The 40km Sprint

Matteo Pelucchi

A sprint royale today in Tirreno-Adriatico with Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and André Greipel only IAM Cycling’s Matteo Pelucchi won and Arnaud Démare was second. Still it was an exciting race and if we know Kittel bounced out and bounced his bike, what else happened is relatively unknown. Where did Pelucchi come from? Who led him out? We know the winner but with the sprints there more are questions that can probably only be solved by finding the race on Youtube or another site because sprint analysis is rare. In fact cycling rarely gets the data, metrics and analytics that other sports get.

Play word association with sprint and as well as naming fast riders, many will pick words like “final straight”, “last kilometre” or even “200m to go”. But if  this is the obvious culmination of the sprint it’s part of chain of events that started long ago in the race.

“It was really racing from, like, 30 or 40km out”
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) speaking to the Humans Invent podcast

Everyone who has ridden a bike a few times will know the feeling of speed and most will know about burning legs after going “too fast”. But one aspect that can be harder to relate is the fight for space in the bunch, an athletic alleycat contest where fitness and nerves are tested. The French use the term frotter meaning “to rub” but there’s no single term or verb in English to describe it, think rubbing shoulders or touching wheels instead. We might see examples of this from time to time on TV especially during the final moments of a bunch sprint but instead it’s often happening with half an hour or more to go.

Why? It’s a vicious cycle. Riders know they need to be in position for the finish because when the bunch is travelling so fast it can be hard to move up. But because riders know this they all try to ride at the front only there is not much room. So the pace goes up and so on. We see the collateral damage with riders regularly falling or being “flicked” into the ditch. These accidents are not the result of a sharp bend or a pothole, they often happen on a straight section of road. Instead it’s simply riders crowding the space, of peloton density.

One problem for appreciating sprints is we simply don’t get the chance to see what is going on. Most TV coverage is formulaic, the riders cross the line and the following events happen:

  • the victor is filmed coming to a stop and celebrating with team mates and colleagues
  • we get a replay of the last 20 seconds, perhaps in slow motion
  • pan to a helicopter shot of the finish to display the top 10 graphic
  • an interview with the winner who says how happy he is and thanks the team and sponsors
  • “that’s all folks” as the commentators say goodbye

And that’s about it. If we’re lucky the final kilometre will get a few replays, perhaps with two angles, one from the helicopter shot and one from the finish. But analysis is rare, the kind of graphics, data and tracking in other sports and other countries is rare. There are two potential causes here:

First is the innate conservatism of host broadcasters like France Télévisions and RAI who across all sports prefer a simpler form of coverage to the style you might get in English-speaking coverage. Analysis is rare, for example in France a break, say half time in rugby or a break in tennis means adverts, nobody is doing replays with touchscreen pens to outline player moves or analysing game data. Sport is sold as emotion and passion, not analysis.

Second even if these conservative broadcasters were to adopt modern analytics, the audience might not be waiting. You and I as cycling fans are a small subset of the audience. According to market research the largest segment of the TV audience for the Tour de France is tuning in to watch the scenery rather than the race. Those of us who want race commentary are outvoted by those wanting HD shots of valleys, chateaux and coastlines although these are still stunning scenes for cycling connoisseurs. And there’s the blunt fact that a TV channel like Eurosport is normally quick to cut to another sport once the race is finished, it believes viewers will drop off once the action is finished and pundits pontificate, 30 minutes of analysis cannot hold the audience to justify the airtime and bring in the adverts.

Maybe the two hypotheses are wrong. But if you want the analytics, it’s almost impossible. For example I’d love to have something that measured “peloton density” by scanning the road with, measuring the length of the bunch and the number of riders to calculate the number of riders per decametre or, N/dam2 or better still, to measure this count for the front of the bunch. Of course the human eye is a good guide and just watch a stage from the first week of the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix peloton as it rumbles into Arenberg to see how tight the bunch is. This isn’t the only metric, just an example that could be used to measure something and with the healthy benefit that it’s obvious to viewers rather than VAM, watts and heart rates which bamboozle most viewers whilst leaving cyclists to argue amongst themselves. What other metrics are there? Well even the basics are missing, we’ve all see the “point-the-camera-at-the-motorbike-speedometre” shot in a bike race to suggest speed. But hang on, because if the imagery isn’t conveying the speed is a race in the 21st century is still reliant on the shaking needle on the dash of ageing motorbike as a proxy for rider speed?

