What is a lead out man (or women) in cycling?

What is a lead out man (or women) in cycling?
Soudal Quickstep rider - Deutschland Tour 2022

The “Lead Out Man” is a term used to describe the final rider who will drop off the lead out train prior to the lead sprinter attempting to make his mark, sprint, and win the stage. In Mark Cavendish’s case in 2023 this was supposed to be Cees Bol, and when Cavendish was signed by Astana, Cees Bol was part of the deal, as Cavendish knew without a lead out man, his chances of winning that 35th Tour de France stage were greatly diminished.

So what is a lead out man? And what makes the best ones? Lead out men are like the super domestiques of sprinting. They are a mid-tier to above-average sprinter, but not quite at the tippy tippy top of sprint calibre. Or, they are near the top, but are at the stage of their career where they’re willing to accept the cash to lead out another sprinter instead of being the sprinter themselves. It’s a bit like how Geraint Thomas signed with Ineos in 2023 even though he knew he’d almost always just be aiding the younger GC riders to perform their best.

Sprinting is risky, and being a lead out rider is definitely a lot less risky than being the main sprinter. Especially when riders get older and have families, finishing at all, rather than finishing first, definitely seems to seep into riders’ minds.

As some pundits have mentioned, Jonathon Milan, a standout sprint star from the Giro 2023 would be a great lead out man. The problem is that Milan is too young, at only 23. Milan would likely never sacrifice a career as a potential top level sprinter to be a lead out man.

Being a lead out rider does not necessarily translate to being a good top sprinter. There’s been a number of riders over the year who have attempted to transition from being a lead out rider to the team’s top sprinter, or vice versa for that matter, only to have the attempt not pan out. There’s a lot of nuance to being an exceptional lead out rider and the same can be said for being the main sprinter. And while from the outside they may appear to overlap heavily, just like cycling as a whole, as you begin to peel back the layers you begin to see just how nuanced they are.

It’s also been argued that lead out men should be paid more than sprinters. Which is a rational argument in our eyes. If a sprinter gets a red carpet, or a “magic carpet ride”, which is a term used to describe a perfect leadout, especially when there’s no competition to the line, there’s no actual real work for the sprinter to do.

Paying a lead out man more than the highest level sprinter itself is likely never to happen given politics and perception, but it does give you an idea of just how important these last bastions are to cycling.