Sprinters are cycling’s gladiators; its guided missiles.
They are the riders steered through the melee of a bunch sprint and launched with maximum velocity, ideally from front and centre of the hurtling mass of carbon fibre and fast twitch muscle fibres.
When the finish line comes within touching distance and exhausted team-mates fall away, sprinters are left to fight with their own kind. Only the strongest survive in this vortex of speed and power. No gap is too small to discount as a pathway to victory; no rival so decorated that they might not be used as a springboard.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last three years. I think I’m one of the leaders in this team...”
Lotta Lepistö, the reigning Finnish road and time-trial champion, and winner this season of Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem - two of the most prestigious Spring Classics - is Cervélo Bigla’s sprinter, but gives few signs of a gladiatorial aspect when we meet at a training camp, high in the hills above Girona.
Instead, after five hours on the road with her team-mates, she is calm and softly spoken. Her smile comes quickly enough, but she has something of the Finnish reserve made famous by her compatriot Kimi Räikkonen, the F1 driver nicknamed The Ice Man, as much for his interview technique as his calmness at the wheel.
Lepistö is more forthcoming than Räikkonen, but it’s hard to imagine her losing her cool, even in the fevered conditions of a bunch sprint. Her calm disposition leaves her well-placed to handle the internal pressure that comes from having a team assembled around her.
“Of course, it brings some pressure, but at the same time, I want to be the best sprinter in the world,” she says of the recruitment policy pursued by team manager Thomas Campana.
“Thomas has seen my will [to be the best] and has built a team around me. Of course, I feel really happy about it, and grateful."
Perhaps it is Campana who should be grateful.
Lepistö had registered two victories in the elite Women’s WorldTour before the season has reached its midpoint. Note the quality of the victories too: triumphs that include a legendary Spring Classic and a stage of the Giro Rosa, the longest and most prestigious stage race on the women’s calendar.
“I get messages from parents, whose kids are saying: ‘See, I’m riding like Lotta Lepistö.’”
There are plenty of occasions, however, where roles are reversed, and Lepistö becomes a domestique. Co-leader Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, who in May made a clean sweep of the general, mountains and points classification at the Emakumeen Bira stage race, is one who benefits from the efforts of her Finnish team-mate.
“If I need to work for Ashleigh and she wins, it feels good,” Lepistö says. “It’s also relaxing to give everything for the other rider and to do everything as well as I can. If success comes, I’m as happy as if I had won.”
Team support is not something she has lacked this season. The Cervélo Bigla sprint train has fired on all cylinders. Team-mate Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, long-time leader of the Women’s WorldTour youth classification, says that Lepistö’s victory at Dwars Door Vlaanderen inspired further success.
“We know that if we work our arses off and deliver Lotta in the sprint, she can do the job. We’re not in any doubt - if we bring her to the finish, then we’re safe. At Gent-Wevelgem, we knew that if we brought her to the finish line, she could deliver. That confidence was built very much at Dwars door Vlaanderen.”
Lepistö acknowledges the double-edged nature of being the most important member of the sprint train. When so much effort is invested in launching the missile, the strike must be perfect. With success comes expectation, but she is flattered by the team’s commitment to her own success and determined to do it justice.
Lepistö is tough. Crashes - usually at high speed - are an often unavoidable consequence of full-gas finishes, frequently held on urban roads punctuated at regular intervals with street furniture, as race organisers seek to maximise exposure with city centre finishes. Accepting this painful reality is part of the sprinter’s job.
Campana relates a story from last year’s Women’s Tour, inviting us to picture Lepistö sat at the roadside after hitting the deck at the finale of the opening stage, before composing herself, and insisting upon riding back to the hotel
“A bunch sprint is always crazy. Sometimes I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but it just drives me more...”
Lepistö smiles as I recount Campana’s tale, and adds context: she had crashed a week earlier and feared reopening her newly-healed wounds. Her despondency in Norwich had come as much from the prospect of further treatment to the same injuries as the shock of collision.
“But then I was like: ‘Oh, it’s racing.’ You have to deal with it. It was bad luck. I didn’t want to let the team down, and it was at the time that I had said to the national team that I would not participate in Baku, at the European Games.
