Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tactics - Leadouts

I was thinking about some things from my "getting led out" days. I learned a lot of things the hard way - leadout guy dropping the sprinter (me), leadout guy can't find sprinter or vice versa, leadout guy blows up way too early (once a leadout guy Mike blew at the bell - not a great set up for the finish but I won the field sprint, sort of... I think that's for a different post), things like that.

A leadout (pronounced "leed-out", as in "to lead out", not "led-out") is a racing tactic where a team sacrifices the chances of one or more racers in order to improve the team sprinter's chances. Or, if you're David Millar and you're racing on a team without a good sprinter, the leadout may come from a friendly opponent (David) who volunteers to help out another team's sprinter without a good leadout (Baden Cooke) because they're friends!

A proper leadout works because the sacrificial racers (the "Leadout" racers) raise the speed of the race so high that it is very difficult for rival sprinters to move up in the field. This requires the Leadout's Sprinter to be in place near the front when the leadout begins. It also requires a pace so high the field is forced in single file for at least the first 15 or 20 racers - and on a really smoking leadout, perhaps the first 50 or 60 racers.

For a Cat 3 race on an average course (not too much wind, sort of flat), I'd expect a good leadout to hum along at 35-37 mph at the start, accelerating to perhaps 38 to almost 40 mph. With leadouts in the low 40's I for one have problems hanging on for more than a couple hundred meters. This is where a Cancellera can do a bit of damage and ride away from everyone for a spectacular stage win.

If you were stuck 10 spots back and the pace suddenly hotted up to 38+ mph, you can imagine how hard it would be to try and move up. Conversely, if you were the Sprinter and you were sitting 3rd wheel, you can imagine what sort of advantage you'd have if you got launched from such a leadout at 150 meters to go.

The problem with leadouts is that everyone knows what's happening and so everyone makes a huge effort to get into a good spot. If the leadout is going less than a zillion miles an hour, the leadout racers will get swarmed by rival sprinters and leadout racers looking to use your leadout to their benefit.

It's absolutely critical to leadout in such a way that all anyone can think of is just to hang onto the wheel in front. If they're thinking like that they're not thinking of blasting past your sprinter.

Twice I watched a very strong and numerically superior Pro/1 team annihilate themselves to lead out their sprinter for a number of laps (5 or more), only to see a rival team pop up with 500 meters to go and take the win. In those Pro/1 leadouts, the teams only held 35 mph or so - and you could see the swarm of opportunists waiting to pounce.

The ones that won those races? When they went, they were going so fast that they virtually gapped the field with the leadout. The sprint was a mere formality - the race was won with the leadout.

Controlling the race for 5 laps in a crit may be really cool for advertising pictures but it doesn't get you wins, not unless you're also going so fast that no one can move up. It's better if you simply have a "fast as greased lightning" leadout guy who can peg the cyclometer for 300 meters.

There are lots of little things that help make leadouts work. Keep in mind the Leadout has to know the Sprinter is okay - otherwise the Leadout will not know what to do. And oftentimes the efforts generated by both are such that superfluous talk is out of the question.

With that in mind, here are some tips:

 - Back in the day I wrapped some tape around my fork just above the dropouts - orange or pink or some bright color. My Leadout would look down to see if my forks were there. If not he'd ease and try and find me (or let me find him).

 - The Sprinter is the director. The Leadout guy does what the Sprinter says. Once the Sprinter is on the Leadout's wheel, the Sprinter dictates what happens. If the Sprinter sees a surge coming up the left side, he should yell "LEFT!". And the Leadout starts to move left (not cut across the road but look and start moving in anticipation of either sitting on the surge or closing the door on the surge). - The Sprinter should have a bailout call, i.e. when he loses the wheel. "STOP" or "MIKE" (my first leadout guy) something like that works.

 - Sprinters are usually not as strong as their leadout men. I've been close to dropped by my leadout guys. I'd have to tell them to "EASE" at times. But then when it's 400-500 meters to go, I have to tell them to "GO GO GO" and really crank the pace.