Camera techniques
Watching the Sochi Olympics I was impressed by the coverage of the downhill skiers. They’re doing over 100km/h but drone cameras and cable-mounted cameras were used to capture them in full flight. Can this be done in a bike race? It’s harder because of the peripatetic nature of a race but the answer is yes because the final stage of the Tour de France used a cable-mounted camera to capture the bunch on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. I understand this could be extended to other stages to ensure close ups on the bunch that neither a fixed camera or a helicopter can achieve.

Then again…
As much as post-race analysis might be interesting, there’s something healthy about a sport that doesn’t dwell on what’s happened. Endless TV replays of a race incident are often reductive, think of the “clash” between Mark Cavendish and Tom Veelers in the Tour de France last year which, for me at least, was just an unfortunate accident. But the more it was replayed, the more it took on something akin to the “Two Minutes Hate” from George Orwell’s 1984, especially with a media keen to simplify rather than nuance. The result was Cavendish getting spayed with urine by a spectator in the following day’s time trial, something best left to the coin-throwers and flare-burning soccer fans.

The sprints are treated as a mere gallop for the line but they start from a long way out as tension rises in the peloton, something that TV rarely communicates and many viewers might not understand the stress during the final half an hour, thinking instead that sprint is merely about the final minutes or even seconds of the race.

As for the sprint we might get a replay and the top-10 on the day but our sport is woefully low on analytics. A sprint is taken as a high speed dash and nothing more, as if it was a random contest where a winner emerges but little else is seen.

To borrow from Gil Scott-Heron, every pedal revolution is not televised. There’s plenty to measure and discuss but cycling rarely has studio pundits to review the day’s action, talking heads able to relate events thanks to experience yet alone the data banks used by other sports. We’re still at the level of average speeds and motorbike clocks, at least in terms of TV coverage while the riders and teams have far greater analysis.

49 thoughts on “The 40km Sprint”

  1. Great article!

    For sprint stages, I personally would love to have a brief post-race analysis that could show me in chronological order the key moments over the past 30 or 40km. Which teams grabbed the front of the bunch going into key turns? Which domestique should get credit for moving X team to the front? Where did Y team lose control?

    The amount of time they currently use to show replays is probably enough. They just need to show replays of something other than the finish line.

    • Agreed, another fantastic article from Inrng. I’m a cycling dunce, but really got in to the sprint breakdowns from Cosmo Catalano (“How the race was won”) during the 2013 Giro. I’d happily watch something similar at the start of the next day coverage, which would give time to prepare footage and a narrative after speaking to the key protagonists. Not much use for the final stage, of course.

      • If it’s a stage race, the next day’s coverage is the natural place to squeeze in a bit of analysis. Casual followers of the sport are perhaps less likely to be watching and there’s often time to fill.

        We already get interviews with riders and so forth – Eurosport even played a fairly long video of Sky playing Orica GreenEdge at scissors, paper, stone the other day – so why not squeeze in a bit of sprint analysis as well? Having almost a day to prepare can only be of benefit, ensuring better insight and perhaps some decent graphics.

        • Excellent article indeed. Great idea about the bunch density. Even better sugesttion from @ProCyclingBiz about which domestique moved Team X to the front. A really good way to value all of the team, and specially those workhorses, and not just the rider who first cross the finish line.

  2. Speaking of areas where TV coverage needs improvement …

    I feel grateful to be able to download and watch coverage of the entire UCI Track World Championship. But they could have made it so much better if the director understood the sport better. They would have slow motion replays of single breakaway riders crossing the finish line in the middle of a points race simply because they had slow motion replays of every points sprint. Also, the camera was not quite aligned with the line, so for really close sprints it was a little useless. Also the replays for match sprints were typically after the decisive moves had been made. The on air commentary lacked critical analysis as well.

  3. A major goal of SUFFERvision has been to present data that pros share online in a way that gives insight into sprint finishes and other key moments in a race. This includes mapping of multiple riders, elevation profiles, instantaneous speed/power/heart rate numbers, and (most interesting I think) a moving window of power data and trailing and max critical power curves.

