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Tour Coach: Anatomy of an Uphill Sprint
Insight St.11 Though it’s not much of a surprise that Mark Cavendish won Stage 11, the uphill finish made it one of the narrowest wins of the four stages he’s won this year. It takes slightly different tactics to successfully win an uphill sprint, and Cavendish’s victory today shows that he’s versatile as well as exceedingly fast.

– By Chris Carmichael –

A sprint has three main components: the jump, the acceleration, and the run; and the pitch of the road in the final kilometer can have a big impact on one or more of these components.

Cav proved he’s more than a 1-sprint pony today by winning the on uphill.

The Jump
This is the violent acceleration that initiates the sprint, and the timing of your jump can mean the difference between winning and losing. Since your effort cascades right into the acceleration and run segments of your sprint, jumping too soon can lead you to fade before you reach the line. In contrast, waiting too long to jump could leave you too little room to maximize your chances of winning. It’s also important to consider the timing of your jump in comparison with other riders. A strong jump can open give you a split-second head-start toward the finish line, and those few meters could be all it takes to win. Sometimes being the first to jump can be an advantage, especially if you’re up against a sprinter who doesn’t have a great jump but who has great top-end speed.

In an uphill sprint, riders typically prefer to jump later (closer to the finish line) because the added resistance of going uphill shortens the distance they can maintain their top speed. They’ll also jump in a slightly smaller gear so they have more snap and don’t get bogged down in a big gear. At the end of Stage 11 today, the sprint seemed to be quite a bit longer than I would have expected – even though Cavendish still had his last leadout man, Mark Renshaw, in front of him. It appeared that Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar initiated the sprint farther out in an effort to gain an advantage over Cavendish. In the end, Cavendish won anyway and it was Hushovd who paid the biggest price. Instead of finishing second or third, he slowed considerably and crossed the line fifth. As a result, Cavendish gained enough points to retake the green points jersey.

Thor’s win in Barcelona came atop a nasty 2km climb.

The Acceleration
The jump gets the sprint going, but it doesn’t get the rider up to his maximum speed. That falls to the acceleration phase of the sprint. Riders who are able to accelerate rapidly – like Cavendish – are able to open up a few bike lengths to the riders following them, putting those riders into difficult come-from-behind positions. It is interesting to note that Renshaw has a very rapid acceleration, too. When Renshaw takes over the lead of the peloton, his acceleration often opens up a gap to the other sprinters. The only person able to hold his wheel is Cavendish. That means the other sprinters are clawing their way back to Cavendish’s wheel, and then when Renshaw is done, Cavendish jumps and accelerates again. Mark Cavendish is hard enough to beat on his own, but the duo of Renshaw and Cavendish is exceedingly difficult to defeat.

An uphill sprint blunts the riders’ acceleration, which tends to keep the contenders closer together. Instead of seeing someone like Cavendish accelerate out to a seven bike length lead like he has before, uphill finishes tend to be tighter because the grade makes it more difficult for riders to accelerate away from each other.

The Run
The run is the final portion of your sprint, and if you’ve done everything right it will hopefully carry you to victory. Timing is important, because the run of a sprint is very limited. Most sprinters can only hold their top speed for a maximum of about 200 meters, but there’s a lot of variability in this portion of the sprint. Some riders have a great jump and can accelerate like a rocket, but they can’t hold their top speed very long. Others take a long time to get up to speed but can hold it for much longer. Ideally, you want to hit the finish line before you start slowing down. Hushovd, for instance, had a good jump and accelerated well today, but he faded well before the line and slipped from second or third all the way to fifth. However, when you look back to Stage 6 into Barcelona, his ability to hold on to his top speed was what earned him the stage win. The difference in today’s performance could have a lot to do with the Pyrenees (Hushovd worked in a long breakaway to gain points in intermediate sprints) or with purposely initiating the sprint far out from the finish line in an effort to throw Cavendish a curveball.

When the sprint is uphill, the run has to be shorter because the grade adds resistance and you fatigue faster. This is typically a big part of the reason speedsters like to keep uphill finishes short.

Uphill or flat, wide road or narrow, organized leadout or mass chaos; it doesn’t seem to matter much to Columbia-HTC’s Mark Cavendish. He’s the dominant sprinter of the 2009 Tour de France, but it’s clear that his rivals have not thrown in the towel just yet. He has won four stages, and may win more, but riders like Hushovd and Farrar are constantly looking for ways to turn the odds in their favor. Hushovd already did once, in Barcelona, and I believe Farrar has the power and tenacity to reach the finish line ahead of Cavendish before the end of this Tour de France.

Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong’s coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). For more information on CTS’ Create Your Own Comeback program, the free Do the Tour…Stay at Home™ training program, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter, visit You can also follow Chris on Twitter.


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