Monday, August 06, 2007

Letters - Sprinting

This letter first appeared in cyclingnews.com. I decided to republish it as it's been quoted in full on a different site and I think it helps describe why I like sprinting. I wrote this letter in response to someone who claimed there's more to life than just sprinting.

There's More to Life than Sprinting

I couldn't stay away from this one. I suppose I'm the antithesis of a climber so I figured I'd give the other point of view. With all due respect, by the way - I've learned the hard way how much hurt a climber can put on someone when things go uphill. And then they attack. Egads.

Climbing focuses on a combination of power to weight ratio and a high aerobic capacity. I liken this to being a triathlete or a runner - being very fit is critical to performing well for these athletes. Sprinting emphasizes tactical astuteness and fast-twitch muscles - it's hard to sprint well without those two traits. Well that and a bit of the need for adrenaline. Although the pro sprinters have to be fit, in the real world of Cat 4's and 3's, sprinters do not have to be as fit - they just need enough fitness to get to the finish.

I tend not to be fit and I have a decent jump. I absolutely love strategy and tactics (bikes, cars, games, whatever). Being a sprinter is a natural outlet for this combination. Given the choice between a long climb in a road race and close quarters, elbow to kneecap, skewer to pedal riding in a crit, I'll always take the latter. I can't climb to save my life - I've tried and failed miserably at that (ditto time trialing).

My two favorite training rides are based on sprinting. One now-defunct ride was the SUNY Purchase Tuesday night sprints. Imagine doing a sprint per lap on a 2 mile circuit for two and a half hours (!). Cat 1's to Cat 4's (there were no 5's back then) would show up in a field of 100 or more. Teams would practice leadouts and on the "nice wind" days, speeds would exceed 45 mph (75 kph) in the sprint. The other ride is one that we sometimes unofficially have, the Summer Street Thursday Night Sprints in somewhere in Connecticut. We'd ride at some odd time, like 10 or 11 PM, and do a couple hours of laps on a (coincidentally) 2 mile loop. With all one way streets (or two ways with medians), you never have to worry about oncoming traffic. And with a 35 mph speed limit, you can use cars, trucks, or even police cars as leadout men (the latter judiciously).

But in the end, it's all to go sprinting at a race. There is nothing like the last lap of a crit where the field is together - it is one of the most intense experiences one of us regular racers can have in a bike race. Everything about the race is to be decided - it's not just a formality. The actual selection is about to happen. So there's that building of anticipation as the laps wind down, where (as a sprinter) you pray that all breaks fail. Then, as your prayers are answered, you're in a gruppo compacto at the clanging bell, with the cheering crowd, friend screaming at you to "move up! move up!", the unique sound of chains and tires humming along, noise and confusion inundating your senses. There's the frantic fighting for position, the nudges, the racers diving suicidally into non-existent gaps. The rat-at-at of skewers and spokes (and the pause where everyone waits for the crash, but when it doesn't happen, everything just keeps on going). The occasional politeness ("sorry 'bout that" or non-verbal "let me in that gap" look). The desperate 100% attacks followed by eager opportunists, teams trying to line up leadouts, sprinters hollering at their leadout men, the field snaking across the road as leadout men respond to final attacks and other leadout train surges.

And all the mistakes that everyone makes tactically, it's incredible. Racers go too early, too late, let gaps open up - lack of commitment is a big weakness in close quarters racing. The zen-like instant decisions - Follow my leadout man? Will he blow? What about that leadout train? Where is that big blue sprinter guy? How did I get here? Blasting through the last couple corners, feeling the tires digging in and sliding just that bit, feeling the pedals just touching the pavement, racers yelling, the burnt rubber smell as someone miscalculates and locks up a tire, chains just slamming into gears as people shift under 100% load. There is that incredible speed that racers find in their legs when a few minutes ago they were struggling to hang on - just how did they find 36 mph (60 kph) in their legs?!

Then finally the first jump goes, a huge jump, the one that is supposed to gap a surprised field right away, immediately followed by all the counters (by non-surprised racers waiting for it) fighting to get onto this last (now suicidal) leadout's wheel. The momentary pause tactically as everyone goes all out after this upstart. Then the surges on the sides as the field quickly goes from strung-out to curb-to-curb then squeezing and expanding as racers try and close doors all over the place. The quick calculations - should I go again now? Wait? Why can't I shift up - am I already in my 12? Can I fit through that gap? Squeeze a bit to the right to shut down the guy there. Jam the brakes as someone does the same to you. Jump again, swearing so much to yourself that Howard Stern would censor you, thinking to yourself that you'll never be that careless again. Duck under that elbow as you pass a behemoth on a bike. Scoot past that shoulder (of a blown leadout guy) coming towards you so fast he might as well have hit a wall. And then, when you are ready, you commit yourself and totally punch it, almost lifting the bike off the ground you're pulling up so hard on the bars, trying to keep the back wheel on the ground, Conti's scrabbling for traction. It always comes up in slow motion, everyone's positions around you burned into your memory like a watercolor, the sprint taking longer and longer, time slowing down. Legs just don't seem to turn any faster no matter what you try to do to them. Then finally the last few meters goes by and you're throwing the bike at the line no matter what because your mentor told you to never ever take a sprint for granted and then time accelerates and you're 200 meters past the line breathing hard and replaying everything over and over, planning what you'll do the next time you're here.

Jeez my heartrate is kinda high just thinking about all this.

Monday, March 8, 2004

5 comments:

Mike Starr said...

Very nice. I was in their with you that last lap. I'm not a sprinter and have to do everything absolutely perfect if I want to win a bunch kick, but I agree, the last mile or two heading to a field spurt is an adrenalin rush, not designed for the meek.

Bleve said...

Hello Aki, I run the site that has your article reproduced, I think I asked your permission to do it, but it was some time ago and my memory is a little rusty. If I didn't, I'm very sorry, and will remove it from my site if you want me to. I'd prefer to keep it if you don't object as it's a great story, but it's your material.

Aki said...

mike - I think anyone has to do everything pretty much perfectly to win a bunch sprint, sprinter or not. "Sprinters" simply have a different range of options. I've watched incredible sprinters get trounced by others who are simply very fit, very strong, and willing to put it on the line (i.e. lead out early). For me though there's nothing as thrilling as the minute or so just before the sprint, regardless of how I finish.

bleve - Not a problem on the letter. I'm not that famous or big headed that I run around exercising copyright type stuff. I don't remember clearly about permission but I'm pretty sure you asked - and you credited me with the letter so that's fair. I find it very flattering that something I wrote from the heart is preserved for others to read and hopefully enjoy.

suitcaseofcourage said...

Excellent description - like poetry. No wonder it's been published. Anyone wanna know what sprinting's like, just read this...

Bleve said...

Thankyou, btw, I have a PT 2.4 SL, very useful for training your sprint. Have a good read of some of the books abuot it, and I highly recommend cycling peaks s/w if you don't have it already