Sprinters at the double a recipe for Deceuninck-QuickStep success?

Deceuninck-QuickStep employed an unusual strategy at Scheldeprijs, leading out the sprint for both Sam Bennett and Mark Cavendish in the finale, filling out the minor placings as Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) hit the front with speed enough to hold off Bennett to the line.

109th Scheldeprijs 2021 - Men's Elite

Sam Bennet of Deceuninck Quick Step and Mark Cavendish of Deceuninck Quick Step are beaten by Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Fenix at Scheldeprijs. Source: Getty / Getty Images

It always feels like a bit of a waste when you have two riders right up there in a sprint and you don't take the win.

Australian fans will remember the disappointment of the 2015 Richmond road world championships when Michael Matthews won the bunch sprint for second and Simon Gerrans was sixth. 

It also happened overnight at Scheldeprijs with Sam Bennett and Mark Cavendish finishing 2-3 after their leadout was exposed a bit too early and Philipsen coming with speed from behind was able to win.

The situation here was a very different race scenario but the feeling is the same. If one rider had sacrificed their chance at the win for the other, would we be looking at a different winner?

Particularly in cycling, a sport where team support is so crucial and wins don't come around that often, this question rankles.

Bennett has been the dominant sprinter so far in 2021 - building on his 2020 success - with his leadout train and in particular last man Michael Mørkøv crucial to that record. Yesterday Mørkøv was exposed with about 700 metres to go (400-500 metres would be preferred), he had to measure his speed to keep Bennett and Cavendish in front, and then hopefully ramp up to top speed with 200 metres to go to drop his sprinters off.

As brilliant as Mørkøv is, he couldn't quite thread that needle and the charging train of Alpecin-Fenix surged to the front at exactly the right spot and gave Philipsen the angle through the final bend and more speed from which to launch his sprint.

"I think we were missing one guy in the final," Bennett said after the finish. "We needed to follow the moves and use up our lead-out early because we were obviously the favourites. We had to use the guys early. Then guys came from behind with more speed. Then it’s hard to accelerate on to that and then again.

“Also, it was too easy in the laps before and when the muscles get cold, that first hard effort is always the hardest. When I went to the sprint the muscles weren’t warmed up fully. That was hard to go again. It was a mix of things. It was unfortunate that we had a bad day.”

It begs the question of what the roles were in the final sprint with Bennett starting in front of Cavendish, but clearly not doing a leadout for the winner of 30 Tour de France stages. 

“I do my own sprint. Mark’s on the wheel," said Bennett. "If he could come around then he could come around. I just did my own race.” 

The dual sprinter look was awkward, neither produced their best sprint. Bennett would have been better off with another man in the leadout and would almost definitely have won if that was the case, it's very hard to see Philipsen anywhere as close to the front if there was another man lining it out in front of Mørkøv. 

Cavendish also sprinted below his best, he actually gave up Philipsen's wheel to Bennett after the Irishman had to swing round the back wheel of the Belgian sprinter to get some clear running. 

“As we were going, Sam kind of went to go on the left, but it closed and Philipsen came from the right," said Cavendish. "I was watching it from behind and had to back off to let Sam get out of there.

“I think he’s got the strongest legs of any sprinter at the minute, he was our best shot. So I backed off to let him out. But he couldn’t work out his sprint.”

Bennett is a sprinter who has won five out of seven bunch sprint finishes that he has attempted this season, while Cavendish is still hunting for his first but has taken some promising podium finishes. Both speak their mind quite freely in a normal situation in post-race interviews, but Bennett was reportedly reticent when the subject of Cavendish was broached.

Cavendish, who had found a personal sponsor to pay his salary so he could join Deceuninck-Quickstep for 2021 was mostly happy to be at the pointy end of the race, though recognised that it wasn't a perfect outing.

“Very happy, I don’t know…. A win for the team would be a bit more ideal but just being here at Scheldeprijs, with Deceuninck-QuickStep, makes me happy enough,” Cavendish said, later adding, “It’s disappointing, we wanted to win. Patrick (Lefevere) expects us to win.”

While it was an interesting experiment, it might be back to the drawing board for team boss Lefevere as he tries to figure out how he can best target the key sprint races with his two sprint kings, not to mention Fabio Jakobsen, Alvaro Hodeg and Davide Ballerini, who are all fast finishers with bunch sprint wins to their name.

It's not impossible for a dual sprinter set-up to work, in the Instagram post above, Cavendish relates how he won the 2007 edition of Scheldeprijs with the team riding for Andre Greipel while he had a free role. It might make more sense to do it with a team with a weaker leadout for instance, having two sprinters getting dropped off in the final kilometres, one following a major sprint train, the other on another, and you're likely going to see one of them in with a decent shot for the win.

However, sprinting is really an all eggs in one basket scenario, making decisions of which wheel to follow, when to launch and observing where your opponents are at high speed with centimetres of leeway is hard enough without also figuring out who's going to be the leader mid-sprint.   

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6 min read
Published 8 April 2021 at 1:53pm
By Jamie Finch-Penninger