Monday, January 22, 2007

Being Zabel

A guy you can't help but root for is Eric Zabel. I wanted him to win a stage here and there in 2006, maybe the Worlds. It would let him retire and save me from feeling bad for him when he gets demolished in various sprints during the various big Tours. He's a very good sprinter but something seems to be lacking in the last few years.

I was watching my 2003 Tour DVDs (and Hollentour, which covers TMobile during that Tour), and like usual was watching the flat stages. The ones ending in field sprints hold particular fascination for me. I noticed in one stage that Zabel made some huge efforts in the wind with a kilo or so to go, trying to move into position. You can't do that and win unless you're a crushingly dominant sprinter.

After watching about five stages like that, I realized it wasn't a fluke. Zabel would enter the last couple kilometers too far back, use up a lot of his snap moving up the last four of five spots, sit in the wind next to his rivals in order to "stay near the front", and then get killed when everyone actually went for it.

Ten years after his peak, he's definitely not a crushingly dominant sprinter. So he has to get more clever. If he was a little more conservative with his energy expenditures, stayed out of the wind a little more, I think he'd have had a little more success in the sprints. He never won, but he didn't lose by much - a foot here, a couple feet there. All margins which could be attributed to a minor error in the last 1500 meters. He certainly had the legs to make the finishes so close. He just needs to get over that last hump so that he's the one a couple feet up.

I guess one factor, after watching Hollentour, is that he only had one guy helping him out - his roommate Rolf Aldag. As strong as Aldag is, after attacking, chasing, and pulling all day long, Aldag can't be expected to be a 100% leadout guy. It's asking too much from one racer.

Unfortunately for him in the various Tour sprints, to win everything has to come together. For Zabel, it would be a combination of factors.

First, he is a relatively strong racer who has reserves when other (faster) sprinters are done. So the race has to be long and hard - like Worlds. Hilly enough to burn off the sprinters but not so hilly that Zabel himself comes off. A friend of mine once told me "I can't sprint with the best guys but if I get over the hills with the climbers... well they just can't sprint. I'm like Cipollini compared to them."

Second, Zabel doesn't have the top speed that the other sprinters have. So he needs a finish that dulls that top end speed - maybe a slight uphill or a bumpy surface. Jaan Kirsipuu was like this at the end of his career, and he pulled out an amazing win in a slow motion sprint which played to his current strengths - a powerful but no longer blazing fast sprinter. Kirsipuu stated that the finish was perfect for him - slightly uphill, a bit of a headwind, one made for power sprinters, not the fastest ones. He even led out his teammate Jean Patrick Nazon who ended up finishing behind him. (In a later sprint, Kirispuu did a proper lead out and his Nazon won).

Third, Zabel needs a long sprint - his strength is not in popping out at 50 meters to go. He uses his relative fitness to go from a long way out. Tailwinds are the best for these sprinters as such a wind diminishes the importance of the jump.

Fourth, he needs at least one solid leadout man (if not two or three). Based on his type of sprint, it would be best if the leadout man was similar - a racer good at long leadouts, sustaining an incredible speed, and peeling off at 200-250 meters to go. None of this "in the wind" business. A related thing - he has to ride a bit scared of the wind. Yes, he's fit. But that doesn't give you wind leeway. You still have to hide from it - and in the end, your sprint will be that much better.

Finally, he needs plain luck. A good day, no nagging injuries, feeling pretty fresh at 10k to go, and no weird oil slicks or whatnot to slow him up.

It sounds like a lot of factors. But it really isn't. When you think like a sprinter, you think of the days made just for you and you try and max them out. If it all comes together just one day in the Tour, he'll be regarded once again as a top sprinter. And if he does it at Worlds? I think he'd count his blessings, do a couple post-Worlds crits, and climb off the bike.

I hope he can make it happen. For his sake. And all us aging sprinters out there.

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