Though it may only last 10 seconds, the final sprint is the key moment of countless bike races. For those not built with the muscle fiber composition of Mark Cavendish or Victoria Pendleton, this hardly seems fair. We work so hard to be better, stronger, faster bike racers. We train countless hours to raise our threshold power and VO2 max. We starve ourselves in order to have higher power to weight ratios than our competitors. Finally, on the day of the big race everything seems to come together... and then at the last minute we are beaten by someone who sat at the back of the pack doing nothing the entire race but just happens to have a good sprint finish and/or is willing to take chances we are unwilling to take. Frustrating, huh? You might be the strongest rider in the race. Maybe even by a big margin. You might have been very aggressive and made the winning break, but unless you managed to slip away solo at the end, there will still be some sort of sprint and for some riders this makes winning the race a virtually impossibility.
Doubtless, many that are reading this have been in this position before. Despite all your hard work, the race came down to a sprint and since "you aren't a sprinter", you lost. So you Monday morning quarterback it. Or maybe even Tuesday morning. Maybe you second guess yourself all week until your next race, or longer. You agonize over that last 10 seconds and wonder if there was anything you could have done differently. Maybe you should have attacked and tried to get away solo? Maybe you should have followed a different rider? Maybe you should have sprinted sooner, before you were boxed in and had to hit your brakes? Or maybe you just aren't cut out for this sprinting stuff and you should just resign yourself to uphill time trials?
The bad news is that some people really are born sprinters. They have a higher composition of Type IIB (fast twitch) muscle fibers and no matter how much you train you will never beat them in a head to head sprint if all other things are equal. The good news is that there is a lot you can do at lot to train your body and brain to use the assets you do have to maximum advantage.
There is an old adage that a sprint is 90% positioning and 10% sprinting. If you put yourself in exactly the right position for the sprint you will probably do pretty well even if you are the worst sprinter in the bunch or you have nothing left for the sprint. Sure, you probably won't win, but you will most likely do pretty well. The opposite is also true; you can be the best sprinter in the bunch and you will never win a race if you are starting the sprint from 20, 30 or 40 riders back.
If you are preparing for a sprint finish, start with a plan. Bike race tactics don't have to be rocket science so don't make it overly complicated. Start with knowing the course and in particular, the kilometer of the course. If it's a Criterium you should have plenty of chances to preview the finish. In a Circuit Race, make sure you pay attention to landmarks that let you know you are approaching the end. If it's a Road Race with one big loop, ride backwards on the course a bit and pay attention to the last mile in particular. Where do you want to be with 100 meters to go? If you are racing a Criterium with a sharp turn 50 meters before the finish, the winner will most likely be the first rider through the last turn [that stays upright]. If there is a turn 300 meters before the finish, you will probably want to be in the top 5 because the field will string out single file around the turn but you don't want to be first through the last turn and still have 300 meters to go. If it's an uphill finish or into a headwind it will be slower and if it's a downhill finish or into a tailwind it will be faster. Think about it. If you are not sure, watch some of the other category finishes and pay attention to where the winners were at different points. If that's not possible, ask others that have done the race before about how the sprint usually plays out.
Aside from course considerations, the ideal position for the start of the sprint also may depend on what kind of rider you are. If you have a good jump but you fade in a long sprint you should either start your sprint early (so no one will want to chase you for fear of not having anything left themselves) or start your sprint late in order to limit the time you are out in the wind. For all you juniors that are riding in senior category races, you are at a disadvantage with your gears so you will have an interest in the sprint starting from a slow speed. As this is not usually something you can control, your best bet may be to "surf wheels" by staying in the drafts of other riders as long as possible, virtually "sucked along" by their drafts until popping out at the very end. A win by an inch and a win by 3 bike lengths are still the same result!
Once you decide what the best position to be in at the start of the sprint (100-200 meters to go), everything else is just a matter of getting you there as fresh as possible, though the former is much more important than the latter. If you want to be in 3rd wheel at 200 meters to go, you probably should be in the top 5 at 500 meters to go and the top 10 with 1k to go. Right about now you might be thinking that there are too many unpredictable factors to make any such plan come together. Sure, it sounds great if you have a few experienced teammates to lead you out: all strong, all in the right position, all on the same page about the plan. But what about the other 99.9% of the time? And what if you don't have any teammates at all? Your plan is based off of a lot of assumptions about what the other riders will do, so what happens when you find yourself too far back or too far ahead? While it would be impossible to run through every possible scenario, I will go through 2 very common ones:
Scenario 1: Let's say you are sitting in 3rd position with 1k to go and 2 riders on other teams in front of you. At this point, it's nice and fast, just like you want it. The rider in the first position then peels off, which might make you worry because the rider in front of you is not going to be able to keep it fast for the next 800-900 meters before you want to start your sprint. One cheeky move here is to intentionally let yourself get gapped without completely sitting up. 9 times out of 10, one or two riders will come around you and fill that gap because from their perspective it looks like you simply aren't strong enough to hold the wheel in front of you. You let them in and voila!... you are now sitting in 3rd or 4th, aka the ideal position. Of course you risk the possibility that a) the lead rider keeps going and no one comes around you or b) no one let's you back in line, leaving you in the wind anyway, but in my opinion it's usually worth the risk because if you are left in the lead position and there is still 400-800 meters to go you have virtually no chance of winning anyway.