    For example, how hard did Andre Griepel have to work in the last km at the Tour Down Under, and what did he deliver in the sprint:

    Or, what did it take for Dan Martin to bring back and then drop Joaquim Rodríguez at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and where were the other groups on the road:

    Or, exactly when (though off-camera) did Wilco Kelderman launch is attack to garner 3rd in Paris-Nice stage 4:

    The limiting factor for routinely producing mashups like this is how often the data gets shared. However, with 70+ worldtour pros using Strava with varying levels of activity and data also appearing sometimes on Garmin Connect or TrainingPeaks, it’s getting more and more common to find something (though due to an opt-in requirement not always something SUFFERvision has permission to use).

    • Strava’s calculations are horribly inaccurate. None of the GPS tracks are anchored to a road among a large number of other problems.

      Go ahead and do another data mashup, but realize none of Strava’s content is accurate. At all.

      • Certainly Strava’s calculated power estimates are inaccurate and of no use for this sort of thing. It’s only worth displaying power when the data comes from a power meter.

        The GPS data is only as good a Garmin or other consumer GPS can provide. These can have a variety of problems, but Strava isn’t to blame for them. I suppose they could snap to the roads, but the purpose of this display I’d rather they didn’t because the jitter of points gives some visual hint of the GPS error. On the whole, I think the GPS data is often good enough to provide a reasonable representation of the peloton, gaps to breakaways, roughly who is towards the front, etc., but it’s definitely not good enough to identify who’s on whose wheel.

        • Haha, no. There are issues with the gps devices and most are easy to correct as you probably know.
          Strava doesn’t fit the route (workout) to GIS data. Strava actually has segments on the same route that some users will never see because thieir gps device registers different points due to a poorly designed device or no calibration.

          There are numerous complications as a result of their quick and dirty backend. But, boy does that frontend look pretty and show lots of number!!!

  4. Thinking of how the action unfolds when racing locally I’m sure the profs generally have a good idea in the last 40km who is likely going to win – that’s if all goes according to plan. Most of us in the peloton can tell in advance who are going to feature in the top five. A lot of us are training and racing together all year round, and a good look around in the 2nd half can give a good assessment. That’s when strategies/tactics are reviewed, gels consumed, picking the right line in the last km’s are visualised…only to see plans affected by the pelotons very own Butterfly Effect!

  5. RAI is indeed conservative (and suffering from a certain degree of nepotism and corruption), but it usually offers the best technical analysis I’ve ever heard, especially when compared with English-speaking Eurosport or Spanish media, the other TV broadcasters I usually follow… or, better said, which I follow understanding what’s being said!
    Davide Cassani and Paolo Savoldelli provided impressive insights, both live and after the race. Now they don’t work there anymore, but there’s still Silvio Martinello, who some years ago used to explain “replays with touchscreen pens to outline player moves”. Yeah, right that way. And… guess what?… as a former pistard and sprinter, he was specialized in analysing sprints!
    Giro stages always have an average 45 minutes time added to debate what happened during the stage (“Il processo alla tappa”, invented by Sergio Zavoli). We had better or worse years, and a lot of time is devoted to gossip or mixed controversies, but there’s a good degree of analysis, not just “emotion and passion” (even if, depending on the journalist in charge, the show may sometime be focused that way, indeed). The audience results have always been pretty good, though seldom massive.
    Anyway, I don’t think RAI regrets it: in fact, in the last few years, something similar had been added even to Classics or Tour stages, even if, obviously, it wasn’t “embedded” like it is in the Giro.
    I’m forced to use past tense times because I can’t follow races on RAI often, nowadays, so I can’t assure things are going on the same way.
    What is true, is that in cycling we don’t usually see much data crunching. RAI (again) used to show heart rates from selected riders, but the experiment was quitted. I suspect that the riders and the team might not agree with too much data analysis. Something valuable could be disclosed to rivals… or to the public. Why the peloton was riding soooo slowly in Floyd Landis’ epic stage, during 4/5 of the stage? Better not ask 🙂

    PS A lot of touchscreen pens, 3D models and data crunching is used when analysing football, in RAI.

