What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Sprinting Strategy

With last month’s tips, I got you to the last kilometer of the race with as little energy expenditure as possible. So you’ve done everything right, you’re perfectly set up for the finish, now how do you bring home the bacon? Much of sprinting success comes from timing, experience and lots of trial and error, but there are a few simple things you can do to speed up the learning curve.

In our ongoing chess analogy today we’ll call the designated sprinter The Queen. And for those climbers out there who are starting to yawn, pay attention because this applies to you too! From experience, I can tell you that in North America, there are very few races that can be won on climbing talent alone. Chances are, even if you play your cards right, you’re still going to arrive at the finish line with a small group of riders who you will have to out-sprint at the finish. Trust me, it’s no fun suffering for 100 miles over thousands of feet of climbing only to finish 6th out of 6 in the final sprint.

Last month, I talked a lot about team work and team tactics. In this article, I will focus a bit more on the individual rider. Very rarely have I seen a proper lead out work for anyone but the most experienced racers but, aside from that, it is essential that before you ask your team to sacrifice their race for you, you be able to maneuver through the pack safely and efficiently on your own. Then, when you’ve got it down to a science, you can add the team element to make it that much easier.

The Sweet Spot
I always tell my riders to find the sweet spot in the group. Have you ever noticed the rider who sits comfortably in 5th position all day long while you fight for wheels and move back and forth through the pack desperately trying to hold position? He’s found the sweet spot. It’s hard to describe precisely, but you’ll know it when you find it. It’s that position far enough from the front that you don’t have to worry about getting caught in the wind, but not so far back that you have to struggle to hold your position.

It’s really quite an amazing feeling when you first discover it, because suddenly the whole race seems to settle down and flow with you rather than against you. The best comparison I can make is to surfing, when you paddle out to catch a wave. For a while, you’re getting smacked on the head by every wave, pushing you back to the shore. Finally you reach a certain point just past where the waves are breaking and those waves that a moment earlier were crashing on your head are suddenly rocking gently underneath you.

The sweet spot becomes especially important when it comes to the final laps of a crit or the last stretch of road before the weekday morning ride sprint line. If it comes down to the final kilometer and you are still fighting to move up and get on a wheel, even if you do find a good wheel and a clear line to the finish, you’ll most likely be too tired to ride it out to the finish. However, if with 5 laps to go you can insert yourself cleanly into the sweet spot, usually about 5 or 6 riders back, you should be able to keep cool even as the pace hits break neck speeds, while everyone behind you is bumping shoulders and fighting to move up half a wheel length.

The Queen Makes Her Move
Assuming you have made it to the beginning of the last lap in good position, relatively rested and ready to go, you still need to be ready to maneuver in any direction to get into a better position for the sprint. Often, especially in entry level racing, riders will miscalculate the distance to the finish and start their acceleration too early. As the ruler of the sweet spot, you need to be prepared for this eventuality. If the riders in front of you are dropping like flies and you suddenly notice yourself getting closer to the front well before you are ready to start your sprint, its time to look for a new train to follow. You can’t wait until you have been shuffled all the way to the front because even a few seconds of unprotected riding at a high-paced finish will ruin your hopes for the day. When this happens, you only have two choices. One is to launch your attack and hope to hold it to the end and the other is to soft pedal and hope to catch a wheel as it comes zipping past you.

In order to avoid this, start looking around for the line of riders who are next to take over at the front. At this point it is crucial that you don’t get boxed in. Though there are many ways to prevent this, the simplest solution is to just create a little space for yourself. You don’t need to make contact or even ride especially aggressively. By sticking your elbows out and possibly moving off your line just a bit you should be able to claim a little space on either side. As soon as you sense a rider moving up the side, get ready to move over into his slip stream. There will probably be a few riders already on his wheel but chances are, if you time it right, you will be able to find a gap just big enough to squeeze into. Suddenly, you’re back in the sweet spot, 5 riders back, jetting to the finish, still without having wasted much energy.

Be prepared to do this several times over the last kilometer of the race, especially in races with long straight stretches to the finish. Riders tend to get twitchy as soon as the finish line is in view so don’t jump on the wheel of the very first rider who sprints by and count on him to take you to 200 meters. Instead, look for a solid flow of riders to keep you near, but not at the front. Much of this comes from experience so you might not get it right the first time. However, just like finding the sweet spot, when you suddenly discover the natural ebb and flow of the final sprint, the last kilometer (which used to feel like madness) will suddenly seem like a smooth waving gently pushing you towards the beach.

Check Mate
You’re down to the final 400 meters. The Queen is moving into position and ready to make the kill. Having stayed near the front for the last few miles, you are better rested than anyone else and it’s your race to lose. What’s your move?

Hopefully, you’ve scouted out the finish ahead of time. You’ve looked at the road surface, the direction of the wind, the distance from certain land marks to the finish and the best line through the final turn. You’ve digested all this information and in your head you’ve seen the finish over and over exactly the way you want it to happen. You take the perfect line through the turn in 4th or 5th position, depending on the distance to the finish. At the 25 mph sign, you grin and shift into your 11. At the light post you jump, moving up the left side onto a patch of smooth pavement and protected from the cross wind coming in from the right. With exactly 200 meters to go, you’ve reached top speed and optimal rpms. You cross the line and it’s the easiest thing you’ve ever done. You only wish you had figured this all out sooner.

You’ve run this script through your head so many times that when you reach the final moments of the race, it’s easy. All you have to do is go through the motions that you’ve rehearsed over and over. Although every race and every finish is different, once you get a handle on the basic flow of the sprint, you will likely be able to nail it every time. You’ll know you’ve got it right when you cross the line in whatever place you finish feeling like you gave it your all. Nothing more, nothing less. It will just feel right.

My final piece of advice is that nothing I could write could even come close to the education of experience. Race a lot, but don’t just race, throw your helmet down in disgust and go home. Analyze your race. Figure out what you did right and what you could have done better. Don’t think in terms of mistakes. There really are no mistakes, just opportunities to learn. Practice with your teammates once a week. Get the timing down in practice and then try to carry it into an actual race. As long as you remain focused and aware even when the going gets tough, you’re sure to gather valuable information in every race you do.

Next month, The Bishop crosses the hills.

About Josh:
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com

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