 - The Sprinter should also have a "keep going" call. Just because you have a leadout doesn't mean you have to have the Sprinter on the Leadout's wheel. This is especially true in the Cat 3-5 as a leadout can get swamped if it's not fast enough. A slower leadout (i.e. only first 6 or 8 are single file - typically under 35-37 mph) means the sprinter may have to sit 3-4 back in order to get protection as the front 6 or 8 guys are eating a lot of wind even on other racers' wheels. The slow leadout means there's a high chance the leadout will fail - in which case the leadout is really more of a "string the field out so it's easier for Sprinter to keep his spot." In this case the sprinter should have another call "GO GO GO" or something like that. Don't use the same words in different calls - "Mike, Stop" and "Mike, Go" can sound the same to a oxygen-bankrupted brain.

 - All this is great planning and all that but you have to practice this in the heat of the moment. You can rehearse having sex all you want - but there's nothing like having sex for the first time to wake you up to the realities of what is involved. Leadouts can be practiced in theory but there are only two places you can really work on them - in competitive group rides and in races. Competitive group rides means there are other sprinters (and possibly leadout men) who really want to beat you and your sprinter to the line - so they'll use your leadout, take the sprinter off your wheel, box him in, etc etc etc just like a race.

 - Ideally the Sprinter should have a Sweeper on his wheel. The Sweeper "sweeps" the back wheel of the Sprinter, preventing things (like other Sprinters) from sticking to it. The Sweeper should ideally be a tactically astute racer (probably a sprinter) who has elected to help the cause instead of trying for a top finish. That's a whole different post but sweeping, done right, is safe for everyone and extremely effective when used with a proper leadout.

 - The Leadout should anticipate sprinting to an imaginary line before the finish, probably 150 meters before it (on a finish that heads uphill, the leadout might end earlier as it's hard to accelerate uphill). If the Leadout is slower than an all out sprint, everyone else can sit on and benefit. If the Leadout is very fast, i.e. 37-40 mph in a Cat 3 race, it will have eliminated all but one or two rivals by the time the sprint actually starts.

That's the whole point of a leadout - reducing the odds. A talented and smart sprinter will still be able to beat your leadout but it'll be tough to lose to a more generic sprinter if you lead your sprinter out well. A 32-35 mph leadout is an invitation to the sprinters 10-15 back to come smash your sprinter into a tiny pulp as they pulverize him with their 11 tooth cogs. As a racer who mainly races on his own now, a 32 mph leadout is perfect for me. I don't have to fight to get particular wheels, I just wait 4 or 5 riders back and go from there. If the various teams upped the pace a bit, I'd be forced to ride a lot harder going into the sprint. This wouldn't bode well for my chances in the actual sprint.

 - The Leadout rider has to be a good sprinter to know where to go, what to do. It's no good leading your sprinter up the left side if the wind is hitting your left shoulder. It's also no good to go too early or to get boxed in. The Leadout has to understand how to protect and shelter the Sprinter without losing advantageous position, without losing bearings on the field. Finally the Leadout needs to know how to get through gaps that the Sprinter can but perhaps no one else can get through.

For various reasons I have never won a summer race - but I've gotten second more than a couple times. Virtually every single time I was beaten by a much stronger racer - but without a leadout, I'd probably be buried a bit deeper in the field. And in the Spring races - well, four and five man leadouts basically handed me win after win for a few years.

Leadouts, when they work well, are great. Working together like that creates bonds which are hard to break. One of my teammates sacrificed his chances for me on a regular basis, even when I was feeling iffy, even when the odds were stacked against us. And occasionally things worked out pretty well.

There was one Prospect race (a 1/2/3 race) where a sizeable break went up the road and disappeared. One strong teammate managed to make the break so the rest of us sat in and groveled under the Cat 2 hammer blows. With one 3 mile lap to go the break had come back a bit - to about 45-50 seconds if I remember correctly.