    • The Processo is the original model but too often it’s become like its French copy, Véloclub, where people talk but without saying much. As you say the live analysis is often good on RAI, arguably the best. But it’s still the first impression, the quick take. Still it is often far ahead of other channels and as good as it gets in mainstream broadcasts for cycling.

      • As I said, I distinctly remember Silvio Martinello analysing in detail many sprints from the bus where he had been working with the TV director (helping him during the live broadcast); you may remember him sitting there when the judges had to review some footage.
        Then, he had all the footage to work with, and many times he provided excellent analysis of the last kms, and not only, with touchscreen pen, slow motion and stuff like that. More like an in-depth, not just first view.

        They presented it in the Processo, or, more often, in TGiro (from “TG” = “TeleGiornale” = newscast), a 30 minutes additional TV show that was on at 8 p.m., the typical hour and duration of Italian newscast.

        All this, before Martinello became a commentator (he’s the main commentator right now, I think).

        That leads me to the true RAI problem: they’re not as conservative as they seem, not everyone at least; but, as so many things in Italy, too much depends on single persons who are keen (and able) to make their job in the best possible way.
        When the cards are shuffled, valuable ideas and experiences (which would be great and innovative from an absolute point of view, not just in the RAI context) are lost without even trying to follow up the work done by those specific individuals, not to speak about bringing it to a “systematic” level.

        Well before the technological facilities we have now, RAI tried cameras on bike (Cipollini had one!), cameras in the finish line (in the asphalt…), real time rider’s speed, just as heart rate… and so on. But from a certain point on, they just quitted any of those experiments.

  6. Two words but, phrenetic jostling.

    Helicopter for the last 30k, with slo-mo analysis of key moves, but the “broad”casters probably know what the general audience wants and/or is willing to sit through.

    Well worth sitting through this piece.

  7. Another excellent though provoking article with much to commend.

    It is true that sprint finishes are still presented in the same two or three camera format as has been used from the time televised finishes were first shown. Those who have completed in bunch finishes will understand the ‘instant chaos’ element, which is always present. This does not mean that improvements can not be made in presentation. A good example given is the moto speedo. With modern technology a constant display of speed, somewhere on the screen should be the norm. We all have speed data on our bikes ! As for expert analysis, I would advise caution. In a sprint, decisions are made in an instant, and the reasons for these decisions can be many and varied. I think without improved views and metrics of the finish we should treat this aspect with a little caution. Few commentators have the experience, Sean Kelly excepted, to give a reliable interpretation of the dynamics involved – what would CK make of it all !

    I agree there is a need for improved and innovative methods of presenting a finishing sprint to the viewer. This will of course come at a price, which is probably the reason organisers and television companies are not so enthusiastic.

  8. Stage 2 of last year’s Tour of Turkey had a fascinating insider description of sprint trains and sprinters from Magnus Backstedt on British Eurosport in the closing stages when he was explaining what was happening in the peloton as it wound up on a wide straight highway for a bunch sprint. It really opened my eyes to the last 15 km of a flat stage and I rewatched it twice for the commentary. That was the stage where Mark Renshaw ended up underneath a huge pile-up and in hospital.

    Another potentially good commentator who will have more time for it from next season is David Millar, judging by his commentary on the 2012 World Championship. Again, he was interpreting and explaining.

  9. During the TDF some broadcasters (Sporza, NOS) have a separate show at night with backgrounds, interviews, and on sprint stages often fairly detailed analysis of the last few km. I agree that the coverage during and immediately after the race can be improved. I really don’t care much for the shots of riders getting through the hustle and bustle behind the finish. But the fight for position always needs a few re-runs of the helicopter footage from at least 1k out before you see what was really going on, and you rarely get that.

  10. ITV4 in UK try to cover exactly some of these points in their race coverage, which is usually limited to the Grand Tours, the tours of Britain and Ireland and some of the spring classics. The scheduling provides for a highlights show later in the evening, particularly for the Le Tour, with Chris Boardman providing the cyclists insight. It helps provide a fuller picture to any situation no mater how big or small or trivial. Sometimes it annoys me how quickly Eurosport round up the end of the days stage, today’s coverage of Stage 5 of Paris-Nice was no exception, Sean Kelly was still mid flow, then bang adverts – buy this stuff, then bang – hello and welcome to the ski-flying world championships. What? Really? it’s 15c, sunny and warm here today. I’m still waiting the round up of the GC, the quick interviews, the final long shot and the thank yous and good byes

    • Agreed, I always choose the ITV4 coverage when it’s there. it’s not just Boardman – they quite often have Roger Hammond for the Vuelta and even had Jens Voight on last year. I think it’s personal preference though as I know some people choose Eurosport as it gets straight to the racing without any preamble.

