Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jumping Rope on a Razor Blade: the precarious lives of sprinters

"It's like walking barefoot over broken glass,
It's like jumping rope on a razor blade,
all lightning quick decisions are made."
Ice-T, High Roller

Sprinters are a different sort of bike racer. The first of week of the Tour de France 2012 has shown the fleeting and dangerous aspects of sprinters careers. Thrilling, surprising, and intense, but gone in a moment.

Some of that is the nature of sprinting. Turning over a 140 rpm cadence, drop the chain to the 11 cog, kick it up to 50+ miles per hour, throw for the line: it's all done in seconds. No long grinding effort like a 50 minute 40km time trial. Neither a tango up a 12% Hor's Categorie climb over half an hour. Not the all day drama of a Spring classic. Sprints are won in the last kilometers, the final minutes of a race; blink and you'll miss it.

Some of the danger is from the size and intensity of Grand Tour field sprints. 200 racers are pushing themselves through twisting narrow roads to get to the 3km mark. Then the front 50 guys are working to set up 10-12 sprinters. Sprinters don't get the pleasure of whittling the bunch down to a mere dozen racers like the climbers do. Each sprinter is trying to thread a needle with their heart rate at 200 bpm while moving at 45 mph. One wrong move or slight touch and everyone could hit the pavement.

And sometimes they do. This year all but one "sprinters stage" has seen a crash effect the finish. All of the sprinters have hit the deck once, some several times. Tyler Farrar has been taken out of every sprint stage save for one. Certainly sprinters need to be lucky, and Peter Sagan seems to have the most luck this year.

Sagan also has the speed to match his luck. He has not won 3 stages by accident. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his tally is the competition he is defeating. Ale-Jet and Oscar Friere have been no where. Cavendish has only won a single stage. Andre Greipel has shown his strength, but he was beaten too by Sagan, twice. Matty Goss has been close, but always a bridesmaid. Which reminds me how fleeting success in sprints can be. Last year's champion is this year's also ran. Yesterday's victory fades before the podium flowers loose their bloom. 

Which is why sprinters keep on sprinting. Winning a race out of a field sprint is an incredible rush, whether it's a Grand Tour or a local club criterium. The adrenaline spike, the intense focus, the whirling legs, it is an intoxicating experience. When I watch a field sprint all those sensations re-awaken. I miss those feelings.

I don't miss scraping myself off the pavement. I can live without the fear of clipping a pedal through a turn, or some one sweeping out my front wheel. So I have no plans to race a bunch of criteriums this year. But I won't say never again. The rush of racing on the razors edge is impossible to forget.

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