“I felt it more important to do the Women’s Tour. I’d heard it was a super nice race with big crowds, and I wanted to race there and learn, because I knew also that it would suit me better than Baku.”
We have already considered sprinting’s gladiatorial aspect, but what is the rider’s view? Does racing wheel-to-wheel at full gas, surrounded on every side by riders with the same intent, ever grow to be normal?
“I guess not,” Lepistö says, laughing. She would prefer if bunch sprints were not such a cut-throat environment, but understands that risk and reward are indivisible in the sprinter’s world.
“It’s always crazy. Sometimes I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but it just drives me more, especially when success follows some crazy move, where you went through a gap that you shouldn’t, if you want to be safe.”
Adrenalin is a factor that cannot be discounted, she continues. One senses its addictive quality for sprinters; especially the handful that are as successful as the six-time Finnish road champion.
“Of course, it’s even nicer if you don’t have to take those risks,” she adds, “if you have the team around you, and you’re safe and sound.”
Norway will host this year’s world championships in September.
Lepistö likes her chances in the road race, on a circuit that is hilly, rather than mountainous, and with only one climb of note: the 1.5km ascent of Salmon Hill. Having survived the Paterberg and the Kemmelberg in Spring, she is not unduly concerned by what awaits her in Bergen.
“The road race will be a Classic-style race,” she says. “There will be some climbs, but shorter. Not 5km or 10km - only 1.5km!”
“Crashes are part of racing. You have to deal with it...”
Cervélo Bigla will also target the team time-trial, having won a bronze medal last year in the heat of Qatar. Norway should offer a more amenable climate, and Lepistö’s power is likely to prove a valuable asset to her team-mates in any circumstance.
Her own bronze medal-winning performance in Doha – a fine third place in the women’s road race - has helped to raise Lepistö’s profile in Finland: a surprising development, given her almost permanent tenure in the national champion’s jersey. Lepistö sees her growing recognition at home as her contribution to a higher profile for the women’s sport.
“I get messages from parents, whose kids are saying: ‘See, I’m riding like Lotta Lepistö.’ Those are the best messages I’ve received in the last few months.”
She hopes for greater television coverage for top-level women’s races. When the Cervélo Bigla squad divides for separate races, she finds herself resorting to internet feeds to watch her team-mates.
Lepistö has fulfilled her promise in her three years with Cervélo Bigla, and is now exploring the full extent of her ability. Victories in two of the biggest races of Spring provide the clearest evidence yet that she is a world class sprinting talent.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last three years,” she says. “I think I’m one of the leaders in this team.”
To have earned such status in a squad containing Moolman-Pasio is some achievement, even if their talents are complementary. Their peaceful coexistence also says much for the ambience within the team. Lepistö confirms that the current line-up is the most harmonious she has experienced.
“Of course, it’s nicer if you don’t have to take risks, if you have the team around you, and you’re safe and sound...”
Harmony is of incalculable value to a rider who must rely on her team-mates, and mutual trust is everything between sprinter and lead out train. The workers who shelve their own ambitions must be convinced that the sacrifice is justified, and the sprinter must be convinced of the strength of her colleagues, if she is to join the full-scale combat of the last 200 metres before the finish line.
Podium ceremonies are but fleeting moments in a sprinter’s life; searing efforts, inherent danger and pressure to deliver are constants. Lepistö carries the burden of expectation lightly. For Pamela Barclay, Endura’s Brand Director, the Finnish champion's commitment echoes that of her tailors.
“Our commitment to supplying the very best to Cervélo Bigla is more than matched by Lotta’s efforts on the road. To see her give everything in pursuit of victory is a welcome reward for the skilled team of designers and garment technicians who make her clothing by hand in Scotland.
“Lotta is a living definition of speed - a quality very much in our thoughts when developing technologies like Silicone Surface Topography with aerodynamicist Simon Smart. Her 'ownership' of the Finnish road and time-trial titles has made her blue-and-white kit a familiar sight in our production room in Livingston.”
Victory is addictive; the ultimate makeweight in a balance with crashes. Cycling’s gladiators make their own reckoning with danger. Lepistö’s season is very much in the black.