One of bike racing’s many pleasures is the sprint finish. All the muscle men, the guys with the huge quads and the hyperactive fast-twitch muscles, get in position behind their lead-out riders with a few kilometers to go. Each of the lead-outs, also strong men but not quite so quick and powerful, tows the sprinters in his slipstream in turn, peeling off when his short-term power is burned up, his muscles burning with lactic acid. Finally with a few hundred meters to go one of the contenders makes a move, surging with all-out power. Who is the first to go depends on the course: is it uphill or downhill, wide or narrow, straight or curved? And on the rider: who is on form, having a good day with just that little bit of extra zip? And on the position: who has the best gap to burst through while his rivals are a bit boxed in? It can be quite a melee, even though in a multi-day stage race the climbers and time trialists, candidates for overall victory, just stay a little bit behind, out of the way, to avoid a serious crash. Sprinters’ speeds can get up around 60 kmh at the finish.
There can also be close finishes among leading riders ahead of the pack on crucial mountain days. In the 2004 Tour Lance Armstrong was climbing ahead of the pack with his rivals Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden, and teammate Floyd Landis over five (!) peaks toward a sprint finish in Le Grand Bornand. Landis had done heroic work towing the others up the tough climbs, and Armstrong, with a comfortable overall lead, wanted Floyd to take the stage victory as a reward. Klöden spoiled that plan by sprinting ahead inside the final kilometer. With 500 m left, he had a 100m lead. But Lance, in his anger and competitive fury, chased the German down with an impressive surge of raw power, passing Klöden (who looked back over the wrong shoulder) just before the line.
Cycling has metrics to assess these things and assure the winner has been correctly identified. The metrics are those of distance, not time. Cameras purposely elongate the images at the photo finish, transform the background from pavement-gray to white so that the dark tires and rims stand out, and superimpose vertical lines to measure victory margins: half a wheel, the thickness of a tire, two millimeters. Both riders get the “same time,” but only one stands on the highest podium spot at the awards ceremony.
The one exception to this measure of victory in cycling is the time trial, the “race of truth,” contre-la-montre, against the clock. Here absolute time differences prevail, and the margins can be, and are, measured in hundredths of seconds. In the 2009 Tour, Armstrong’s first comeback year, he and his team picked up in the Team Time Trial nearly all of the 41 seconds needed to put Lance in the race leader’s yellow jersey. But Fabian Cancellara (nicknamed “Spartacus” for his toughness) held on to the overall lead that day by 0.22 seconds.
That number perhaps frames my reaction to the item in today’s sports page about downhill ski racing. Like time trials on bikes, in downhill ski races each skier is measured against the clock. The report today was of women’s World Cup skiing, specifically of American Lindsey Vonn winning a Super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo. She got down the hill in 1:26:16. That’s minutes/seconds/hundredths of seconds. That time constituted an “emphatic victory” because it was a “massive 0.61 of a second” faster than the second place finisher Maria Hoefl-Riesch. Bicycle racing may be fast, close, and exciting, but it is not a world in which 6/10 of a second is “massive.” I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that. [And is there a latent unintentional “Americans besting Germans” theme in this blog?]
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.