The Bunch Sprint. All of the attacks and digs earlier in the race come to nothing as the peloton screams towards the finish. Those with the nerve, and the legs, jostle for position at the front. Two kilometres from the line, shoulders, elbows and bars come in to effect, riders shouting, trying to create space and position. The early jump, closed down. The kick, arms raised across the line.
Every rider knows the chaos and exhilaration of the bunch finish from TV. But amateur bike racers of a certain standard know the bunch finish from first hand experience – lower level races typically finish in this way, whether it’s wide and flat or twisty and uphill. Training to compete in these finishes is a necessary part of a racer’s preparation, and hopefully this article will help you understand and plan this training. We’ll break the sprint down into three key elements: the tactical, the physical and skills.
However, first things first: ok, we all know sprinting is about having a kick and leg speed. But beyond that, lets be clear: you have to be fit enough to make the front of the bunch in the run in to the sprint. What does that mean? Well, you don’t just have to be able to make it to the end of the race. You have to have enough in your legs that, if needed, you can hold the wheel in front when he digs, or jump across a small gap, then finally kick around your lead out and go-go-GO to finish it off. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t “get” that. Assuming that the “race fitness” side of your training plan is sorted, then you can think about adding sprint specific training.
The Tactical: bunch positioning, knowing when to go, which wheel to follow, how to ride forward at the end of the race and so on. This is mainly experience, and could be an article in it’s own right, so I won’t go in to detail here. This can be trained by a coach, and just watching replays of Tour de France finishes can be instructive – try looking beyond what the winner was doing and see how everyone else was trying to position themselves, what they did right or wrong. At the very least, you should spend time thinking about and analysing your performance post-race to see what you did right and what you did wrong.
The Physical: The physical requirements of sprint can be viewed as three physical skills, all of which make up a successful sprint: the kick and power through, leg speed, and maintaining power at leg speed. As with everything, we will focus on specificity, and I’ll include some specific suggested training routines, but as with any training there are many ways to skin a cat so don’t be scared to take up others suggestions if it meets your objectives. You can do these workouts anytime of the season, and I would recommend you do!
Kick and Power Through: If you train with power, you’ll probably have looked at your 1,5 and 10 second power numbers. Likely your power profile looks somewhat downward sloping, that is you can put in a big stomp for one or two revolutions, but this power then drops off. This training is about peaking out the amount of power you can put through the pedals and how long you can maintain that throughput for. Some people recommend weights for this, but I think all training should be done on the bike, so what we do is replicate resistance weights on the bike. Find an uphill slope, set a highish gear depending on your ability (try 53/17 if you’re not sure where to start), approach the slope at walking pace whilst setting yourself on the drops, then kick and power through. Focus on getting the maximum force through every pedal stroke that you can. Bring your whole body into the action, really pump it, and try to maintain the pedal force throughout. If you find yourself getting over the gear too early, use a harder gear. Go for no more than 15 seconds. Some recommend doing this seated, but I don’t as 1) your knees are at greater risk of injury and 2) likelihood is you will be sprinting out of the saddle, so you should aim to replicate the muscle movements you will be using.
At this point, I could write a long section on physiology, and the different systems you use at different intensities and durations. However, frankly I’m not a biologist, I’m a bike racer. What you need to know is that all of these exercises should be done up to no more than 15 seconds. In reality, if you’re “sprinting” for longer than 15 seconds than really you’re not sprinting. Recovery should be 3-5 minutes per set, 5 reps per set, 10 minutes zone 2 riding between sets, 2-5 sets. Preferably do it when fresh, i.e. the day after a recovery day, and if you’re building this work in to a long ride, do it near the beginning.
Leg Speed: This is quite simply spin-ups. You need to be able to hold a cadence above 110 rpm for a minute. Choose a light gear but hard enough that you’re not going to bounce in the saddle – try 39/20 as a start. Then, spin at 110 rpm for 1 minute. Take 1 minute rest then repeat. 3 reps in 5 minutes total work is fine for this, but if you want or need to do more, go nuts! These can be done any time of the year, even as part of a warm-up for an interval or sprint session, they should not use up much energy at all.
Maintaining Power at Speed: The idea of this workout is to push a hard gear at fast cadence. This is the hardest thing to train, mainly because it’s difficult to get up to speed on the road when not racing without putting yourself in the red. A downhill slope will allow you to do this – ideally you would start on a really steep bit of hill to get your speed up, then on to a slight downhill slope to complete the actual set. Push a big gear (53/16?), and concentrate on getting the power through the pedals at speed. Reps and sets as for the “Kick” exercises above.
Skills: Finally, skills. Riding a bike is a “low skill” activity in many ways, however there are some areas in which concentration and focus on specific elements can be beneficial.
The first thing to think about is body positioning, when you kick and at speed. Aerodynamics plays as big a part in sprinting as it does in time trialling. This picture of Cavendish vs. Greipel tells it’s own story, but you can clearly see the difference in profile that each sprinter is presenting to oncoming airflow; Greipel will need to overcome much greater air resistance.
To achieve this type of position, concentrate on getting over the bars, down and forward. In fact, you can use the resistance of the pedals and the power of the kick to push yourself out of the saddle, forwards and over the bars.
The other area of focus is hand positioning. Looking again at that picture of the sprint finish, we can see two things. Firstly, all of the riders have their hands at the bottom of the bend, knuckles and hands facing straight forwards. The straightness of their hands allows them to get the maximum possible leverage on the bars, whilst the position of their fingers allows them to perform a gear shift. Train for this hand position and for at least one shift whilst sprinting. This shift should come early in your acceleration, before you are fully over your gear. Note – once you’re fully up to speed it’s usually too late to shift as you will most likely be focused on trying to keep the bike under control and moving in the right direction. At this point the only way you accelerate is through leg speed and power.
And that’s it! Hope this is helpful, and happy sprinting!