Technique: Take control of group sprints

How to be first past the post

Sprinting isn’t just about winning cups or a place on the podium, it’s about beating your mates. Andy Cook tells you how to be first past the post.

Positions, gentlemen

Plan your position in the group during the last half mile before the line. Usually about fourth back is best, sitting in the slipstream of the fastest riders in the group. The longer you are sheltered from the headwind the more energy you’ll have in reserve for the final effort. Keep your head up and watch the other riders, making sure you’re neither boxed in, nor losing touch with the fastest riders.

Wait for it…

Timing is everything. It’s almost always best to wait for someone else to make the first move, then jump into their slipstream. When you think they’ve wasted enough energy riding in the wind, pull out and go for it. Most people go too early and fade before the line. But don’t leave it too late either, or there might not be enough time to get past. Think ahead: an uphill finish, or headwind will effectively lengthen the distance to the line.

Pick a gear

Select a gear you can spin up to full speed quickly. Don’t make the mistake of choosing too big a gear and then spending too much time and energy straining it up to flat-out speed. By the same token, it’s no use starting your sprint in too small a gear either, as you’ll be ‘on top of it’ instantly and spinning out before you hit the line. Dips or rises in road gradient at the finish will affect your gear choice too.

Get a grip

Grip the bars firmly on the drops. This wide and low hold on the bike will keep it as stable as possible as you pull against the bars to leverage your jump, and then anchor your flat-out pedalling. It will also give you a lower centre of gravity for stability, and make you more aerodynamic. But don’t forget to keep your head up so you can see where you’re going – or at least keep looking up as you bury yourself.

Jump!

Pull up on the bars and push down hard and fast on your strongest foot just as it passes ‘top dead centre’ of the pedal stroke – the action has been likened to pulling on a Wellington boot. Maintain a straight, efficient torso initially, rather than wasting energy swaying the bike from side to side. As soon as the first pedal stroke reaches the bottom, follow through with the other foot and increase the cadence to your maximum as quickly as possible. This is where your core strength and stability is vital for a stable pedalling platform, and a strong upper body can help too. 

And again!

Be prepared to ‘go again’ if someone is matching you in a sprint. This is something that Victoria Pendleton does so well in the velodrome. It’s a great tactic if you’re confident enough to begin a sprint at a certain speed and then still have enough in reserve to be able to kick again. This second burst is the one that finally shakes off your rivals, because it will demoralise anyone who’s flat-out already and thinks you are too.

And repeat…

Practice sprints of different lengths. Go for long sprints, uphill sprints, and even downhill sprints, which are particularly difficult, as it’s so much easier for other riders to keep pace. Try starting sprints on either foot and in different size gears. Choose a quiet piece of road or a closed circuit, and in a group take it in turns to either sprint off the front of the group or alternatively drop off the back a few hundred yards and sprint hard to get back on.

Repeated sprints on your own with relevant recovery between them also improves sprinting technique. Traditionally riders on club runs and group training rides practise on the open road, sprinting for town and village signs. This is great training, but with roads now so busy you need to pick your sprints with care.

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