  11. Excellent perspective as per norm

    Analysis would be wonderful

    But a more basic frustration is Eurosports habit of leaving the coverage before the result is known.

    At the end of today’s Paris Nice stage there was a commercial break ~ fine ~ then some blokes on skis appeared.

    Time for hunting out info on~line

  12. Thanks for bringing this subject up as I’ve often thought some analysis (especially in bunch sprints) after the event would be helpful in understanding what actually happened and also what might happen next time.

    With positioning being so important, something that Cav said after the stage struck me. He is quoted as saying that after being caught behind the Kittel crash, “A few gentlemen in the peloton helped me find a way through”, which sounds like Cav speak for ‘a load of guys blocked me’. Having metrics that showed how the riders coped with getting in the right position and how they’re treated by their fellow riders would be something I know I’d appreciate.

    As for Eurosport dashing of to ads, in Asia & Australia/Pacific, there are no commercials, so the space is filled with ES promos, which can be quite annoying when a badly timed ad break means you’re instead watching a two minute promo of, guess what, cycling on Eurosport!

  13. Race cars carry onboard cameras transmitting live images. WT bikes should have the same. A HD camera, battery, and WiFi radio in a waterproof housing would weigh less than 1 lb and fit under a stem or saddle. The device would remain passive, just monitoring for the signal that instructs it to turn on and start transmitting. An hour or two of battery would be enough, as the on-road TV director would switch from rider to rider.

    Cycling needs to innovate. Cycling TV coverage needs to innovate. Drones, telemetry, on board cameras, broadcast rider radio transmission – just watch F1 or MotoGP and see how good it can be.

  14. If every rider has a transponder, couldn’t these be refitted with GPS to reveal each rider’s position in the bunch, so that the last kilometers could be replayed in virtual reality computer graphics animation, like in the game, “Grand Theft Auto,” and as an added feature, get access from all the teams of their riders’ wireless on-board computer monitors to show speed, rpm, and even power output (though this can be withheld if deemed too confidential by the team). In fact, it would all look a lot like that cycle racing virtual reality game that you can view on Youtube. So the CG tech is already available.

    • It’s coming. It’s called geo-location and among other things the idea is to be able to tell who is in the breakaway automatically so the caption and time gap for a breakaway is done by computer rather than a producer looking up rider numbers and inserting the graphics on screen to show the composition of a breakaway. With this technology we could also get peloton density and more metrics.

    • Having done some GPS frontend work I can tell you from experience of looking at a number of GPS tracks that this is much harder than it sounds. GPS radios are error prone in numerous ways and correcting the countless errors in almost-realtime is not solved, yet.

      There are other problems too boring to mention in detail.

      The best compromise, right now, is more of the live timing arches across the road.

      I think telecast drones might be useful in the nearer future, but a long way to go there too.

  15. I was thinking about “the Tour de France problem” while I was out riding last weekend.

    Traditionally, the TdF has dominated because it’s the only race that registers for people outside cycling, and therefore all the non-cycling sponsors care about it more than anything else.

    BUT, as the sponsors have disappeared, cycling companies have come into replace them. There year there are 17 world tour teams, and 5 have bike manufactures as title or co-title sponsors. (BMC, Cannondale, Giant/Shimano, Lampre/Merida, Trek) plus Garmin/Sharp.

    For those companies a Paris-Roubaix win is probably worth just about as much as a TdF win.

    This goes to your point: while the TdF audience might not be interested in deeper information during broadcasts, the bike buying public probably are, and (just as importantly!) the sponsors now are too.

  16. I always wonder why all broadcasters insist on switching to the head-on shot for sprint finishes when the helicopter shot shows so much more.

    • Yep my pet hate too, head on shot is pretty useless esp. as commentators often focus on wrong side of the road/rider. I always wait to see if there is a overhead replay, tells you so much more. Only then can you see if it was an ‘easy’ win by a few bike lengths or not.
      I guess an a live constant helicopter shot is too unreliable?

