Saturday, July 17, 2010

Racing - The Stage 11 Leadout

*Disclaimer: I'm neither an official, nor a ProTour racer.*

I watched Stage 11 "live" on Versus (I was watching it in the evening but didn't know how it turned out except that Renshaw had been tossed out for headbutting). With a tailwind finish after a mainly downhill stage, and lots and lots of teams lining it up for final run into town, it seemed like a great sprint in the making.

GC teams hit the front, anxious to keep their contenders in front of the initial melee for wheels. Then the sprinters' teams came forward, each trying to out race the other to the line. At one point Lampre, Columbia-HTC, and Garmin all had riders lined up at the front.

Then, in the closing moments of the sprint, things went a bit egg-shaped.

(Note: this is all from memory, so feel free to correct me if I get something wrong.)

Bernard Eisel, the second-last leadout man for Columbia-HTC, pulled off. A momentary pause and then Mark Renshaw, the final leadout man, started going. He seemed a bit out of it, frankly, almost stunned - he looked around like "Oh, right, let's get on with it".

He quickly got on it though, and got on the gas.

Meanwhile, Garmin-Transition's Julian Dean, his team's final leadout man, was putting in a superlative effort to move his sprinter Tyler Farrar up. He came roaring up the right side, and, to me, started coming across onto Renshaw like Dean was trying to introduce Renshaw to the fencing. Like, right now.

Now, on camera, even from the sky, it looked pretty innocuous. A foot or two of movement doesn't seem like a bit deal, but it can be if you're the one on the fencing side. Depending on where the other riders are, a foot of lateral movement can be deadly. But if you're clear of the other riders, a foot or two of movement is okay.

So, if I'm actually clear of the riders who were next to me a moment ago, it's okay to move over that foot or two. In fact, in the Keith Berger Crit in East Hartford, I moved over about 10 feet on the main straight, launching myself after a counter-attack. I was just clear of the riders between me and the attack, and no one said a word (or touched a brake) when I made my move.

But if I'd moved over just a second or two earlier, I'd have taken out the front part of the field.

In a more ProTour moment, Petacchi moves violently sideways when launching his sprint in Stage 1. From the front it looked really dangerous, but from above, not really. Lateral movement by itself isn't bad - it's when there's someone next to you that it's not good.

Movement is relative, and racers will move given some free space.

The problem is that Dean was moving over and he'd barely pulled even with Renshaw. If Renshaw didn't do a thing, Dean would have contacted Renshaw's right arm/shoulder pretty hard. When sprinting hard, that kind of contact compromises bike control. The goal for any rider in that situation would be to avoid said contact.

Renshaw, at this point, had four major options.

1. Take right hand and put it against Dean's side.
2. Brake or otherwise slow down.
3. Move left.
4. Headbutt Dean.

Let's look at these options in a bit more detail.

Right Hand

You see this all the time in Cat 3 crits - someone puts a hand on an intruding hip and claims some space for his front wheel sphere.

If Renshaw took a hand off the bar, that's immediate grounds for disqualification. It's simply illegal to remove a hand from the bars to contact another rider, even for "self defense" purposes. A long time ago, when Hincapie contested field sprints, he put his hand up to keep a guy from taking out his front wheel. Although Hincapie placed inside the top 10 in the sprint (I think he was 7th in a Tour stage, or maybe it was his win in a Tour du Pont stage), he was immediately relegated to last place in the pack. A shocked Hincapie exclaimed that he was just trying to stay upright, but the officials would have nothing to do with it.

In addition, with one hand off the bars, the racer gives up some control. We can debate how much this would affect a ProTour racer like Renshaw. He's never simply fallen over (who can forget Dean falling over by himself, unmolested, leading out Hushovd). And as a good sprinter in his own right, he probably has some decent balance. Other sprinters definitely have some incredible skills in a sprint, like Tom Steels, who managed to throw a bottle at another rider in the middle of a 40 mph melee. Yes, he moved off his line some during the wind up and ensuing follow through, but no, no one crashed. And as far as I know, he hit his target.

Regardless, the hand off the bar is almost never an option.

Therefore the hand up is not an option.

Brake or Slow Down

Well, with less than 400 meters to go, a leadout man should not have to slow down because another rider is veering at him like a guided missile.

As a pro paid to help his team win races, this is the last option, if it comes up at all. He has to feel in imminent danger of crashing before he'll even start thinking about brakes.

So no braking, no slowing down, at least not until he expends every other option.

Move Left

Although Renshaw could have moved left to avoid Dean, Dean's line would have taken Renshaw to the fence.

With that in mind, it's hard to justify moving left - it's like a matador dropping his cape. Moving left is the last, desperate move Renshaw would make to stay upright. It may be like Baden Cooke's move to avoid Bettini in a particularly ugly sprint in the Giro. Cooke went down at full speed, and although Bettini was relegated (but not ejected, even after he dumped champagne on the podium for his pink jersey ceremony), Cooke couldn't be awarded the win. It's a lose-lose situation if you try and avoid the rider cutting you off.

With the typical result of moving left, Renshaw simply couldn't select that choice unless he was on the verge of falling.


The first time I saw a headbutt, I thought, "Holy smolies, that guy's gonna be so disqualified!". It's a spectacular move, highly illegal in all sorts of sports (boxing comes to mind, and football - the American kind - as well).

On bikes, though, headbutts aren't quite the violent maneuver it looks like. With oodles of foam protecting each rider's head, and a relatively unstable launch base for impact type moves, road racing headbutts resemble a tap on the shoulder rather than a rock to the head.

(I could see how, in the old bare-headed days, headbutts could be illegal.)

