This is an excerpt from Cycling Fast by Robert Panzera.
Individual and Team
In most instances, sprinting occurs individually. If an athlete is fortunate enough to have an organized team, the team must be sure to practice lead-outs and sprints many times before executing them in races.
When sprinting, you should follow these tips:
- Know your competition. Find out who commonly wins sprints, and fight for the draft of that wheel in the closing miles.
- Line up your sprint position 3 to 5 miles (4.8 to 8.0 km) from the line. Many amateurs do not think about the sprint until the last mile. This practice will not get you to the line first.
- Remember that position is important. Make sure you are near the front so a clear shot at the line is available, but not so far forward that you find yourself on the front too far from the line.
- Know the finish. Know landmarks for timing a sprint. Be able to kick from an optimum position, usually within the last 300 meters (328 yards).
- In practice drills, find out how far you can sprint (where you are constantly accelerating toward and through the line). Measure this optimum distance from the finish before the race.
- