Leading out: Cycling’s fastest domestiques share their stories

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Roger Kluge’s childhood dreams of racing on the Champs-Élysées might not have concluded with him finishing in 56th place, but the Lotto-Soudal rider enjoyed some raucous celebrations at the Paris finish line a week ago just the same. While some of the world’s fastest men were ruing what might have been, Kluge was soaking in the joy of victory, thanks to a pivotal career choice made years ago.

The Tour de France stage 21 victory is listed on another rider’s palmares, of course, but that doesn’t take away from Kluge’s right to enjoy it. It’s all part of the job when you’re Caleb Ewan’s lead-out man.

A unique blend of talent and attitude is required to guide a speedster into position for a bunch kick. As designated helpers, however, lead-out riders aren’t often put under the same analytical microscope that star sprinters or GC contenders are subjected to. With that in mind, we thought we’d catch up with a few specialists and let them explain in their own words what it really takes to be a good lead-out rider, and shed a little light on what that life is really like.

For most, the life of a lead-out man starts with a moment of acceptance. The Roger Kluges and Max Richezes of the peloton didn’t necessarily rise through the ranks dreaming of helping other riders achieve glory. Nonetheless, their success now can be traced back to a time earlier in their careers when they embraced a simple fact: They just weren’t fast enough.

Marco Haller (Katusha-Alpecin) accepted the job “from the very first moment” it was asked of him.

“I was dropped into this position right from the first race when I turned pro,” he told CyclingTips at the UAE Tour. “Back then, I was signed in the same year as Alexander Kristoff. Obviously, coming up as a neo-pro and having a rider who in the same year takes a bronze medal in the Olympics, there’s no question that you will be his helper.”

It took Kluge a few years to slot into a more fixed lead-out position after bouncing between support duties and sprint chances in his first few years, but he said he embraced the job after a few seasons with only a handful of big results.

Caleb Ewan and Roger Kluge refuel after finishing stage 15 of the 2019 Tour de France.

For Richeze, the transition came later. A sports director helped convince him to focus his efforts on the lead-out after several years of taking a few wins per season as a sprinter, and the decision extended his career. Now 36, he has spent years as a key helper for Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani.

It makes it easier to accept the “lead-out man” moniker knowing that even helpers do sometimes get their own opportunities. Kluge and Richeze are among the many lead-out men that count a few big victories on their palmares from days where they were given the green light to seek their own results. On the other side of the coin is is Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), who won the Champs-Élysées stage at the Tour de France last year but is comfortable on lead-out duty at times when he is racing with teammate Fernando Gaviria.

Whatever the situation, adaptation is the name of the game. The best lead-out riders are comfortable putting their own ambitions aside whenever necessary. Full commitment to the job is required for success.

Those who do slot into the role find themselves in a job that begins long, long before the final kilometer. In a way, the job begins off the bike. Most of the lead-out specialists CyclingTips spoke to have strong relationships with their star sprinters, whether they’re racing or not.

“We know each other well enough without even saying things,” Kluge said of Ewan. “To understand how someone reacts, that makes things more automatic.”

Getting comfortable with your sprint captain makes it easier to go all-out for him on the road, and it comes in especially handy when intuition and non-verbal communication are the best way to know what your sprinter wants from you in a loud, hectic race.

Once the race begins in earnest, the lead-out rider’s job requires both watts and wits through the entire day. It is on the support rider to make those small accelerations necessary to stay near the front as the sprinter stays as sheltered from the wind as possible behind.

“It’s the whole way from kilometer zero to finish line,” Kluge said. “I give [the sprinter] the slipstream all day more or less. I’m riding my bike smooth, not explosive, so for him, on the wheel, it’s pretty smooth.”

Sometimes, lead-out duty is far more than simply offering a smooth ride. If the sprinter crashes or has a mechanical, the lead-out rider will likely be called on to pull him back into position. That’s exactly what happened on stage 11 of the Tour de France, when Ewan was caught behind a pileup with only 10 kilometers remaining. From that moment, Kluge’s job changed from guiding him into the finale to getting him back into position to even contend at all.

“Roger came back for me and he basically took me from the back of the bunch to Groenewegen’s wheel in the last few kilometers,” Ewan said after he won the stage.

When the sprinter does manage to avoid crashes and mechanicals, the lead-out rider’s job only becomes more hectic in the finale. The fundamental goal is to bring the sprinter into position for the final push, which means getting to the front or close to it and staying there. Of course, everyone else is trying to do the same thing, and there is only so much space on the road. Tension is high, and communication is extremely difficult with the noise and the speed.

