Thursday, May 03, 2007

How to - Beat a Sprinter

I talk about sprinting a lot. For me it's natural since sprinting ends up dominating my view of cycling. I have a hard time relating to climbing (other than it hurts a lot) and time trialing (how do they go so fast?) so sprinting it is.

For the record, I hate time trialing and climbing.

Well I like it when, under particular circumstances, I have to prepare to do a time trial. The aero bars, position, things like that. But then when I actually do one and end up losing to everyone, well, it's demoralizing.

There are a lot of races where the pack ends up finishing together and the sprinters demolish everyone. Those races, as exciting as it is for someone like me, are terrible for the racers who are as strong (and often actually stronger) but just don't have that edge to win field sprints. That edge (which consists of a good jump, reasonable top speed, and a touch of fearlessness) defines sprinters and therefore falls in their domain.

So how do you beat those wheel-sucking, lazy-boned, fast-twitch-fibered sprinters?

As an atypical sprinter, I can tell you. I define myself as atypical because I'm actually telling you. No, that's only partially true. I'm atypical because I'm not that fit - one or two anaerobic pushes will put me over the edge and off the back. A more typical sprinter is fit enough to recover from these pushes but those efforts will dull his piece de resistance, his sprint. Of course he may also be one that does not share with you the secrets to beating him.

Remember that regardless of your riding strengths, you should enter every race with a plan.


The plan might be to sit at the front and do 53x11 intervals (some riders have actually told me this and then gone and done it). It might be to work for a teammate, a friendly team, or simply a friend. Plans, like anything else in this world, need to be flexible. You need to adjust, to fall back on the Backup Plan, or in some other way tweak what you had in mind at the start.

The Ultimate Plan is go for a win. If you're trying to beat a sprinter, you're likely going for the win or working for a teammate who's going for the win. Therefore you need a plan to do so.

So what exactly would you do?

First, re-read what I put up there.

I hate time trialing and climbing.

That is the key. If you don't consider yourself a sprinter, you have to make the sprinter time trial and climb.

In other words, you have to make them suffer.

1. Make the race hard. Any time the field is strung out, push the pace. Force racers to respond. Every little bit of energy used during the race is energy unavailable for the sprint. Use your superior fitness to force the issue. Go hard on the hills. When in the wind, string out the field and make everyone work. When you see gaps forming, go harder. And when everyone sits up, attack. Obviously these types of efforts will wear you out, but if you're making these efforts judiciously, it may be the case that you are working only 10-20% harder than anyone else. That's close enough to keep you in the running as the laps wind down.

The key is to prolong your efforts long enough to affect everyone. If you attack and sit up after 15 seconds, only 10 or 15 racers will have made an effort - everyone else is still sitting in the slowly elongating field. Your effort delta over that field might be 50-70%. If you do a big effort for 60 seconds, even the racers at the back will be scrambling for a wheel. Now everyone is working pretty close to your effort level - the delta drops to perhaps 20% or less. Make the efforts long enough for them to count. Any shorter and you're just blowing yourself up.

2. Don't close gaps or splits. If the field splits, don't close it. Wait for someone else to do it. If no one closes it, jump across. It has to be a solid attack, as if you're breaking away. Make a violent effort that doesn't allow others to sit on your wheel comfortably. You need to make them suffer just like you're suffering. A sprinter can follow your jump pretty easily but this will sap some reserves from their legs.

3. Make hills hard. Change the pace - if the hill starts fast, ease up a bit. Then accelerate at the top. The racers sitting in will hate this. Or if the hill is slow, attack over the top. Nothing crazy, just go faster. The accordion effect will really put the hurt on the racers at the back.

If the hill is somewhat long (but not long enough to drop a sprinter - if it's a really long climb then the sprinters won't be around anyway), try going up it with afterburners going. String out the field, force them to the gutter, don't offer shelter, and really push your aerobic threshold. Sprinters typically have a lower threshold (that's hearsay, no proof, but from my point of view that's almost always been the case) so a long, hard effort will hurt them. The fact it's a hill will mean the delta of energy expenditure between you and everyone else will be virtually zero. Why do you think so many sprinters get dropped on the big climbs? Go hard and they shall suffer.

4. If you hit a stretch with a crosswind, get to the gutter. This means if the wind is coming from the left, go to the right curb. No one can draft anyone. Go hard. It hurts everyone. Look back. See the suffering faces? They hate your riding. They want to ease up. So go harder.

