Australian Michael Matthews has just missed out on a podium finish at his maiden Tour of Flanders, won by unfancied Italian Alberto Bettiol.
Combining brute strength, positioning, teamwork, mind games and a lot of luck, cycling’s sprinters put their bodies on the line at speeds in excess of 70 kilometres per hour when races come down to a pulsating bunch kick.
When the TV viewers switch on and the world watches, these bundles of nervous energy and fizzing testosterone become the metaphorical face of cycling. Their ecstasy (mouth agape, arms aloft) or agony (head down, fists clenched) is instantly recognisable; their rivalries often define the sport.
Win and the world is theirs; lose and the pain and suffering of the past four, five, sometimes six hours, intensifies as their bodies are engulfed in a metaphorical cloak of despair – one that will only be ripped off when they next take to the start.
In stage races that opportunity will come around again soon; in one-day classics it may well be a week, a fortnight or perhaps even longer before the chance at redemption presents itself.
Second place brings no glory – just ask the likes of Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet.
Is there another sport in the world where the deciding moment – the act of a sprinter punching the air as he crosses the line ahead of his rivals – can be so out of sync with the remaining 99.9 per cent of the show?
In a way, that’s the problem with linear sports. A news snippet reporting on a football or rugby match will show a couple of the tries or goals, which may have come mere minutes into the encounter. Unless it’s Scotland versus Australia in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, showing the dying embers of the game will not suffice.
But a 10-second package showing Mark Cavendish being launched by teammate Mark Renshaw before surging past his rivals to win a stage of the Tour de France won’t be able to articulate the thrills and spills that preceded what may look to viewers to be a routine win. What about the breakaway that took an hour to form, the spirited chase by the sprinters’ teams, the peloton splitting in the crosswinds, the pile-up which gave the escapees further hope, the regrouping and inevitable catch, the ambitious counter-attack, the sprinter who went too early, the one who didn’t, and the other who punctured 5km from the finish?
For seasoned cycling fans – with the luxury of being able to follow a stage from start to finish – who crosses the line first may be a mere footnote to the stage’s narrative. For the vast majority, however, it’s all about the winner. And there’s a far greater proportion of Grand Tour stages and other races which culminate in a bunch sprint than a successful break or solo exploit.
This is why sprinters and their teams are so integral to shaping how the public perceives cycling. It’s why sprinters get the sponsors salivating and why whole teams are shaped around one speedster.
When Cavendish won his second stage of the 2009 Tour de France he held his hand to his head and pretended to call his Columbia team’s new co-sponsor HTC – the smartphone manufacturer. When he won his third stage a week later, he took off his Oakley sunglasses and held them out for everyone to see.
The Manx Missile’s victory 10 days after on the Champs Elysees in Paris was his sixth of the race, during which he wore the green jersey for two stints and teammate Tony Martin held the white jersey for 12 days. This all contributed to the team generating an estimated €150 million of measured exposure for the season in western Europe and USA alone. With team budgets varying between €7 million and €30 million, that’s certainly food for thought.
During their various guises (High Road, HTC, Columbia etc.) between 2007 and 2012, Bill Stapleton’s team is said to have generated in excess of $400 million in media exposure off the back of over 500 wins and 50 Grand Tour scalps – a high proportion of which came courtesy of sprinters Cavendish and Andre Greipel.
Every time either rider stormed across the finish in a blur, their sponsor-heavy jerseys got exposure on television broadcasts in up to 180 countries worldwide, on websites, in print text, on social media and in images dispatched globally.
With Cavendish easily picking up more than 20 wins a season in his pomp, the Briton quickly became a global marketing phenomenon. His image became crucial – not merely for his own brand, but for his team and, more widely, the sport itself: a sport thrives when its protagonists capture fans’ imaginations.
And because the vast majority of people who witness bike races only see the cherry on the top, the sprinters have a responsibility to show cycling in a positive light.
A year after Cavendish’s six-stage haul he followed up with a further five wins in France to turn around what had been a troubled campaign. With the press supposedly on his back, Cavendish was sensationally ejected from the Tour de Romandie in April, after gesticulating with a V-sign towards the huddled media as he sprinted to victory in the second stage.
Six weeks later, at the Tour de Suisse, an erratic finish saw Cav veer into the path of Australia’s Heinrich Haussler, causing a mass pile-up that embittered his rivals. The following day the stage start was delayed after the peloton carried out a sit-down protest against Cavendish, resulting in the youngster eventually being pulled from the race.
Similar incidents have littered the sport through the ages. In the heat of the moment, tempers can fly – especially in the goldfish bowl that is the Tour de France.
