Sprinting – Secrets from the Pros

2013-milan-san-remo

This is how you do it.

Sprinting – you either have it, or you don’t… right?  We’ve all watched the great ones with amazement and disbelief: Zabel, Cipollini, Cavendish, Kelly, etc.  They seem like they were born to sprint.  In the modern era, we watch the overhead HD helicopter feed as the high-speed bullet train lines them up to launch for the line.  We see them squeeze through gaps the human eye can barely detect at 40+ mph, violently rocking back and forth for what seems like an eternity as we hold our breath…  We hear Phil or Paul saying things like “…Renshaw is putting the missile in the tube…”.  And then it’s over. They cast a casual glance over their shoulder as they cross the line alone, having zipped their jersey before the effort in the ultimate pro move to show respect for the sponsors.  Or they cross it in a psychotic tangle of bodies, looking like a pack of rabid wolves chasing an injured rabbit, launching their bikes at the line at the exact millisecond needed to stake their claim.  Then they raise their arms to some point between a crucifixion and a salute, which is oddly enough, probably a metaphor for both how they feel AND the way to see if someone is having a stroke.

So… how does a Masters Cat 3 like me with very little sprint knowledge or experience get better?  You ask the Pros.  So I did.

Dirk Friel, World-renowned coach, author and founder of Peaksware, (perhaps you’ve heard of Training Peaks or The Cyclist’s  Training Bible??) took a few moments out of his day to give me this advice:

“I’m no expert when it comes to coaching for sprinting.  The main thing I can say is I’ve found efficiency of movement is very important. Moving pedals fast is the #1 focus then you need to add force behind the pedaling speed. 

From what I’ve found sprinting more in training does help. There aren’t many short cuts to improvement. The #1 way to improve sprinting in my book is to get on the track where you are forced to learn how to pedal fast.”

He then went on to reference Wiggin’s stage win on last year’s Tour of Romandie as a classic example of the guy with the track legs being able to crush asphalt when it mattered most.

I’ve been wanting to get down to the Washington Park Velodrome in Kenosha for a couple of years, but haven’t made it enough of a priority.  Here’s a guy who has personally been responsible for training millions of elite athletes telling me to make that my TOP priority.  What excuse could I possibly come up with to NOT go this year?

Moving on.  Next up, Frankie Andreu.

If you’ve read anything about Lance in the past 5 years, you’ve seen the name Frankie (or his wife Betsy) pop up.  What sometimes gets lost in the story is how incredible Frankie was, having competed in the TdF 9 times.

Perhaps referencing my own hopes, I started by asking him who was good at sprinting that shouldn’t be.  Frankie shared the following with me:

“There is no mold for a sprinter.  I think of skinny guys when it comes to not being a good sprinter.  But it’s all down to the fitness and training and muscle fibers.  Alberto Contador comes to mind as a great climber but also a rider with a fast finish.  Taylor Phinney is tall and lean and yet he is very fast and powerful.  He isn’t just a sprinter but can do everything.  Cycling in a way is a jumble of athletic misfits, riders of all different shapes and sizes can excel in different areas.”

So you’re saying there’s a chance?  A guy like me, built more for hockey than cycling, can – with the right training, fitness and muscle fibers – at least get invited to the party.

  • Right training – check.  Work with a coach, or at least structure your training around your goals.
  • Fitness – check.  Lay off the beer, work hard in the gym in the off-season, on the bike in pre-season.
  • Muscle fibers… uh.. aren’t you born with or without a certain type?  More on that later.

Next I asked for his thoughts about “controversial or unconventional sprinters” (are you sensing a theme?):

“Not sure on this one.  Controversial are the ones that are super aggressive and do whatever they want even if it means crashing.  Some call this just being aggressive and confident but there is a line that can be crossed in going too far.  I consider (that) you cross the line if you push and pull with your hands, sling riders, or hit with your shoulders or head. This just becomes dangerous. You have to keep your hands to yourself.   This is where the natural talent and muscle fibers take over. It’s special to find someone like Cavendish, Kittel, Sagan, that have that extra turbo of power to hold everyone off. It’s more about power then speed. “

Roger that.  Be confident, but don’t be a dick.  Got it.  And more about the damn muscle fibers??  Moving on.  Lots has been written about what you SHOULD do to become a better sprinter, but what about things you SHOULDN’T do?  What are some of the biggest mistakes or wastes of time?:

“One mistake is waiting too long to be in position.  It depends on the race but you can’t wait until the last lap to move up and sprint. You need to be in position a few laps before the end in a crit.  As the speed increases you save energy by already being in the front.  A common mistake in road races is being too close to the front when all the workers peel off you find yourself out front with too far to go to the finish.  It’s good to find other sprinters and sometimes follow them during the last kilometers.  The experienced guys know where to place themselves. It’s important in a finish to know where you want to start your sprint.  Pick that spot out ahead of time and when you reach that mark go no matter what.  If you wait a second you might get passed and then you’ll second guess that hesitation.  As you sprint you learn if you are good from a long way out or need to wait and do a shorter sprint.”