Scenario 2: It is 400 meters to go but this time it's not fast enough to string the field out single file and it's still somewhat of a pack with constantly shuffling positions. You might be in the perfect position but in a matter of seconds you could be 10-15 riders back, or alternatively stuck out in the wind in first position. In a hairy finish like this, without anyone taking control and keeping it fast, there is a lot of risk that you will get boxed in, unable to go anywhere even if you are physically capable of doing so. Needless to say, there are more than a few crashes in these situations as well. Rather than taking a gamble that the pack will part for you at the perfect time, you might want to simply go for it as soon as you see daylight, even if it is a bit earlier than you wanted to go. If you can get a good initial jump on everyone you just might be able to hold it to the line, especially if the rest of the riders are looking at each other and no one wants to hurt their own chances in the sprint. There are risks in this scenario as well. If your sprint fades out quickly, you will be nothing but a distraction before the real sprint unfolds. If you don't get a good jump on the pack, you will simply lead out the sprint and have everyone fly by you at 150-200 meters to go. If some riders in the pack have teammates that don't mind sacrificing themselves, you might provide a nice carrot and the incentive for them to begin their own leadouts. Again though, the potential rewards may outweigh the risks, especially if you are particularly uneasy about big bunch sprints.
Though you need to be able to make quick decisions when things don't go as planned this should never stop you from having a plan in the first place. Even a bad plan is better than no plan because you will learn lessons from a bad plan and do it better the next time whereas when there is no plan, it's hard to really know what went wrong. Most experienced riders know their competition well enough to make some good educated guesses about how the end of the race will play out. For those with less experience, I would strongly suggest riding a fast weekly group ride or training race that will give you some practice with sprint finishes. Even better would be to seek out the advice of your coach or another rider that you trust to give you some feedback about what you did right and wrong in the final moments. If you don't trust anyone in your race or if the ones you do trust are not going to be able to pay attention to you while they themselves are sprinting, consider using a helmet cam and analyzing the footage afterwards.
Once you have a plan, you need to do your best to execute it step by step. This is where our sport requires the ability to put long term goals ahead and think very short term. All too often, people get too focused on step 10 when they haven't yet completed steps 1-9. Once you accomplish your positioning goal for 1k to go, you can start thinking about getting into position for 500m to go. Once you do that, you think about 300m... and so forth. Don't worry about not having anything left for the final sprint until you have successfully accomplished everything you needed to do in order to get to that point. Most of the time, you can't just skip steps, so if you are still 20 riders back and it's 500m to go, get the heck up to the front even if you have to kill yourself to do it! For those that are still worried about having nothing left, I'll let you in on a little secret: the people that actually do put themselves in the right position are often rewarded with a couple seconds of recovery before final sprint. The one's who don't get into the right position get no such recovery. This is one of those areas where our minds play tricks on us when we are suffering at the end of the race and it is all too easy to make excuses for ourselves. Insidious thoughts such as "I really don't want to crash", or "I'm not a sprinter" or "Maybe I can still sneak in for a top 10. I guess that would still be pretty good" start to sneak into our minds. No! You can't allow yourself to think like that. Don't make things too complicated. Just have a plan and do your best to execute that plan. Winning and losing are just outcomes.
Training the Sprint
So let's say you have executed steps 1-9. Eventually, yes, you do have to sprint. If the sprint truly is the problem for you, there is a lot you can do to work on it. You may never be Mario Cipollini but you can always get better. Believe it or not, many cyclists never put much thought into training their sprint despite the fact that sprints are an critical part of almost every race they do. Even if you aren't sprinting at the finish, having a good jump can be the difference between making the winning breakaway and towing the field around; the difference between being an aggressive rider on the attack and some dummy that got suckered into chasing.
