Street sprints

There’s a new racing concept coming to the sport: the elimination sprint. It sees two riders go head to head over a 1,000 metre course, usually the final kilometre of a well known race.

Quebec sprint
Rémi Pelletier-Roy, Stéphane Cossette and Dominique Rollin in the 2010 Quebec sprint

Tested last year alongside the Grand Prix de Quebec, it will be back again used in the sister World Tour race in Montreal that’s also run by race organiser and local mini media magnate Serge Arsenault. But there are plans to take it to many more races.

Labelled the “Sprint Challenge”, it’s a fast and furious series where pairs of riders go head to head every two minutes. You start with 24 riders and within an hour it comes down to two riders for the win. Held on the evening of a race it’s a chance to create an urban race with some big names from the sport. L’Equipe today says this could happen in more races, the UCI is on the case with talk of a separate classification and even a unique jersey for the leader. Apparently the German World Tour one day, the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Hamburg, is interested in trying this.

A sprint not for sprinters?
But it’s not without controversy. Interviewed by the French daily, Oscar Freire says sprinting is about positioning and tactics after 250km, “This concept is a different kind of sprint which has more in common with the track. I know cycling and sport in general are always looking for new ideas. But I’m not sure every idea is a good one“. Tyler Farrar’s also a bit of a sceptic, “I don’t think I’d be very good in these sprints. I’m a good sprinter after a hard stage and a few climbs. This kind of series is more for riders who are really explosive. For example it’d be perfect for a guy like Francesco Chicchi“.

Le show
For me, cycling has long had a “stunt” aspect to it and if there’s money then we can imagine some riders taking part. Riders have long raced against horses, camels and other weird challenges. But as Freire and Farrar suggest, the efforts and techniques aren’t necessarily suited to the endurance athletes that are road cyclists, whether sprinters or climbers. As such the winner is perhaps not going to be the biggest name in the sport. It’s more something to keep the crowds excited and a slick package for TV given the cheaper production costs and certain timings.

Note Paris-Tours has done something similar for some time, using the interminable Avenue de Grammont in Tours to hold short time trials for juniors. Taking this format is perhaps another idea, to invite track specialists onto the road. It would be exciting to see track riders using their speed to wow the crowds, and also a way to get take their names beyond the velodrome. Some note the irony where the UCI dismantled the Kilo from the Olympics, only to support a similar event on the road.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that here we could have the duel between World Track Champion Grégory Baugé and Mark Cavendish. It might also suit some BMX riders.

It could look good on TV, it’s fast and easy to understand. It reminds me of the X-games. But it’s also a stunt. Purists might not like it but it might entertain on the eve of a big race but for me at least, I want to see the road riders focussed on the big races and it’s not necessarily going to excite the sprinters. Doing a series of reps on the eve of a big race is unconventional to say the least. But bringing in some specialists from the track, maybe BMX and so on to entertain the crowds before the main race arrives is just the right idea, otherwise the finish line can be a dull place to wait. It’s also ideal to keep finish line VIPs and corporate hospitality invitees entertained.

11 thoughts on “Street sprints”

  1. This reminds me of Dave Moulton’s story about Nelson Vails’, and some reader’s comment about his trick sprint bike –

    “I live in Boulder and can remember Mike Aisner (of Red Zinger/Coors Classic fame) organizing an “all comers” sprint to advertise his race. The sprint was downtown and Nelson was there with his “trick” sprint bike. It had a rear derailleur and two cogs. The derailleur was operated by a brake lever. Upon starting, Nelson held in the lever keeping the bike in a low gear. As he came to speed he realeased the lever and the bike upshifted to a higher, and faster gear. Very cool… and yes, the man was ALWAYS smiling. – Carl N.”

  2. Some of the larger US races have been using these as supporting events for a long time. About 10 years ago the US National Criterium Championship had a head-to-head bike vs. in-line skate sprint — the bike always won.

    I hadn’t heard the details of Vails’ bike, but I have heard of riders using custom gear combinations to contest these sprints: Such as using a 21-14-12 in the back to allow them to accelerate quickly yet have something big enough to wind out, without needing 7 intermediate shifts.

  3. sure it’s not like the sprinting we’re used to seeing in road races, but i love the concept. if Freire doesn’t like it, don’t race it. the upside of the format, in my opinion, is that spectators can see the whole race. and they see a bunch of them in an hour. much easier to sell to the casual fan than waiting around a finish line for hours waiting for the racers to show up.

  4. Reminds me of a story I read in one of the magazines a while back. Can’t quite remember the details, but it involved Wilfred Nelissen and another sprinter ending neck and neck in a race in the early 90s. The judges couldn’t separate them, but instead of jus declaring a dead heat, they made Nelissen and the other guy ride the final kilometre again, head to head, to determine the winner.

    I’ll try and dig up the story when I get home this evening.

  5. I was in Quebec last year. It was on a faux-plat, the same section where Voeckler launched is winning attack the next day, and it was quite entertaining. And as an appetizer, on the eve of the real thing, it worked great. Could be fun to see track stars going head to head with great sprinters.

  6. Sounds like a great idea to entertain and warm up the crowds at the finish line.
    Some American promoters of amateur racers have been adding street sprint races to their events, and I’m more ambivalent about this. Who wants to put down a $35 entry fee to do 200-1000 meters? But more than that (after all, it can be made cheaper), it’s simply not road racing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not what most cyclists are training for and planning to race.

  7. What’s next, the slow race? These stunts have been around for years. It seems there’s always something “needed” to occupy the North American sports fan’s time while they swill beer and wait for the finale of the event. I’d vote for a big-screen TV at the finish line along with an announcer to describe what’s going on out there to the fans gathered around. Pre-race events I care little about.

  8. I am off two thoughts to this:

    A) It seems a decent hybrid of the track/road racing disciplines, and I think that this could be made even more interesting if the courses become somewhat technical.

    B) On the other hand, why not just host a criterium the night before the road race as well as a way to get fans into the sport. In the US, criterium racing is the main form of racing, both at the professional and amateur level, and have never understood why Euro racing has failed to capitalize on the excitement of crit racing (leaving aside those fake races held post-Grand Tour).

    Oscar Freire’s complaints are nothing more than sour grapes because there just might be certain riders better suited to this event than him. So what? It akin to a TT specialist complaining about the inclusion of mountain stages in a race. Suck it up, that is the beauty of the sport, is there are many different body types and abilities, and various races bring out the strengths and weaknesses of a given rider.

  9. Some interesting thoughts. I suppose it comes down to how it is implemented, who is involved and how its presented. Serge Arsenault is a really interesting character with lots of ideas for the sport.

    ColoradoGoat: there are lots of criteriums in Europe! They just don’t get much publicity but you have small races from Belgian kermis to Italian city centre races, often at night too. But some pros can’t ride, organisers make them for the smaller teams.

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