How To Give A Leadout

Posted: Mar 15, 2002

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of leading out some of the fastest sprinters in the U.S. including George Hincapie, Radisa Cubric, Adam Myerson, Kevin Monahan and Wilson Vasquez. Some of these names you may recognize while others only riders in the Northeast will know. It doesn't matter if you are leading out a Pro rider in a championship race or your teammate in the local Tuesday night crit.—the basics are still the same. First you have to ask yourself "Do I have what it takes to be a good leadout rider". Here are the qualities a leadout rider must have:
  • Ability to sustain a high threshold for long periods. If you are a good time trialist you probably already have this.
  • You must have a selfless mentality. A leadout requires a 100% commitment. If in the middle of the leadout you start to think "I won't go all out and try to save some energy for my own result" the leadout is doomed and you are just wasting both your time and the time of the sprinter you are leading out.
  • You must be a very good field sprinter.
That last one might throw you off. "Wait a minute, I want to be a leadout rider because I am NOT a good field sprinter". Sorry, if you are not a good field sprinter you will not be a good leadout rider. A field sprint is not just the mad-dash for the line with 200 meters to go. Field sprints begin many laps before the finish of a criterium and many kilometers before the finish of a road race. The leadout rider must be able to fight for position at the front of the field and find (or sometimes "make") holes that do not exist while all the time looking over their shoulder to make sure their sprinter is in tow. The leadout rider can easily "place" in races but chooses to give up their 4th or 5th place so that their sprinter can win. So how should the leadout work? Before the race, formulate a plan with your teammates should the race come down to a field sprint. Decide who the sprinter is and what everybody's role on the team will be. Remember, plans in bike racing are never guaranteed so be sure to have plans "B,C,D…". One of the most overlooked plans is actually deciding when and where the leadout should begin. If you are in a criterium or circuit race you can have a plan such as "the leadout will start with 5 to go in the backstretch". In a road race it might be "10km to go, after the last climb". The key is to make sure everybody is on the same page. When everybody comes together at the designated point then start executing the plan you formulated before the race. At this point communication is key. Your sprinter is your boss and you must pay strict attention to any orders they bark out from behind even if you think it may be the wrong move. If your sprinter says "close that gap"—you close the gap. "Pick it up"—you go faster. Make sure you and your sprinter understand each other's unique commands. If you are the final leadout rider you must pick an imaginary finish line. A spot that says "my race ends here". The better races will have signs that say "1KM To Go" and "200M To Go" but if the race does not have signs you must pick a landmark, like a tree or a pole. It's the same idea when you pick a landmark when you practice sprints. This will keep you focused. When you have reached your imaginary finish line, swing off but make sure your sprinter knows if you are pulling off to the left or right. I have seen countless "perfect leadouts" go down the drain when the leadout rider swings off right into the path of their sprinter. Once you swing off you must not let your guard down. This is the most dangerous part of the race for you. Your sprint is over while for most of the field it is just beginning. I usually throw one arm in the air as if I have a mechanical to let other riders know why I am slowing down. Sometimes you will get screamed at or even worse—punched—by riders who you are in front of, but that's racing. Don't take it personal. Now your race is over. Hopefully, your sprinter had a good result. All prize money should be split equally if everybody has contributed to the leadout. After the race, discuss the leadout and what you could have done differently. Good leadouts take time so be patient and most of all BE SAFE. And always remember—it's bike racing, it's supposed to hurt!