Headbutts also avoid the dreaded "hand off the bars". Riders use headbutts to indicate that another rider got a bit too close. They have to be too close - headbutts have very limited range, much more so than an arm or even an elbow. I don't know about you, but you'd have to be awfully close to me for me to be able to headbutt you.

I have to admit that I've never thrown a headbutt, although I've cozied up to aggressive racers by digging into them with my shoulder. Personally I find knocking my head around a bit dizzying. It seems that some ProTour sprinters can throw headbutts with no balancing issues.


Obviously Renshaw chose the last option. He headbutted Dean, firmly, three times. It seems excessive now, and I think that after the first, maybe the second, that was enough.

At this point, we've dealt with the initial situation. Dean moved in on Renshaw and Renshaw retaliated. BOTH riders should be relegated for this event: Renshaw for his extra headbutt, Dean for his line deviation.

However, it doesn't stop there.

Second Event

Although I haven't read too many articles analyzing the sprint, few distinguish between the Renshaw/Dean event and the Renshaw/Farrar event. They are two separate things and should be treated as such.

As the Renshaw/Dean event played out, Cavendish decided to get the heck out of Dodge. He launched early and hard, striking out for the line. In fact, he went so early that Renshaw looked plenty frisky - he started doing a little sprint of his own, not so hard, but still an out of saddle effort.

Then, although he denies it, he must have seen Farrar. He may not have known it was Farrar, but he couldn't have missed the front wheel. I mean, yeah, he's focused on Cavendish going away, but he can't be totally oblivious to his surroundings.

His goal now would be to make himself as wide as possible, to make it a little more difficult for others to pass him.

Unfortunately, he makes a poor choice. He very well could have accelerated slowly, somewhat erratically, looking fatigued and wobbly. But he accelerates smoothly, appearing under 100% control, and...

Veers left.

Tyler Farrar, Garmin's designated sprinter, happens to be moving up Renshaw's left side. Farrar has to move all the way to the barriers to avoid Renshaw, but Renshaw keeps coming. Farrar then puts his hand out (he chose differently from Renshaw) and gives Renshaw a nudge. Renshaw immediately moves to the right a bit, and Farrar goes through the gap, albeit it a bit slower and way too late.

Now we have a second event.

Renshaw was definitely at fault here. He moved over smoothly and consistently, until Farrar nudged him. Renshaw looked like he had full control of his bike.

Farrar technically should have been DQ'ed for taking his hand off the bars and contacting another rider. I could see how a judge may use some judgment (pun intended) and allow that contact to occur free of penalty. Hincapie may have been DQ'ed for doing the same thing, but to me the spirit of the law is that you can't go around hitting people. Defensive moves should be okay.

In my scenario Dean has committed one foul, that of moving across Renshaw's line. This is a dangerous move to make at that point in the sprint. He should have been disqualified, perhaps relegated to last in that bunch.

Renshaw has committed two fouls. One is an excessive headbutt or two. The other is moving into Farrar's line. Of the two, the move into Farrar is by far the more dangerous move. Of course it is - I just pointed out in the previous paragraph that that kind of move is dangerous.

For the first foul, he should be warned or fined, or, if the rules state it, relegated. For the second he should have been relegated to last in the bunch.

Farrar commits one foul in self defense. Although the rules would indicate that he should be penalized, I think he never violated the spirit of the law. He should not be penalized, and his third place should stand.

Obviously it's been a while since the stage finished and the officials levied their penalties. Dean got away scot free after committing an egregious foul. Such a move should not be tolerated because although Dean may not be the ultimate leadout man anymore (Thor said he was, back in the days when Dean fell over by himself), Renshaw is acknowledged to be one. If Renshaw started pulling those lateral moves regularly, it'd make for really dangerous riding.

Renshaw, for his part, also moved over, but after his contact with Dean. He should not be allowed to get away with that.

Farrar is an unfortunate victim of his leadout man's judgment. If Dean had only held his line, or even moved over to the right to keep Cavendish clear of any draft, Farrar could have gone head to head with Cav. It seems unlikely that Farrar would have won, but he'd have given second place a much better fight.

Ironically Farrar dropped out the next day. And Cavendish, I'm sure motivated beyond comprehension due to the loss of Renshaw, slayed all in the field sprint behind Vino.

Karma is a b*tch as they say. And although I don't hold anything against any particular racer in my amateurish analysis of the Stage 11 sprint, the Stage 12 field sprint seemed... appropriate.

The last stage ought to be good.

But for now we'll have to deal with some climbing. Or rather, we'll have to deal with the Tour racers deal with some climbing. Me, I won't be dealing with climbing, just a grass roots Cat 3-4 crit in Naugatuck.

1 comment:

John Galt said...

I enjoyed this. It seems to me that the more bike racing is televised the more risks average Cat 3s will take to win races. An alarming thing has happened over the past several years, in that guys will risk life and limb in Cat 3 criteriums to get a place in the money.

My take on this new risk taking behavior is that guys see Robbie McEwen head butting someone and they mistakenly seem to think that they have the same type of bike handling skills as Robbie McEwen and therefore they too can head butt someone. In the same vain they think they guy they are head butting is skilled enough to handle it. These assumptions often prove problematic (and painful).

I read some comments after a story about Cavs sprint crash in the Tour de Suisse, and people seemed to be making the argument that bike racing is a contact sport and crashing at 35mph is part of the deal. This attitude is evidence by certain guys showing up to race with hip pads and elbow pads on.

My parting advice – if you see a fellow racer with hockey pads on under his cycling clothes – stay away; unless of course you don’t have to go to work on Monday and you don’t care about buying new equipment and if winning some glorified soft ball league industrial park criterium is that important to you.