The Longest Sprint

For a sprinter to prepare for the Tour de France, is like me baking a cake (but not one of those box cakes!) it takes time, a few key ingredients, definitely a lot of patience, and also the confidence that the process is going to pay off. That said, there are a lot of different cakes – some come out great, and some do not – it takes years to perfect. It may be simple to define some of the baseline demands of being a Tour de France sprinter, however the execution is anything but simple.

Weathering the Storm

The number one objective for a sprinter, on a sprint stage, is to make it to the last kilometer of the race in the front of the race. There is a whole series of hurdles a sprinter must clear, before they can even contest the race. So before the actual details of the sprint matter, a rider must get to the start of the sprint in a position to sprint – not in 100th wheel, not in a group off the back, and ideally not even in the front of the field but with a breakaway up the road. I think of this whole, huge part of the race, prior to the sprint as “weathering the storm”.

It can definitely be argued that every race is different and the demands are different, but on a simple physiological level what a sprinter needs to “weather the storm” is the capacity to absorb 3000 to 4000 kilojoules of work, with large chunks of that occurring around FTP or lactate threshold, and some high intensity efforts along the way to stay in the field and to position for the final sprint. With the Tour de France, we certainly have to factor in that it is a 21-day race, which means recovery and ability to handle the load day to day are paramount. Sprinters are going to be preparing not just for the demands of one specific day, but also for the demands of surviving the race in general – which means a lot of climbing.

When it comes to workout construction every athlete and coach is going to have their favorite potion of choice, that gives them the most confidence in preparing to “weather the storm”. Staying with the theme of keeping it simple, here is a baseline example of how a sprinter might prepare for the aerobic demands of a sprint stage, followed up by tapping into their speed for the finish:

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Boiled down a simple line – stay on the pedals, rack up some kJ’s, sprint at the end – focus on good form under fatigue. This is the key, make it to the race, and still be able to go fast. Certainly races vary, and there are further nuts and bolts it can be broken down into, but it’s also easy to lose the forest through the trees. So let’s make sure we’re seeing the forest before getting caught up in the trees. That is what “weathering the storm” is all about. 

Sprint Mechanics

A sprinter has sat patiently in the field for five hours “weathering the storm”. Maybe their team rode the front of the race to bring back a breakaway and give them a chance at the finish. At this point, it is time to execute the sprint, and hopefully win. The fundamental issue is that fifteen other riders and teams have similar hopes and dreams. Now we are into the mechanics of the sprint. In training sprinters may have all prepared really well, but the rider that puts out the highest peak power in the final 200 meters does not always win. The sprint goes way beyond training, beyond intervals and fitness. At the end of the day the mechanics of a sprint are about positioning, timing, a well-drilled team, and a lot of confidence to execute without hesitation.

There is a great article on TrainingPeaks already, that shows some deeper file breakdown of how to quantify the final sprint of a TDF stage, but what doesn’t show up in the file?

To prepare for the mechanics of a sprint, athletes are not sitting at the computer figuring out what intervals they need to do. They are at races, building a team, and building their specific skills. Now, one could certainly counter that any rider contesting sprints at the Tour has built their specific skills pretty well or else they would not be there. That is a fair statement. However, racing is still king for preparation. Ability to “weather the storm” is the entry fee for starting the race, but time spent racing and dialing in sprint mechanics is how to win.

The same way every sprinter is going to have their favorite workouts to prepare, they are also going to have their favorite race schedule. There is by no means one strict path. But, by the time we are watching our favorite sprinters duel it out on TV, they have been preparing their sprint mechanics for six months. A likely lead up could be:

·      January training camp, here the sprint train started to form up and do some specific lead out work – but without the stressors of actual racing

·      February may include a stage race to build some of that general aerobic fitness before getting into the classics campaign. These stage races are also a great chance for the sprinters to test their sprint train in a race setting

·      March and April probably saw some big objectives in the classics, maybe a Milan San Remo podium if things went excellently

·      As the Ardennes classics fired up in the second half of April, our sprint heavyweights were going into recovery mode, possibly before a May trip to altitude as preparation starts for the TDF

·      June includes definitely another stage race as the final preparation of both fitness, and to dial in the sprint train before the big show.

In conclusion – it’s a long process, and it comes with a high risk of failure. The sprint of a Tour de France stage may look like 200 meters on the television, but in reality it is six months (if not six plus years) long.