OK, maybe nothing too revolutionary here, but the one thing I keep re-reading is “…when you reach that mark go no matter what.”  There is absolutely nothing physical about that statement, it is 100% confidence, something I am sorely lacking when it comes to the sprint.  I am in sales and whenever a new sales rep starts there is inevitably a chicken and egg scenario:

Should I call on new customers on day 1 without knowing the new products/service, or should I wait until I have enough knowledge to feel comfortable setting the appointment?

Inevitably, the person with the most confidence makes the call on Day 1.  The other NEVER GAINS THE CONFIDENCE, no matter how long they study the products and services.  Confidence comes from within, and involves facing fear head-on. This much I know, but that doesn’t mean I always put it into action.  When I was younger, I was afraid of heights.  In order to overcome the fear, I jumped out of a plane… several times.  Fear conquered – confidence inspired.  So, it sounds like the cycling equivalent is to pick my spot in a couple of early season races and go for broke.

Last question, I pull back the curtain and go for broke.  “If you were to train me for 4 weeks for the Tour of America’s Dairyland and had a million dollars on the line, what would it look like?”:

“Motorpacing is great.  It’s super valuable and makes a huge difference in speed.  Sitting behind the motor and sprinting around it at 28mph will help your power and teaches your body to be able to turn the gear.

Accelerations.  Starting from a low-speed and then in the saddle accelerating up to a full spin in about ten seconds.  This teaches explosive power, leg speed, and recruits the fast twitch muscle fibers.

Power sprints in a large gear are great also.  Same as above.  Slow speed and in 53×11 jump out of the saddle for ten seconds and try to accelerate.

Another option is to find a medium hill.  Use the downhill to take you up to speed and at the bottom take off flat-out and hold until the speed starts to drop.  Once the speed drops then you shut down.  All of these exercises are like intervals but with full recovery in between.”

OK, cool stuff – but even MORE about muscle fibers.  Let’s see what all the hoopla is about.

Click here for the skinny according to Kelly Baggett.  If you’re like me you look at all that scientific mumbo-jumbo and close the link, so let me sum it up for you:

Which one is the sprinter...?

Which one is the sprinter…?

You’re either a born sprinter, or you can transform yourself into a sprinter.  I’m in the second category, so let’s explore that a bit more.  You’re born with a pre-determined body type and a pre-determined % of fast-twitch (sprinting) & slow twitch (strength and endurance) fibers.  André the Giant can’t transform into Djamolidine Abdoujaparov but you can transform into a leaner, meaner version of yourself.  How?  Quoting Baggett:

“In training you can accomplish this by focusing your training on strength, power, and speed dominant activities.  By doing so you train your nervous system and all your muscle fibers to behave in more of a fast twitch manner.”

Sounds simple, but painful.  In cycling this translates to things like squats, plyo-metrics, pushing a weight sled and anaerobic activities like (surprise) sprinting.  Check out another Baggett article called “How to Create a Speed Machine Using the Weight Room”.

If you listen to those who know, and you want to find yourself on a podium at the end of your next race here’s the secret sauce :

  1. Get fit.  All of the rest of this revolves around the fact that you’ve done what you can to get as lean, mean and strong as you can before the race starts.
  2. Learn to pedal fast.  Well… duh.  I thought I had this one tackled until I started adding high RPM training rides into my pre-season work.  As someone who never used to shift into his small chainring (never) it’s been eye opening to try to sustain a 120+ RPM spin for more than 30 seconds, especially uphill.
  3. Actually, this is probably point #2.1 – ride the track.  You can’t go fast if you can’t go fast.  Not everyone has access to a track/track bike, so the lesson here is learn to churn butter for a long time.  And when it’s super- creamy, churn it some more.  Besides, who doesn’t love butter?
  4. Get stronger.  Not Hulk Hogan strong, but functionally strong. Learn to push beyond your comfort zone, and then beyond that.
  5. Get confident. It seems to me that sprinting is 90% mental.  Knowing you are going to win, knowing when to go, knowing how hard to go, never second guessing yourself.  I’ve seen all of those traits in the guys that win consistently. 
  6. And here’s one last one I’ll throw in – wise up.  Get smarter.  You can’t crush it at the line, if you’ve been crushing it the whole race.  Last year, 1 guy, riding by himself, won the entire Tour of America’s Dairyland series (in my Category) by riding smart.  He laid back during the race and let everyone else do the work.  With 2 laps to go, he put himself in position to win and on relatively fresh legs sprinted out the last hundred meters every day.  After a few days of this the entire peloton assumed each day would boil down to a sprint so no one ever pushed the tempo and made him work.  There were probably faster guys, and smarter guys and guys with a lot of confidence in the pack, but only one with the perfect blend of all 3.  Without saying a word, he dictated the series – just like you can this year.

Next month – Part 2 including an interview with another 7-11 rider (and local legend) Tom Schuler.

One thought on “Sprinting – Secrets from the Pros

  1. I’m no sprinting expert, but to add to #6. If you have teammates, use them as best you can. Practice with them, sprinting and riding. It makes a world of difference when you completely trust the guy leading you out.

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