a way through the mass of packed wheels.

For an in-form rider like Greipel over the past three weeks, things will have been unfolding almost in slow motion.

Greipel’s approach is based on raw power [Reuters]

“When you’re riding that well you don’t even have to think about it. You anticipate and everything just happens,” McEwen added.

“Nothing stresses you out. You take everything in and you know that whatever happens, you’ve got what it takes to react.

“When things aren’t going so well, you just miss those little gaps, and things don’t go to plan. It’s all linked to confidence.”

For Baden Cooke, who won the Tour’s green jersey in 2004, the memories of his best races remain imprinted on his mind in vivid detail.

“When you’re struggling, like Cavendish has been, everything happens too quickly for you,” he said.

“It’s like the whole race is in fast-forward and afterwards you can’t remember anything that’s happened. But with the 2004 Tour, I can talk you through each sprint I did, how I felt and what moves I made.”

At the end, the cameras focus on the key men. But cycling is a team sport and it has been the excellence of Greipel’s lead-out train, the impeccably drilled bunch of riders from Lotto-Soudal, that has underpinned his dominance.

Cavendish’s chances were undoubtedly buffeted by the loss of his main lead-out man Tony Martin who fractured his collarbone during Stage 6.

“Greipel and Cavendish will have the same three or four guys with them all year round,” Cooke added.

“So those guys know each other inside out. With 3km to go, they know what they’re all capable of and what to do, while sprinters at the lesser teams maybe have one guy with them all year.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the head-to-heads in the sprints is the different styles.

Greipel talks
The dangers of sprinting : “Crashing is part of our job. I once dislocated my shoulder after crashing at 60kmph. It could have been much worse but that’s just part of cycling.”


Mind games : “I’m not really into it but there’s some good actors in the peleton. They pretend to be hurting to trick riders into expending extra effort early in the race to try and drop them, so they don’t have so much left at the finish.”


The right position at the right time : “It’s all about timing and that comes through a kind of instinct which mother nature gives you. The races we do throughout the year, you\’re trained to react fast to different scenarios but what separates the best is their instinct.”

Some, like 24 year old French rider Nacer Bouhanni, rely on a natural instinct for knowing where to position themselves at the right time.

Greipel’s approach is based on raw power, trained through a mixture of intense gym work and hill running, to enable him to push through to the line as everyone else is fading.

Cavendish has dominated for so many years because he combines the power of Greipel with the guile of Bouhanni.

“He’s a master of mind games, he’s a very intelligent guy,” Cooke said.

”He’s always looking at who he’s got to beat, and how he’s going to get up on them Even if someone’s going faster than him, he’ll have a way in his mind of how he’ll still beat them.”

But speak to any sprinter and he will say that repeated success in an event like the Tour comes down to confidence and intimidation due to the brutal physical toll a bunch sprint takes on the body.

“It’s all in the mind,“ Cooke says. “It’s a mixture of intimidating your opponent, bluffing yourself into being able to go through the pain and actually going and doing it while the whole time still keeping calm.

“The sprints start at 10km or even 20km to go. And then with every kilometre, it’s faster and faster and faster.

“It’s a skill to be able to stand up, put your head down, sprint and keep pushing like that. Every moment of that last 100m, you just want to sit down, you’re in so much pain.”

Such are the extremes sprinters push themselves too, McEwen says he would often see black stars in front of his eyes.

In the tent afterwards, every man is in utter agony for 30 minutes. Sometimes even longer.

But someone like Greipel, with repeated wins under their belt, will always recover the fastest.

Source: Al Jazeera


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