There are few more majestic sights in cycling than a leadout train riding at full gas before slingshotting a sprinter to victory.
A well-tuned train, like the HTC-Highroad juggernaut which delivered Mark Cavendish to countless wins, can be near unbeatable.
But the foundations for such success are laid at a team’s pre-season training camp, where roles are defined and technique is sharpened over leadout drills on empty roads, away from the pinball chaos of the peloton. I’m in Benicassim, Spain, with the Lotto-Belisol team to see just that at the squad´s final training camp before the season begins.
Several of the team’s key riders, including Andre Greipel, winner of three Tour de France stages in 2012, and his leadout man, Greg Henderson, have departed for the first race of the season, the Tour Down Under, but 19 of the squad remain in Spain of which nine have leadout drills pencilled in for their day’s training.
The team have swapped the cold, wet winter of northern Europe for sun-drenched Spain, and the ride, which I am watching from the following car, starts with one-and-a-half hours at a steady pace. The atmosphere is relaxed and the chatter flowing among the group as they spin the legs, many riding in the inner ring, albeit at more than 40km/h on silky-smooth roads, and without a breath of wind.
A three kilometre climb stretches the legs but the group remains tightly packed – no riders are shelled out of the back on this training run. The intensity picks up as the riders begin riding through and off, and soon after we arrive at a two kilometre drag strip of quiet road – the training ground for today´s drills: straight and flat, but for a small kick at the end.
The team’s coach, Bert Ackaert, delivers his orders – six two kilometres intervals with two leadout trains battling it out – and buckets are placed along the road to mark out the distance to the finish; 2km, 1km, 750m, 500m, 250m and the finish line.
Gilets and arm warmers are gradually peeled off as the riders carry out each drill under the warm sun, with Ackaert offering feedback and advising on new leadout train formations after each run, before the finish is moved a kilometre up the road for the final three drills in order to include a twisting, uphill finish.
This practice is key to the team’s success this season, says Ackaert, who tells his riders to maintain a consistent speed of 60 km/h throughout the leadout, with each rider completing a little more than 250m on the front before eventually the sprinter takes over. The key is to maintain a smooth, consistent speed to ensure the train stays compact, and to not panic if a rival rider attacks off the front for an ambitious shot at solo glory.
Each drills is hard-fought, with both trains weaving across the tarmac, and the result at the finish line is accompanied either by cheers or light-hearted commiserations from team-mates. Judging by Andre Greipel’s success in 2012, Lotto-Belisol will be enjoying the former this season.
The view from the team car
The 19 riders in Spain are split into two groups for the day. Group one, which includes Jurgen Van den Broeck, heads out for a five hours ride, including two-and-a-half hours on the time trial bike
Group two also sets off for a five hour ride – but with TT training swapped for leadout drills
The mood is relaxed as the riders bask in the early morning sunlight outside the team hotel in Benicassim
A short climb provides the opportunity for the nine riders to stretch the legs
The view from the team car
The pace intensifies as the group begins riding through and off
Slow down at roundabouts!
Six riders in the nine-man sprint group are riding a Ridley Helium – the Belgian bike brand´s climbing bike
The two sprinters in the group, Kenny Dehaes and Jens Debusschere, are riding the Ridley Noah FAST, which has integrated brakes at the front and rear to improve aerodynamics
And one rider opts for Ridley´s Classics bike, the Fenix
The team receives instructions ahead of the first leadout drill
The finish, on a slight uphill gradient, is marked by a bucket on this quiet road which runs alongside a motorway
The riders aim to keep the pace at 60km/h throughout the leadout
It´s neck-and-neck in the first sprint…
But there´s no doubting the winner in the second! Note the trail of riders behind who helped slingshot the sprinters into the finish
The finish moves up the road after three of six drills, making for a harder uphill sprint. Here the leadout men peel off leaving only two riders to attack the finish line
Time to refuel after six full-gas drills
The fuel for any hard ride: cake. After completing their leadout runs the team takes off for another one-and-a-half hours on the road before heading back to the hotel