Take a look at Stage 6 of the 1997 Tour, for instance – one of the most unsavoury bunch sprints in the race’s recent history. Most people’s lasting memory from those closing metres on the finish straight in Marennes was provided by Belgian national champion Tom Steels, who was expelled for “violent behaviour” after throwing a water bottle at Frenchman Frederic Moncassin.
That was only half the story. The initial stage winner, Erik Zabel, was stripped of his victory and demoted to last place for “irregular sprinting” – that’s to say, aiming a headbutt at Moncassin, who was clearly not the most popular man in the peloton that day. Funnily enough, Moncassin himself was disqualified from the Criterium du Dauphine earlier in the season for headbutting Zabel’s teammate Rolf Aldag.
To cap things off, veteran Uzbek sprinter Djamolidine Abdoujaparov was kicked out the race for testing positive for two banned substances, including the anti-asthma drug clenbuterol. The ‘Tashkent Terror’ never rode in the pro peloton again.
It’s no surprise things can get heated at the business end of a race. With sprint trains putting their plans into action, freeloaders trying to hitch a lift, and lone warriors trying to hold the back wheel of whoever they think will be quickest out of the traps, the final kilometres leading up to the actual sprint are fast, furious and incredibly volatile – and that’s before the individual fast men launch their sprints in a flurry of elbows, bowed heads, swaying shoulders, and intense rivalries.
“A sprint is like all the teams in the Premier League on one pitch, all trying to score in one goal. And it’s first goal wins,” Cavendish told the Financial Times last year – days before he scored an own goal by wiping out Simon Gerrans in the opening stage of the 2014 Tour in his mother’s home town of Harrogate (the crash forced Cavendish out with a separated shoulder).
But it’s this element of danger en route to glory that makes the sprinters so feted by fans. Their characteristics and attributes are lauded by journalists and celebrated on social media. It’s no coincidence that some of the best nicknames in cycling belong to these fast men, who are perpetually within a whisker of hitting the tarmac or biting the bitumen.
The thighs of Andre ‘The Gorilla’ Greipel practically have their own personalities, while the German veteran’s grin between those bulging biceps held aloft are as much a part of his frequent wins as the sight of the Lotto train roaring into action.
Whether it’s flicking a V-sign, pretending to make a phone call, proffering his sunglasses, or simply pointing at the sponsor’s logo on his chest, Cavendish has a knack of greeting each win (and there have been many) in his own unique way – more often than not followed by a lengthy interview that pulls no punches.
Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni dips and ducks his way all over the finishing straight, muscling into position and pummelling his opponents – very much drawing on his time as an amateur boxer. Alexander Kristoff uses tenacity and positioning to catch his opponents unawares.
John Degenkolb nods his head and pulls his handlebars with such ferocity while approaching the finish line that his front wheel is often off the ground as he shouts out a trademark “Jaaaah!” Meanwhile, his fellow German and former teammate Marcel Kittel uses brute strength before revealing on the podium the peloton’s slickest hair – coupled with his Hollywood smile.
Most impressive, perhaps, is Peter Sagan, the swashbuckling Slovakian world champion who made a name for himself as a spunky 22-year-old back in 2012 with a series of zany victory salutes on the Tour – including the chicken dance, the body builder pose, and the Forrest Gump-style running man.
While Sagan’s celebrations raised eyebrows and angered some of the sport’s traditionalists, the burgeoning talent certainly won over fans with his youthful exuberance and playful antics.
“Are Sagan’s celebrations obnoxious? I say no,” tweeted journalist Daniel Friebe at the time. “People will tune in to see what he does next. Great for sport.”
The likes of Cavendish, Kittel, Kristoff and Sagan – and before them, the imperious Italians Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini – are integral in keeping things fresh and exciting in the peloton. Taken as a whole, flat stages are not always the most dramatic, but the coming together of the fast men on the home straight ensures that the race will end with a bang – enthralling spectators and enticing sponsors.
Sprinters are the strikers of cycling – the glamour boys in the mould of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, who will either benefit from their teammates’ build-up play, or simply collect the ball and thrash it into the back of the net in a moment of magic (of course, some sprinters can’t pick up a win for toffee and are more Balotelli than Benzema).
Like WWE wrestlers, the fast men are often larger than life and in possession of personalities exaggerated by the media circus. They’re entertainers, and with that comes a responsibility to perform with panache, keep us guessing, but stay within the rules.
There’s a fine line and it’s easy to cross. While Greipel was praised for being ‘gentlemanly’ during a Cavendish victory in last year’s Tour, the big German was disqualified for closing the door on Elia Viviani weeks later in the Tour of Britain.
What goes around comes around in this high-octane, chaotic, pressurised world – and in the case of sprinters, it comes around fast.
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