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Tour de France explained: How does a leadout work?

Coming to the line at top speed requires a perfectly coordinated team to make sure the sprinter is in the right spot

Tour de France explained: How does a leadout work?

If you’ve been following the Tour de France you’ve most likely witnessed the remarkable efficiency of leadout trains. On Wednesday, Mark Cavendish won his 35th stage win, breaking the all-time record of 34 he shared with Eddy Merckx. Although he’s very quick on a bike, his Astana leadout was top-notch. In fact, they–including his poisson pilote, Michael Mørkøv, were carefully assembled to ensure a good train in the finale.

Have you ever been amazed by a pro rider emerging from the peloton, surging ahead in the closing moments of a gruelling road race, and claiming victory? The synchronized beauty of a leadout train unfolds as each team’s riders take turns, peeling off one by one, perfectly positioning their sprinter for the final sprint with just a few hundred meters to go. Typically, the top teams start organizing with 5 or 10 km to go, intensifying their efforts in the final 2 km. The last rider in the leadout is essentially a sprinter themselves, sprinting full throttle before the final kick.

Assembling the leadout train

Gord Fraser, one of Canada’s fastest pro sprinters ever, winessed countless leadouts throughout his career. He rode the Tour de France back in 1997.  “I didn’t experience a proper leadout until I joined the Mercury team. In the first year, Julian Dean was our go-to leadout man. He moved on to US Postal, and the following year, we had a rotation of Mike Sayers, Derek Bouchard Hall, and John Peters,” he explained. “The next year, Henk Vogels became our primary leadout rider, with Baden Cooke joining as well. In 2001, the standout year for Mercury, we had the incredible leadout duo of Henk Vogels and Jans Koerts. The following year, Graeme Miller came on board to support Vogels and Sayers.”

Coordinating the finale

Leadouts serve various crucial purposes, Fraser elaborates. In the closing kilometers, the team aims to keep their sprinter near the front and out of trouble. (Similar tactics are employed by GC teams leading up to climbs, with riders maintaining a high pace and the team leader positioned at the back of the train. As the climb begins, each cyclist peels off until the top climbers remain, supporting the highest-positioned rider in a favorable spot to counter attacks.)

“Many teams are incredibly well-coordinated, allowing the sprinter to conserve energy by simply following their train,” Fraser said. This enables the designated sprinter to focus on their opponents amidst the often chaotic finale.

Putting the speedsters together

Pro teams will hire specific riders solely for the purpose of leadouts. Some riders even bring their leadout trains with them when transferring to other teams.

“Leadout men are exceedingly rare and valuable team players,” Fraser said. He cites current leadout riders like Mørkøv and recently retired cyclist Mark Renshaw as some of the most impressive leadout specialists.

But what if a team lacks the strength to contest the leadout? What if the sprinter finds themselves alone, without a train to follow? Why don’t they simply latch onto their opponent’s wheel?

“Sprinters will indeed ‘freelance’ in search of sprint trains,” explains the former national champion. Occasionally, teams can position another rider on their sprinter’s wheel to prevent this, but it can be challenging if they run out of available riders. That’s why the starting point of the train becomes crucial, although Fraser points out that it’s not always clearly defined. “Sometimes it happens organically,” he said. Although sometimes teams may discuss it beforehand after examining the course map.

That being said, it’s not always an exact science. “There is no ideal rendezvous point, despite all the best planning and map searches,” he warns. “Teams run the risk of over-analyzing and filling their heads with too much information. The most important thing is a sprinter you want to fight for!”

However, starting too early poses risks. “There’s a chance of running out of riders, leaving the sprinter isolated,” Fraser said. “If the leadout train falters or the team disintegrates, the sprinter might have to surf other trains.”

Timing is everything with a leadout

Thus, determining the starting point of the leadout depends on various factors. “It also depends on how many riders you have and how many are willing to commit to the leadout,” he said. “The whole idea is to remove decisions and efforts from the sprinter.”

Fraser also highlights that the earlier a team takes the front, the more likely other teams will allow them to, recognizing that your team may shoulder the majority of the work. Therefore, assembling a robust leadout squad becomes paramount.

“It’s crucial that all the pieces are interchangeable, so the team instinctively knows who’s too fatigued and can swap positions on the fly,” he said.

So, during the 2024 Tour de France, appreciate the meticulous organization and strategic maneuvers happening at speeds of 50-60 km/h!