Mark Cavendish

Inside Mark Cavendish’s Leadout Train

BY Lydia Tanner

The Dimension Data for Qhubeka coaches tell us how leadout riders are selected and trained to launch the world's best sprinter across the line.

Mattia Michelusi is a coach with Dimension Data for Qhebeka who specializes in training sprinters. Dr Carol Austin is head of performance support and medical. The interview below has been edited lightly for length.

Lydia Tanner: What differentiates a sprinter’s training from other riders?
Mattia Michelusi: The endurance in road cycling is probably one of the most important factors. If you don’t have good endurance you will never be able to do a good sprint at the end of a Milan-San Remo, or at the end of a long stage at TDF. So I would say the basic training is the same but then you can make the difference with the right specific efforts on and off the bike.

In the last few years gym training has started to become usual for all the riders. I think for the sprinters it’s really important to keep that gym training also during the season. Long training rides with endurance efforts, and races of 4, 5 or 6 hrs are for sure important to improve that endurance that we mentioned before, but they can decrease the strength that a sprinter needs to deliver his best power.

For sure you can do similar training on the bike but you will not push the same level of strength that you can do with a squat for example. So it’s really important to keep the right balance between sprint training on the bike and gym strength training.

LT: Does training vary from rider to rider?
MM: Planning their training is not just “copy and paste.” Every rider is different, so as a coach you need to manage their training workload in order to have the riders at their best in specific periods of the season. To do that you need to apply your sport science knowledge considering the targets, and the race program, without forgetting the experiences and feelings of the rider.

Also from sprinter to sprinter the training is different. For example, a sprinter with a leadout will train in a different way than a rider without a leadout. The rider with the leadout will do one big effort, while the rider without a leadout needs to do multiple sprints in the last 3-5 minutes of the race to find by himself a good position. We always try to simulate what’s gonna happen in the race.

LT: Do you train the leadout train similarly to the sprinter?
MM: It’s different for sure. The leadout train includes 4-5 riders who do their jobs in different moments. In general we have a rider who starts to work at 10km [to go]. It’s still far to the finish but it’s a really important job because he needs to “navigate” the team to ensure they will be in a good position when the race approaches the last 5km.

And then we have other riders who do their jobs at 5km, 2km, 1km and 500m to go. The last man doesn’t necessarily need an high peak power like the sprinter—for him it’s more important to hold that peak power for 20, 30, 40 seconds, up to a minute.

LT: So if everyone has trained for their specific job, what happens if things get mixed up or someone crashes?
MM: We have a lot of experience this year with crashes or injury! We can find another rider with the same power, but to have the power doesn’t always mean to have the right experience, the right feeling and the right timing. It’s difficult to replace a rider. That is why it’s important for a sprinter to always have his group around him.

LT: So you just do everything you can to have things turn out exactly how you want?
MM: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Even if sometimes that’s not how it happens.

LT: What are you guys planning to do about Stage 17? It’s short with a lot of climbing, which could be dangerous for sprinters given the time cuts.
MM: Yeah, I think we have to go back to what we said at the beginning: Endurance is the main factor in cycling. If you want to train a sprinter, it’s important not to focus just on sprinting, but also on his endurance. We can estimate the power to push on the climb to make the time limit, and we try to find the right balance between power and weight, but you never know what can happen in a race.

LT: Is that balance going to look different this year than in other years?
MM: it’s really important to analyze every grand tour, to understand what that tour demands. In this case, for this Tour de France, the course is going to be completely different than the previous years… But again it depends on the target, for example if we have a rider who wants to focus on the first ten days—for him it doesn’t matter on the time. If he doesn’t want to finish, then we’ll focus on making sure his peak power will be good for those first ten days. But if he wants to perform to the end the Tour de France then we will change his training.

To me it’s also to do probably a different race program before the Tour de France, for example to do maybe a stage race with some long climbs. So for sure we change the training, and we change the racing, if we know there will be a Tour de France like this one.

LT: Is that pretty common for a sprinter to focus on a small segment of the tour, like the first ten days, or is that specific to this tour?
MM: No usually, every rider when they do a grand tour, especially the Tour de France, will want to do all the Tour de France. So it’s difficult to have a rider who will start the Tour thinking they will be done after ten days.

LT: What else makes a successful sprinter?
MM: We talk a lot about power with sprinters, but I think a sprinter is not just power. It’s also confidence, and a feeling, and timing… Sure it’s important to have power, but you will never win if you are not able to find the right moment, and the right feelings with yourself and your teammates.

Also in a sprint you can reach really high speed so your aerodynamics are really important. This means you need the best bike equipment and you need to find an aerodynamic sprinting position. That is why several riders have changed their sprinting position in the last few years. You’ll see we have several sprinters, and they all have a different position… they all try to find the most aerodynamic position for them.

LT: So do you put the whole leadout train in the wind tunnel?
MM: You can find the best aerodynamic position on the track or the wind tunnel, but if you are not able to push power in that position then you’ll never be able to do well. Aerodynamics is not just data. It’s something the sprinter can feel. So for sure we can do some testing on the track or in the tunnel, but then it’s really important to see if it works on the road when they really need it.

Dr. Carol Austin: They also look at their photographs, so they can see the front of the rider and get a sense of the frontal area. Cav is definitely super aerodynamic, he’s super small, and he’s worked on that for years. So he may not produce the biggest wattage (and with sprints it is mostly about pure watts) but if you can just be a little bit smaller and a little bit neater, that can also make a difference.

MM: It’s really important also to know the wind position. If there’s a headwind or a tailwind, then it’s really important in the race to have live info about the conditions at the finish.

LT: So would you change your strategy mid-race if the wind changes?
MM: Before the start the sport director [DS] always has a strategy. But there are 20 teams, and every team has their own strategy (which is sometimes the same). It’s not always easy to do what we want to do. So it’s good to have a good relationship between the coaches, the director and the riders in the race, because together we can try to find the best plan. From the car it’s difficult to change things, especially in the last 2km of the race, so ultimately it’s the rider and the leadout train who need to understand in the moment if the strategy will work.

LT: How do you use WKO4?
MM: For me I use a lot of WKO4. You can have all the the best devices in the world and all the data per seconds, but if you are not able to analyze this data and to take “feedback” from this data, you will never have benefits from that. As a coach when I analyze a file I want to give the feedback to the sport director and to the riders in order to improve their performance and to and hopefully take the victory. WKO4 helps me a lot because I can find all I want to check.

LT: What’s a workout an amateur rider could do at home to try and experience a little of the tour?
MM: With the technology of the last few years it possible virtually to ride together with the pro riders and to try their same training. But it’s not easy to simulate the workload of a grand tour. I mean, a good amateur can sustain the TSS of one TDF stage, but to repeat that workload for 21 days is not so easy.

Find out how the other teams train, and see files from the 2018 Tour de France here!

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About Lydia Tanner

Lydia Tanner is the athlete content editor at TrainingPeaks. She was formerly an editor at Bicycling Magazine and contributor to Bike Magazine, Mountain Flyer, and RedBull. She is a two-time collegiate national champion in XC MTB, and raced the World Championships as a U23. She is perpetually curious about physiology and human performance.