There’s no denying it, Mark Cavendish’s ﬁnishing straight shoot-out and the eyeballs-out antics of track sprinters such as Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy are just about the most exciting spectacles on two wheels. And admit it – at least part of you would love some of their sprinting prowess.
Of course, few of us have the talent, let alone the thighs, to hit 40mph without the help of either a very steep downhill or an engine. But that’s not to say we can’t dream, make the best of what we’ve got and spend hours in front of the mirror practising our ﬁnish line salute.
Types of sprinter
Mark Cavendish and Chris Hoy are both super-fast, but they’re super-fast in different ways. Hoy, for instance, is awesome from a standing start. The track sprinting he excels at is due to explosive power, muscle strength and co-ordination.
In events such as Hoy’s speciality, the kilo, the key facets are a good start and an ability to maintain the effort without fatiguing excessively. This type of sprinter doesn’t necessarily have a great need for endurance.
Consider yourself a Hoy-esque sprinter if you’re always beating your mates, or other commuters, away from the lights, or are a fast starter in the evening 10.
Although Cav races on the track, he’s now ﬁrmly established as the world’s best road-race sprinter. He can complete hours in the saddle, yet still generate a maximal effort.
Cavendish has a good endurance base (and an excellent team to protect him until the ﬁnal few hundred metres), but he also has plenty of explosive power for the attack and seems to be able to use his anaerobic energy systems – see The Science Bit below – better than most.
Both the track and road sprinters have high absolute power outputs. Somewhere between these two extremes are those riders who appear to be able to jump away from a group in a race and disappear down the road, or those who seem to be able to magically ride away from a group on a climb.
In these cases, it’s the athletes with a high power output, combined with a low bodyweight and a good anaerobic tolerance, who will produce the best performances.
If you want to improve your sprinting, there are a number of things to work on. Sprinting is primarily about great technique, underpinned by good co-ordination – and, as they say, practice makes perfect.
If you want to excel in this area, practise, practise, practise. However, remember that good technique is learned when feeling fresh, not when fatigued!
Chris Hoy on his way to a gold medal in the men's sprint at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
Hill sprints: Working against a gradient means that energy input doesn’t diminish as the effort goes on. Aim for four and eight efforts of 20-40 seconds (build to the top end as your ﬁtness improves) of seated maximal efforts. These efforts should ideally be done in a bigger gear, and have ﬁve minutes of light riding for full recovery between each one. To allow for ﬁtness development, ﬁnd a hill where you’re able to have a fast rolling start. You can then progress to a slower start to the effort, or even a standing start.
Jumps: In order to improve acceleration, jumps work on both power and lactate tolerance. These sessions are often best done with a partner of a similar standard. Aim for a set of six sprint accelerations of 10 seconds each, with a short, 10-second recovery. With progress, these sets can be repeated two or three times, with ﬁve minutes of recovery between sets.
Go long: If you want to work on your ability to close down a break, then try extended intervals. These are great turbo sessions, but are best done on the road with a power meter. The aim is to sustain the highest possible power for three minutes,without starting too slowly or fading too much. (If you don’t have a power meter, it’s the hardest effort you can sustain for three minutes.) Repeat this between three and six times, with a three-minute recovery in between.
Play racing: It’s worth repeating that practise makes perfect, so break up a long ride with riding mates using a series of prearranged sprints (to 30mph signs or a safe point on a short lap, for example). After each sprint effort, bring the pace down for ﬁve minutes to allow recovery, before gradually building again for the next sprint effort. Sessions such as this can be organised to develop team tactics and practise leading out a nominated rider, or used as individual efforts to hone the perfect sprinting technique.
Get tracking: Many clubs have access to outdoor tracks with qualiﬁed coaches, while British Cycling run open track sessions at Manchester and Newport velodromes (for more information, visit http://new.british cycling.org.uk). These sessions are great for developing all kinds of riding skills (especially group riding, pedalling style and cadence), but, due to the nature of track riding, will mostly focus on higher intensity efforts and will undoubtedly help next time you come to sprint.
The science bit
Pure sprint efforts last from just a few seconds to a maximum of around 30, therefore your immediate or short-term energy generation systems play a big role.
For the ﬁrst second or two of a sprint, you’ll use the high-energy compound –and basic unit of energy in the body –ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). After that, stored ATP runs out.
For sprints peaking at around 10 seconds, your body switches to another compound, creatine phosphate (CP), to produce more ATP. All of this is done without the need for oxygen –in other words, anaerobically.
Beyond 10 seconds of sprinting, ATP is produced by the breakdown of carbohydrate – a process called glycolysis. This in turn produces pyruvate. In normal endurance riding, the oxygen you take in helps covert pyruvate into even more ATP.
However, when you’re sprinting and not getting enough oxygen to your cells, the pyruvate is broken down into lactate for rapid energy. But it doesn’t take long for lactic acid to build up, the dreaded ‘burn’ to start and a rapid loss of energy and power to occur.
All that means...
The physiology of sprinting is not as complex or trainable as endurance performance – you’re using energy stored in the body and once it’s gone it’s pretty much gone. You can’t top up when you’re riding ﬂat-out, and even if you could somehow take on a gel or drink, it wouldn’t have an effect anyway!
Victoria Pendleton in the final of the 2009 UCI Track Cycling World Championships