The chances of closing that were nil but the guys on the team instinctively gathered to do a big leadout. They started lining up at the front, I tucked in behind the designated Primary Leadout guy, and the boys started to ease on the pressure. We started up the hill when out of nowhere our break teammate appeared up the road at a virtual standstill. The break attacked itself on the hill and he got shelled.

He saw us in formation, dug deep, got in front, and rode his heart out to pull us over the climb. He pulled off, completely spent. My next teammate buried himself, went super hard, blew, and pulled off. I had two guys left and the second last one of them fried himself too before pulling off.

Only my Primary Leadout (PL) left. And way over a mile to go.

I sat on his wheel as he did his best impersonation of Sean Yates. Or, as the case may be, Gian Matteo Fagnini. We flew across the flats to the top of the descent, his deep carbon wheels humming. Just before the descent a very good sprinter (Cat 1, I think a former pro) and his leadout man pulled up next to me. The leadout guy looked at me questioningly. I let him in and his sprinter tucked in behind me.

Now we had two leadout men and I had a very antsy sprinter on my wheel. The fact that such a respected sprinter trusted my leadout says a lot about the leadout's speed.

We started flying down the hill. I couldn't believe PL spun his pedals so fast without blowing up. I don't know how fast we went down that hill but when we slowed down were were going 45 mph. He managed to hold the speed in the low 40's for a couple hundred meters on the flats afterwards. He was going so fast he was almost gapping the second leadout racer with such high speeds.

Then, incredibly, for the first time in perhaps 30 or 40 minutes, we could see the break. This was like the pros! PL buried himself for his final effort. His shoulders started bobbing and weaving and his wheels started to slalom a bit. I know what that's like - remember my attempt at a leadout?

He finally pulled over and to let us by. We instantly slowed. The other sprinter's leadout guy did his best to pull but he simply didn't have the strength or speed to maintain the pace. Nevertheless we caught the break at about 300 meters to go and everyone in the break started yelling and screaming in surprise. The sprinter behind me decided it was time and bounded away from us. I jumped super hard to latch onto his wheel.

I never quite got there and so there we were out of the saddle, sprinting one behind the other, with a few hundred yards to go. Too far for a true sprint but the leadout was so fast no one was coming up behind us. The disintegrating break helped filter the field too.

A few of the break had jumped hard for an early sprint. We came up on one of them, a pretty strong Cat 2, sprinting like mad on the left side of the road. There's a joggers lane on the left side that the racers can't enter, and he had left a gap to the left. Just over a foot of road to his left - a fatal error in this sprint. The Cat 1 sprinter had already gone right. I came up to this fading Cat 2's wheel and dove left.

He lifted his rear wheel and planted it about a foot to his left.

His wheel sounded like it was going to explode it landed so hard. I thought he lifted his wheel when he jumped (I've done this by accident) so I slammed on my brakes, waited for him to straighten things out, and went again.

He kicked his wheel over again.

That Dirty F***er. He'd intentionally left the door open, waiting with his wheel to slam it into whoever tried to go through it.

I jumped again and he kicked his wheel over again. Screw this. I decided I'd go over the line as I couldn't go right (I think someone was there by then). I dove left and just barely missed an official standing on the white line, keeping an eye out for just such a move. The stunned official, eyes wide open, couldn't get a word out as I sprinted by on the left, Dirty on the right. As soon as I passed Dirty he gave up.

Ultimately I blew before the line and just couldn't catch the guys in front of me. The really good sprinter whose leadout man tucked in front of me won the race. I guess that's what makes a good sprinter. I got 6th.
Our dinky Cat 3 team had pulled off a pretty impressive result. I've never done as well since, but then again, I'd never had such an incredible leadout again either.

I mentioned how working together in races builds bonds between racers. My leadout guy from that day will be my at my wedding.

But not with the title Primary Leadout.

That day he'll be Best Man.


Colin R said...

This blog makes me think I know how to road race. I love it.

LiftDrive said...

I like the part about the front wheel slalom. I did the same thing the other day at a fast group ride bridging to a breakaway up a hill spinning 140RPMs at 25mph. In my oxygen deprived state I almost went into the grass for some Cyclocross action.