Sprint to Win
Sprinting is often an area of cycling that riders either relish or shy away from.
Sprinting is often an area of cycling riders either relish or shy away from. Some riders are genetically gifted with more fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones that give pure sprinters their immense bursts of speed. At the other end of the spectrum, the riders who consider themselves climbers would rather try to finish alone than in a group. But the overwhelming truth is that most races will finish in a bunch. The size of the group may vary, but it is relatively rare to win a race from a solo breakaway. The best riders can find a way to win in any situation, so every cyclist should have a sprint in their quiver. Yet, many don’t train this skill at all. If you’re looking to improve your chances of winning, simply incorporating a few sprint workouts on a weekly basis can help you move from the minor placings to the top of the podium.
There are two big components of becoming a better sprinter. One is the mental and tactical aspects and the other is the physical training. Both need to be considered and worked on all year, although the way you address them will change depending on the phase of the year you are in.
Honing Your Sprint Tactics
The mental and tactical skills of sprinting are something that should be practiced whenever possible. No matter where you are in the overall classification for the day, there is almost always a race to the line, even if it’s just for fun. It is this practice that will help down the road when you are toward the front of the race. There are some simple rules that are universally true when preparing for a group sprint. First is that as the race enters the final few kilometers, you need to move up toward the front of the group. Not to the very front, though, as you don’t want to be the one setting the pace and doing the lion’s share of the work pulling the group along. Stay near the riders that you know will be a factor at the end of the race so you can initiate or respond to attacks and surges. Be careful to move around riders you know won’t actually participate in the sprint, the riders who try to finish top 20, but don’t really bother to fight for the win. Don’t be afraid to initiate moves, especially as a means of keeping the pace high. If the pack slows down, you’ll allow riders who would normally be hanging on and out of contention back into the game.
Gearing is another critical aspect of sprinting. Too often riders slam the chain into the 53x12 and then try to accelerate. Instead, try using a slightly lower gear for the beginning of your sprint because they allow you to accelerate faster. This becomes more and more advantageous as you have to shoot from one wheel to another in a larger group, or as riders in a smaller group jump to try to shake others out of the break to reduce the group size in the final few kilometers. In either case, a lower gear allows you to respond faster or initiate moves with more snap. Accelerate the gear to a high cadence, then shift and raise the cadence again. Keeping your feet moving fast is the key to being able to accelerate quickly.
Of course, a great acceleration won’t help if your timing is off. As the finish gets closer nervous riders begin to sprint too soon. Only a very strong rider can start a sprint 300 meters or more out and hang on for the win. If the sprint starts very early, try to stay sheltered in the wheels and aim to minimize the energy it takes to do so! When you reach the point where it’s time to open up your sprint, find or make a hole and head for the line.
Drafting strategies change a little in the final kilometer of a race. Out on the open road, riders try to draft directly behind another rider. This technique, however, can allow a rider to get a jump on you in the final 100-200 meters if you don’t instantly react to his or her acceleration. A better way to draft into a sprint is to sit just off the side of another rider. You’ll catch a lot of the draft, but you’ll also have a little more real estate to play with. As a result, when they jump you’re not right behind the wheel in case it comes back at you as they get out of the saddle and you may have a clearer lane to accelerate into.
One final aspect of the technique of sprinting is that of the victory salute. The race does not finish until you cross the line! Too many races have been lost by prematurely throwing hands in the air. Make sure to always finish through the line!!
Training For Speed and Explosive Power
Next comes the training aspect of sprinting. As I mentioned previously; there are those who are genetically better sprinters. But with some specific training, everyone can develop a more powerful kick to the line. There are two critical parts to sprinting: top end speed and explosive power. Top end speed is the highest speed you can attain while sprinting. Explosive power is more a measure of how quickly you can accelerate. The style and type of racing that you engage in will somewhat determine which will become more important. Crit racing will generally require more explosive power due to the number of corners and the relatively short distance from the final corner to the finish line. The sprint at the end of a road race will typically begin from a higher speed, perhaps upwards of 50 kilometers an hour. So here the ability to maintain a high top end speed is critical. Make sure to look at how the bike race or races you are preparing for finish and tailor your sprint work to that.
The first part of any cycling training program should focus on generating a good foundation of aerobic fitness. Once you have addressed some base training you can start to train your sprints. Start with high-resistance sprint work to address strength and power. Start at a slower speed, under 10 kph, in your big ring and the smaller cogs on the rear cassette. Then stand up and explode on the pedals. Don’t shift, muscle the bike up to speed by accelerating against the resistance. Hold this effort for 8-10 seconds. Take at least 5 minutes to make sure to recover fully between each acceleration. Complete 3-12 of these sprints per ride, twice a week, over the course of 2-3 weeks.
Once you have worked on the strength for sprints it is time to move to more traditional sprint workouts. This workout is shooting to simulate what you may experience in a race. That is, a short burst of acceleration, then a short period where the sprint effort levels off, and then a final surge to the line. Start on a flat road and attack hard out of the saddle for 5-7 seconds to get the bike up to speed, then sit again and try to maintain that high speed for 5-7 seconds. Then in the final 5-7 seconds of the sprint, attack again! Work up to 3-5 sprints like this, each about 15-20 seconds long. Make sure to get full recovery of 5 minutes between each sprint.
One final workout you can add to your routine to improve your top end speed is to find a road with a downhill that transitions to flat ground. Use the downhill to build up your speed so you can start the sprint from 40-45 kph or faster. Between 100-200 meters from the bottom of the hill, jump hard and accelerate out of the saddle. As you transition onto flat ground, sit down and aim to keep your speed and cadence high for the remainder of the sprint. This is one of the best ways to simulate high-speed sprint finishes when you don’t have the benefit of a leadout or charging field of riders. These will be a bit longer than the other sprints, 15-25 seconds long. Complete 1-3 of these sprints with at least 10 minutes between each one.
Depending on the time of year and your goals for the upcoming season; sprints can be worked on throughout the season. Use the high-gear, low-start-speed sprint workouts in the winter. Start to transition to the other workouts as the spring approaches and racing begins. As you move toward your goal event make sure to take more rest between sprints. Use them only to fine tune your skills, not to hurt yourself physically.
Everyone can learn to sprint, it just takes some work! Happy Sprinting!
Colin Izzard is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS) who thoroughly enjoys helping cyclists sprint to victory in amateur to elite level competitions. To find out what CTS can do for you, visit www.trainright.com.