While Peter Sagan was climbing the gruesome Col du Tourmalet over the weekend, a fan ran alongside him waving a pen under his nose along with a copy of his autobiography, Peter Sagan: My World. For most riders you suspect it would have be quite distracting to see an image of their own face appear a few inches in front of them during one of the hardest climbs in the Tour de France, but then Sagan is not like most riders. As he rode up the steep ascent he grabbed the pen, flattened out the book on his handlebars and scrawled an autograph on the front cover.
Right now Sagan leads the sprinter’s points classification, and victory on today’s stage 16 – the last flat day before Paris – would all but secure a record seventh green jersey. Like most sprinters – and to call Sagan a sprinter is to almost downplay his array of talents on a bike – he is something of a showman; it takes a certain type of lunatic to ride shoulder to shoulder with their rivals at 70kph, so perhaps it is no coincidence that the best sprinter of the bunch is also the sort of person who signs autographs while climbing the highest col in the French Pyrenees.
This is the thing about sprinters – they tend to have a certain maverick quality. Among the diverse personalities and physiologies of the peloton they are typically the alphas, the muscle men with raw power in their legs and a fearlessness in their eyes. They live on the sharp edges of cycling, on millimetres and milliseconds, and for what is an epically long race the bulk of their work can be distilled down to a few key moments leading into a few flat finishes: win a stage by an inch and the whole three weeks is deemed a success for themselves and the whole team; lose and they have failed.
“To be able to deal with that pressure, I feel like you need to be an extrovert,” says Mark Cavendish. “It’s not something you actively try and do, beat your chest, but it takes a specific type of person.”
Cavendish would know. He has 30 career stage wins at the Tour de France to his name, and is considered one of the greatest sprinters of all time. At times he relied on his own fiery character during running battles with rivals like Andre ‘the Gorilla’ Greipel, Thor ‘the Bull’ Hushovd and infamously Sagan too: they collided in 2017 resulting in the Briton’s abandonment of the Tour and the Slovakian’s disqualification – a decision which was later overturned – and that year remains the only gap in Sagan’s collection of green jerseys since 2012. The last man to win green before his streak began was Cavendish.
That level of consistent success breeds confidence, and it also breeds fear: winning creates an aura, an impression of invincibility which is a useful weapon in a game played out as much in the mind as in the legs. “Psychological edge is massive in sprinting,” says Cavendish. “You can believe or you can doubt yourself. It’s the difference between a gap being one metre late that you’re gonna launch, then it’s three seconds and you’re sat on the wheel and you’re about to lose. It’s about having confidence in the decisions your making – having confidence in yourself has an impact on the decisions your making.”
Some of those decisions are already planned out before a rider gets on the bike. Cavendish is famous for poring over the final kilometres of a route and committing it to memory, but there is no substitute for pure racing nous. “You can only pre-plan stuff to a certain degree because there are so many variables – road conditions, weather conditions, mechanicals… You have an idea of whose wheel you want to be on. You don’t know that team X will do this, but you know that realistically the odds are team X will do that, so you think that’s the most likely thing and you plan for it. But it doesn’t always work out.”
Those more unpredictable moments require an instinct which needs to be honed and maintained like any talent. “People’s brains work differently. The brain is like a muscle and you have to train it, keep it active, keep active in races. I notice if I haven’t raced for a while. It’s hard to see things clearly so you have to relearn that.”
For Cavendish, who has to watch this Tour from home after missing out on Dimension Data’s selection, sprinting is the ultimate in tactical bike racing. “Sprinting for me is the only part of road cycling left that involves real tactics. Mountain stages, I make no secret saying it, for me it’s like time trialling now where everyone sets off together, everyone knows what they can sustain on the climb. So when it comes to tactics in cycling, sprinting is what it’s about. Every single decision, or lack of decision, impacts the race.”
For sprinters like Sagan, Caleb Ewan, Elia Viviani and Dylan Groenewegen – all of whom have one win each so far in this Tour de France – this is the final chance to win a stage before Paris. It is a test of tactics and timing, of the legs and lungs, but it is also a game which requires a certain level of lunacy just to take part. “It’s because sprinting is judged on wins,” explains Cavendish. “Someone who was sixth in the Tour de France got paid more than me than when I was winning everything. So for a GC rider, it’s not all about winning. For a sprinter, all you’re judged on is your wins. With that comes a certain bravado.”
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