There once was a set formula for winning a bunch sprint in a bike race: fill your team with beefy lead-out men and have them nudge and elbow a path through the final kilometres to deposit you – the clinical finisher, the feted, highly paid sprinter – on a silver platter, with a hundred and fifty metres to go.
Mario Cipollini invented it, Mark Cavendish perfected it, and dozens of sprinters in between have utilised it.
As we’re seeing, in so many ways at this edition of Le Tour, times have changed. New protagonists are coming to the fore and they have new ways of winning. They also, as an aside, have fancy haircuts and on-message social media outputs.
It’s a new era.
In general, I’m a fan of the new. I remember when Caleb Ewan appeared in the dog days of the Cavendish age to take his first wins as a pro in 2015.
He was tiny.
He had a cutting-edge millennial name.
And he dipped forward, and so low over his front wheel, as he sprinted.
This guy is the future, I thought to myself. He must be. He looks like no other sprinter.Embed from Getty Images
And if we know anything about the future it’s that it looks futuristic.
Give him a year, maybe two, and he’ll dominate, I continued to think. But in the big races he got bullied. He looked, and rode, like a kid. Always in the wrong position. Never in the fight. I gave him until the end of 2016 and then bailed on him.
This guy is NOT the future I told anyone who would listen, how could you think such a thing, are you out of your mind?
No-one was really listening.
And then, as 2017 progressed, he perked up a bit.
Four stages at the Tour Down Under. A stage at the Giro d’Italia. A top ten at Milan San-Remo. But then he dipped in 2018. His team moved him on. Slippery slope, I thought, but kept to myself.
And here we are, in 2019. Caleb Ewan is no longer the future but he might, just might, be the present. In an era with no current truly dominant sprinter he is arguably, right now, top dog. Two stages at this year’s Giro and now two, following today’s sprint on Stage 16, at this Tour de France.
And without a lead out train.
The stage was the flattest of this race.
The teams of the sprinters attentive, absolutely guaranteeing the day would end in a sprint.
To say the day’s break was given a short leash would be like saying Tony Martin is a reasonably strong cyclist. Our favourite German, in fact, was the holder of the leash. The owner to this dog of a break. Primed to pull it away each time it sniffed another animal’s bum, tiny plastic bags at the ready to handle it’s fresh, warm poo.Embed from Getty Images
And come the sprint Elia Viviani had a textbook, man after man after man, lead-out train. Dylan Groenewegen had something of a lead-out train. Caleb Ewan ignored his lead-out train completely and sat on Groenewegen’s wheel.
Viviani’s men peeled off, one by one, placing the Italian, carefully, by hand, into the kind of position from which Cavendish would have won the sprint so easily back in 2010 as to be doing so almost against the spirit of competition.
Ewan, meanwhile, timed a long-range sprint to scorch past Groenewegen and leave Viviani – a sensationally quick sprinter – looking cumbersome and unimaginative, as if sprinting by numbers.
The lead-out train is dead (long live the lead-out train?)