      • I totally agree.
        But I must add that many casual spectators love the front shot. Couldn’t have them explain me exactly “why”, kind of an emotional thing, I suppose. But imagine that most of outsiders I know, just love the sprint finishes (and even prefer them over “more interesting”, so to say, finishes), partly because of the head-on shot.

          • Sorry, I don’t get it (a linguistic issue, I’m afraid).
            I’d be grateful if you could elaborate on it.
            What I meant is that I’m used to be shown a lot of head-butting and dangerous behaviours, mainly thanks to helicopter shots, during the post-race analysis: the technical commentator looks for them, and they’re zoomed and replayed and so on.
            They found them very juicy in the “Processo alla tappa”, for example.
            Therefore, I just couldn’t understand how the head-on shot could be motivated by a desire not to show this kind of actions, if we’re shown them anyway.

  17. Great article as always.

    I would suggest the kind of more detailed analysis we are all looking for is going to have to be done by fans in the first place. As already noted, Eurosport are unlikley to ever go down this route due to the scheduling and demands of all the other sports they show.

    A potential forum for this more detailed anaylsis could be on youtube through something like the Global Cycling Network. There would of course be the issues of TV / Highlights rights but informed discussion and anaylsis could be done without replays if those providing the analysis can present it well enough. Maybe we should lobby GCN to give it a go?

  18. Yesterday’s finish was chaotic to say the least. Apart from being the first stage in a race where everyone is fresh and ambitious, there was a headwind in the final kms so everyone wanted to be near the front, but not ON the front which makes matters 10x worse and you got all the bunching up and inevitable crashes (I was actually surprised there weren’t more).

    You have to watch the final 10kms with an extremely keen eye to pick out all the jostling and positioning and it would be great to get more data to show what’s really going on. Back before the UCI killed real-time power telemetry (2011 I think it was), some HTC riders in the Cav train had them and it was incredible watching the live power numbers next to the video. It’d be cool to even just get heart rate data at the least?

  19. a big thing on British sports coverage now, especially for football, rugby or F1, is the lengthy “forum” type after-show- often on the online streaming and “red button” extra channels. the BBC is especially into these. This takes the nerdery off the main channel, into a specialist slot that doesn’t impinge on other programming. They’re typically “interactive” shows, with a lot of technical analysis, ad hoc interviews and questions via twitter and facebook.

  20. Excellent piece, I think it was basically written before yesterday’s Pelucchi surprise. There are two elements I’ll underline. One is that improving coverage of sprints and their build-up is slow but it does get better little by little. I think there is a business niche for people who can devise ways of filming cycling action in ever cheaper ways. The other element is that cycling is made for writing, much more than other sports, and the combination of video and writing that takes place in the Internet is much more apt for pundit analysis than your typical ex-rider talking about the sprint for half an hour after the race’s up.

  21. Matteo Pelucchi scrapped his way through to out race most of the top guys (that were present) with supreme bike handling skills and power. The aerial shows it all. Brilliant ride.

  22. Perhaps this is the time for INRNG TV, straight after the race for all the analysis.

    INRNG could appear as Frank Sidebottom to keep up the mystery

  23. I was thinking about the lack of analysis last weekend when Eurosport’s coverage of Strade Bianchi finished so abruptly that we only saw Sagan cross the line, Kwiatkowski get interviewed and then that was it, not even the sprint for 3rd. It seems that the touch of amateurishness that Eurosport was famous for in the 90s is still lingering.

  24. I’m lucky to be a german native, so we get coverage from Eurosport with the comments form Jean-Claude Leclercq, a former Tour de France rider. He usually sees and comments the fight for the good positions with 40km to go.
    But I share your post about the afterrace stats. I hate it, when they hover with a helicopter to get that “eglise” on the tele and the Classement Generale on screen … forever … until the flower ceremony. Insteady, they could analyse the race a bit more, completeley agree ! ! !

  25. I too like analysis, but 30m of it, is just too much. Cycling IS emotion and passion, fine do some analysis but don’t cold it down or de-humanize it . However, indeed not enough stats and details for us datail oriented.

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