A win in the pro peloton requires a superior physical performance both input (cardio vascular) and output (muscular power). However more and more riders are also enjoying a competitive advantage because of their superior bike handling skill sets. Peter Sagan is the perfect example, whether he is bunny hopping pavements or moving swiftly through an “aggressive” peloton winding up for the final sprint to the line. This type of riding requires supreme confidence in handling and maneuvering the bike at high speeds with ever changing variables such as riders changing lines and braking and/or road “furniture”. Sagan has often won a race because he is perfectly positioned at the right moment to strike. This does not just happen through brute strength but rather a combination of foresight, insight and superior bike handling skills.
Due to technological advancements riders are racing at much higher speeds than two decades ago. Improvements in both bikes and tires have produced highly aerodynamic and very fast “machines” and now millimeters may be all that is required to win a race. Bunches fly into corners with final sprints approaching speeds in excess of 60kph. The ability to squeeze through spaces at these speeds requires years of racing experience but also requires confidence, nerve and patience to unleash that final dive for the line.
Superior climbers such as Nibali and Froome will attack on a descent as they both have the skills to negotiate a fast and technical downhill. Froome is particularly interesting, sometimes looking ungainly, but he can take corners faster than many of his fellow GC riders. In last year’s Tour de France Froome attacked after a climb on a long descent and in the process made up some useful time.
The playing field has become so competitive that riders have to look everywhere in order to make up or gain seconds on their rivals. Pinot a few years back had a dreadful experience on one of the descents in the Tour and literally cracked. He then spent some time racing cars in order to systematically gain confidence in coping with high speeds.
Great classics riders like Phillip Gilbert and Tom Boonen also have the ability to handle wet slippery roads at high speeds and we regularly see them attacking in treacherous conditions, often pulling off a win. Recently Gilbert posted on twitter a photograph of his Garmin recording 120kph!
The modern day pro rider needs more than just power. Winning requires adaptability and competence in all terrains and circumstances, and many pro teams run training camps just to practice these skill sets. Chris Froome admits he learned his superior descending skills from his Sky teammates, and has now mastered the art of flying down hills (which he used to devastating effect in the 2016 Tour).
Riders constantly analyze their rival’s skill sets (both strengths and weaknesses) in order to have a strategy if an opportunity arises. For example a few years ago some riders lost valuable time on a stage that saw a typical “classic” scenario with riders and teams having to contest sections of cobblestones, which although not totally unknown, is unusual in a Grand Tour. Nibali’s classics experience kicked in and he scored minutes over his rivals.
In contrast Contador and Quintana have both on occasion lost time in cross winds whereas riders accustomed to the classic cross winds often use them as an opportunity to launch an attack. Last year in the Tour, Sagan and Froome with the help of teammates, attacked in strong crosswinds. Sagan went on to win the stage and Froome gained valuable seconds.
The combination of advanced equipment and super fit athletes creates an explosive chemistry, which ultimately also requires superior bike handling skills to deliver the artistry we see today. Peter Sagan “playing” around with his wheelies is another example of him fine-tuning his art.
Master those bike-handling skills.