Mistakes made in the run-in can take a sprinter out of contention altogether. Robert Wagner (Arkéa-Samsic) recalls his “worst ever lead-out” performance coming in a stage at his debut Grand Tour, the 2011 Vuelta a España.

“Everything went fine until the last 500 meters. There was a roundabout, and we were doing the lead-out for Daniele Bennati. I followed a motor, and I couldn’t see if I had to take the left or right, because you could not see the finish,” Wagner said.

“Of course, in the meeting everything was clear, we had to take the left—but in the race, with a heart rate of 180, with all the adrenaline, I followed the motorbike. The motorbike took the roundabout to the right because they have to get out of the way. When I turned right, there was a big mess because I was at the head of the peloton. All the guys were pretty lucky. I had Bennati on my wheel and also Peter Sagan and they’re great bike handlers. No one crashed, but we f—ked it up. JJ Haedo, I think, took advantage of it and won.

“It could have been the perfect lead out, but it was the worst.”

For those who manage to lead their sprinter into the actual sprint, success comes down to a combination of careful planning, that all-important adaptability, and, of course, speed. Some sprinters like to be dropped off onto a rival’s wheel and allowed to weave their way to victory from there, and others like a sheltered ride into the last 200 meters, but most play it by ear depending on the route. The approach is planned in advance, and riders do their best to either carry out the plan, or adjust the best way possible.

“You never have a perfect scenario. You have to adapt,” Kluge said. “It’s super loud and noisy. To hear your guy behind you, or even two spots behind you, he has to yell to the guy in front and then he yells to me, and I have to react. It’s crucial to have the right timing.”

Nailing that timing is a massive challenge. On the occasions when a sprinter does want his lead-out take him all the way to the last few hundred meters, the challenge involves measuring one’s own energy stores. If a sprinter’s lead-out fades well before the line, the sprinter must either ride into the wind or be swamped by rivals. That’s generally a losing proposition.

“The most difficult part is to find the right moment to start,” Kluge said. “As a lead-out man, we still have to calculate how fresh we are. How are the legs? Can I do 500 meters? Can I do 700 meters?”

Even after the lead-out rider peels off, there still might be some work left to do.

“It’s good when your lead-out man is a little bit in the way for the guys behind,” Kristoff told CyclingTips after he successfully led Gaviria out – and then did a bit of obstructing in front of Caleb Ewan – on stage 2 of this year’s UAE Tour.

“I could move completely out of the way but then I’m less helpful. It’s always like this.”

All told, it’s a great deal of work putting someone into position to contest a victory. In the end, hopefully the sprinter makes his chance for the win count, giving his lead-out rider an opportunity to throw up his arms when crossing the line 10 or 20 seconds later.

When that happens, it’s cause for team-wide celebration – and it’s more than just a feather in the cap for the helper in the background. Those lead-out riders with proven track records enjoy job security that few career support riders can boast.

When Ewan made up his mind to join Lotto-Soudal for this season last spring, he asked Kluge if he would come with him. It was the same story for Robert Wagner, who had success leading out a young Dylan Groenewegen at Jumbo-Visma and then got the call from André Greipel when the veteran speedster decided to head to Arkéa-Samsic last transfer season.

André Greipel reunited with friend, compatriot, and former teammate Robert Wagner at Arkéa-Samsic. Photo: Luis Angel Gomez/Cor Vos © 2019

The best sprinters know how much credit their lead-out men deserve, and are sure to show their gratitude as best they can. After Groenewegen won the final stage of the 2017 Tour, for instance, he was sure to mention Wagner in the post-race interview.

“Great leaders like Dylan really appreciate it,” Wagner said. “The day before, I told him, ‘I think you have the feeling that you can win, and this will change your life,’ and he told that story after [to the media] so it made it even bigger for me.”

In other words, while the sprinters may get the chance to climb atop the podium, there’s still some recognition to go around for the support riders that put the speedsters into a winning position. At the end of the day, that helps make all the hard work worth the trouble.

It’s not a job for everyone. For the starry eyed young sprinters seeking fame and fortune, it’s not always an easy sell. For the select few with the speed, the skills, and the attitude to thrive in an alternative path, however, it’s a fine way to make a living.

“I think it’s pretty important to find your spot in professional cycling,” Haller said. “It’s not always necessary to go for your own chances. It’s a team sport.”

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