Keep in mind sprinters will be best suited to find shelter. They'll be okay riding so close to the curb they have to coast now and then to keep their pedals from scraping it. A branch whacking them in the face or legs beats wind hitting the same so they'll go really close to bushes, nearby trees, and anything else on the shoulder other racers would avoid. Sprinters won't mind riding over the sewer grates and manhole covers - that's what bunnyhopping, strong rims, and high tire pressures are for. And if there's no curb, they'll even resort to riding off the road to maintain their position. Sprinters are good at this stuff because, well, how else do you think they get up there for the sprints?

This means you really have to work hard on the crosswinds. Punish everyone. Keep them strung out. If the field is single file, the hapless sprinter can sort of draft, at most, one guy. Not good for the sprinter. Very good for the non-sprinter.

5. Attack. Don't let the field get comfy at 22 mph. Anytime the field slows, the sprinters are recovering. Picture a "sprint gauge". Every effort the sprinters make cause the gauge needle to drop. Every moment they're sitting in, the needle rises. The higher the needle, the better they'll be in the sprint. If you let them recover, they will annihilate you in the sprint without a second thought. So attack. Attack effectively (I'll have to post on that later). Make everyone suffer. And if the field lets you go, settle into a bearable but high pace. That brings us to point six...

6. Break away from the field. If the sprinter is a minute behind you, it won't matter how good his jump is or how fast he sprints. You win. So attack. Break away. Make everyone chase. And when you get caught, do it again. And again. Sprinters will be able to respond to a few attacks but they hurt to do it. Let your break get caught and and go again. Attack like that a few more times and they'll shatter into a bazillion pieces on the road. You're gone, you're free, and they'll be mopping up the bottom of the prize list while you're up there kissing the podium girl.

Personally, I hate when any of the things above happen in a race. When they don't happen I tend to do well. When they do happen, well, I always think, "There's always next week."

And ride back to my car.

That should be your goal. It's hard to beat a sprinter in a sprint. However, if that sprinter is already changed when the race finishes, well, now you just have to beat everyone else.

If you do it right, everyone will be thinking "There's always next week."

And if it doesn't, well, you'll have softened up the bunch for the sprinters. And they'll have a field day.

So to speak.

Good luck.


soxiam said...

Nice post. How about "pulling an Eki"? A late late breakaway in that "dead zone" just before the leadout train starts and the sprinters are trying to focus on their positioning. It seems like no one wants to work hard just before the part where they know hard work is required and this leads to riders thinking a second or two longer than they would before jumping to close the gap for their sprinters. On the Gimbel's ride for example this tends to be just before the first hump on the final sprint. I like to jump really hard there because I know no one can sprint from that far and to close the gap to me would mean they have to waste their energy. It's a perfect catch-22 sprinters do not want to be get involved in.

Thom said...

Thanks, this was hilarious. You've described every sprinter I know, including myself (well, I used to be able to sprint). We hold on like grim death to get to the last 200 meters and we'll do almost anything to get there. Others complain that we're wheelsucking but they're really just jealous. :)

Emile de Rosnay said...

This is good for sprinters who can't handle repeated, ceaseless aerobic threshold efforts. But how do you deal with a rider like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd? They can't be dropped. In fact, they can drop most riders. In an elite setting, there are very few sprinters as you describe. Most are all-rounders. As a time-trialist, my challenge is getting in a break and getting pipped by people who have way more jump than I do. At the elite level, such guys can outsprint the type of sprinter you describe.
I think the best way to deal with this type of all-rounded sprinter is to keep an open mind and not let the sprinter psych you out. Witness Sep Vanmarcke out-sprinting Boonen at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year. He did what Flecha never seems to do because he saw an opportunity. He remained calm. Often, non-sprinters do silly things like stay at the front (I remember Ballan in the velodrome leading out Boonen in 2008, for instance).
That said, taking an opportunity is really key. I think point #5 is helpful when dealing with an all-rounded sprinter. You have to take them by surprise. Cancellara is way stronger than everyone, but he will never outsprint this type of all-rounded sprinter, so he needs to pick a moment and go early, as he did when he won Milan-San-Remo, or when he dropped Boonen in 2010 with his "motorbike".