Lead Outs, Part 2: The “Simple” Lead Out

So your team got together, assessed the day’s race, developed a strategy including a lead out for your sprinter, and have assigned specific roles (see Lead Outs, Part 1). It turns out that you only have 2 or 3 riders available (or capable) of working for the sprint. To keep it easy, we’ll call this the “simple” lead out. Of course lead outs are not simple—they require planning, practice, communication, fitness, commitment, and discipline—but with the “simple” lead out, at least you only have to coordinate the efforts of a few people.

In this scenario it is good to make sure that everyone knows the purpose and limitations of doing a lead out. A lead out is designed to control as much about the dynamics at the end of a race as possible, and to save energy for the designated sprinter. Despite your best efforts, cycling is like gambling—you can do your best to increase your odds by playing smart but in the end it is still up to chance.

In this scenario, there are only 2-3 teammates, so your ability to control the race is pretty limited. If you have an excellent time trial rider, you may be able to set a high tempo for the last lap and half. Either way, you probably won’t be able to respond to attacks if you remain committed to the lead out. It is important to define this clearly so a teammate does not abandon the lead out to chase an attack, unless the plan is to cover late attacks and leave the sprinter once they are in position. Focusing on using teammates to maintain good position and keep your sprinter out of the wind is often the best bet, though.

Whether you have a couple teammates and or a lot, coming together in the field and getting into position before 5 km to go is necessary. If it is a small field, this is easy, but if it is a field of 50, 75, or more, teammates should start moving into position with about 10 km to go. Once gathered together, the job of the riders providing the lead out is to get to and stay in the top 10, always moving up in a way that the sprinter can follow a wheel and is never out in the wind. Obviously, snaking up through the field doesn’t work very well for any team except the most experienced racers.

Usually the best way to get to and stay in the front is to go up the side. This means the lead out riders will need to sit in the wind, at least somewhat. That is their job: take the wind and get in the right spot so the sprinter doesn’t have to. If the race is fast, this is obviously a hard task, but less riders will be fighting to come by you. If the race is slower, it will be a constant battle of moving up and not getting boxed in so that you can maintain that top 5 positioning. Fast or not, some jockeying will go on all the way to the finish line.

Once in the top 5-10, the final role for the lead out riders is to get their sprinter into the desired position before reaching 500 meters to go, then making an all out effort to stay there. In most criteriums, the final places are determined from the last corner to the finish line, but your chances for placing well are determined by your place before you reach the final 200 meters, whether it’s a criterium or road race. This is why it is critical for the lead out riders to get and keep the sprinter in good position up to final 200 meters.

Getting and keeping this position and bringing your sprint to the right spot by 200 meters will likely be a full out effort. If the lead out riders can’t contest the sprint after that, no problem—job well done! Just stay out of the way of everyone sprinting by.

Around 200 meters to go it is the sprinter’s job to take over. Sometimes this is right about where the final corner is and you will need to guess if the final sprint needs to start before or after the corner. In a road race with a clear line to the finish, the distances are the same and you again have to estimate where the final sprint will start based on the speed, course, wind, riders’ abilities, etc.

It should be obvious by now that the “simple” lead out is anything but easy to do. It mainly involves a teammate or two helping the sprinter get and stay in position while sheltering them from the wind. This won’t be any easy ride for the sprinter, either, but the hope is that the positioning and wind break will leave just enough gas in your sprinter’s tank to finish strong all the way to the line.

After a cool down, make sure to gather together again and talk about the race: what worked well with your strategy and execution, and what can be improved next time. And if you’re working together to get one rider placed well, be ready to share prize money evenly. The rider who buries himself to put the sprinter in the right position with 1 lap to go, then finishes way out of the money should expect to get an even split with the sprinter who got the big check. If your team decides to do the prize money splits differently, fine, but this is something you should talk about before the race, not after.


Anonymous said...

When do lead outs start working in a race. I guess in what category is what I am trying to ask. How many people/teams actually are able to get a lead out working in the lower categories, like CAT 5 and 4. Or is it a free for all until riders/teams actually start figuring this out after years of racing, or do you actually get to see some of it in the lower categories.



Lucas Wall said...

Lead outs occasionally (but rarely) work with 4s, sometimes with 3s, but more often at the Cat 1 and Pro level. Because a good lead out requires a certain level of fitness, it's hard to put together a few good Cat 4 or 5 riders to work together because good riders move up. Also, the rider who places well can share money--a good start--but there's no way to share upgrade points with a teammate. Still, knowing what it takes is a big part of actually doing it as I've rarely seen Cat. 3/4/5 riders set up a lead out correctly.

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