There are all sorts of sprint drills and workouts that work different aspects of a sprint. Big gear vs. small gear; standing start vs. flying start vs. rolling start, uphill vs downhill, headwind vs. tailwind, seated vs. standing, short jumps vs. long drag races. There are endless variations that you can do by yourself or with one or multiple partners. The key is a) Train your weaknesses and b) Have variety. The more you practice sprinting, the less likely you will make a mistake and the more likely you will be able to handle anything unexpected that happens when it really matters. You can do dedicated sprint workouts or add them into just about any training ride. Some like to add them at the beginning when they are fresh, some like to add them in at the end when they are tired (in order to simulate the end of a race) and some like to sprinkle them in throughout a ride (e.g. township line sprints on a group ride). There is no right or wrong answer here.
Having a power meter can be very beneficial for sprint workouts for a number of reasons. Though most sprints are not "paced" in the sense that you are aiming for a specific wattage target but rather simply going as hard you can, power meter data can help you identify progress as your sprint gets better and better. Because sprints have the unusual distinction of being all-out efforts, almost every sprint workout is an opportunity for a personal best and if you are doing some sprints in training every week it is very likely that you may see a nice upward progression in the numbers. I suggest tracking your best 1 second, 5 second, 12 second and 20 second power for each week, though WKO+ users can set up custom charts to track whichever durations they like. Looking at the maximum and sustained power after each sprint during the actual workout will also help you measure the effectiveness of different technique variations and gear choices.
Type IIB, or fast twitch muscle fibers are incredibly powerful but also incredibly inefficient. Top male sprinters will put out 1500-1800 watts and top female sprinters will generate 1100-1300 watts for a 5-second sprint, but that power fades very quickly. In an all out 1-minute effort, most cyclists are unable to produce even half of what they can put out for 5 seconds. In an all out 60-minute effort, most will produce less than a quarter of their 5-second power. Type IIB muscle fibers are the equivalent of hitting the afterburners: they burn hot and fast. Because the amount of power produced in a sprint is so much greater than at any other time, their are special technique considerations necessary to ensure that this massive burst of power actually goes into accelerating the bike.
On the bike, power has two components: torque (how hard you are pushing) and rpm (how fast you are spinning). When you make a big acceleration, the torque component of that spikes way up first and RPM follows. In other words, to spin faster you must first push harder. Most of the time, accelerations happen slowly enough that the change in torque is hardly noticeable in the span of a single pedal stroke or part of a pedal stroke and the forces coming from left and right virtually balance each other out. In sprints however, the torque applied is so high that it creates a strong twisting motion on the bike. This is why bikes and wheels have to be "laterally stiff" and also why we have to use our core and upper body muscles to stabilize the bike when sprinting. If you are having difficulty visualizing this, just try to sprint sometime with your hands off the bars...
One way to look at a sprint is bringing a big gear from a low rpm to a high rpm as quickly as possible. Sometimes you will "spin out", sit down for a second, shift into a harder gear and then do it again, but the concept remains the same. In order to get the fastest acceleration, you must use every possible part of the pedal stroke. In other words, you can't just stand up and throw your body weight from side to side, you have to actively pull up on the pedals with a lot of force to make a big acceleration. The conundrum of the sprinter is that it is necessary to stand up in order to get maximum leverage, yet as soon as you stand up you will have a dramatic loss in pedaling efficiency. Pulling up on the pedals is much easier to do when seated because the saddle gives a firm base to pull up into. Think of a game of tug of war. If you are trying to pull the rope towards you, you will have a lot more stability if you can dig your feet into the ground. Without a firm foothold, you have to make your own body into the firm base. Just as you don't want to fire a cannon from a canoe or put a Ferrari engine into a Kia, you aren't going to be able to use the massive force in your legs if you can't stabilize your bike and body first.
Creating stability when sprinting, however, is not just about doing your core workouts and having six-pack abs. It's not good enough to have a simply strong core, you have to be able to use it. Out of the saddle sprinting requires a coordination between the upper and lower body that can be tricky for some people to learn. I advise new riders to practice this not only by doing sprint workouts, but also by "playing around" on the bike. Practice "dancing" the bike while climbing or over-exaggerating the lean of the bike back in forth. While you won't sprint this way in a race, these exercises will help to ingrain the coordination of neurological responses that are necessary in the sprint into your brain. The more you practice this, the more ingrained it gets. Eventually it will become something you do subconsciously in the same way that your arms swing back and forth when you walk or run.
I hope that this helps you improve your sprinting, but if you have questions, feedback, or if you have your own sprinting advice or tips that you would like to share, please write in!
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Young Medalists/Team Rothrock. If you are interested in coaching or if you want to find out more, check out Backbone Performance at www.BackbonePerformance.com or like us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BackbonePerformance. Thanks for reading!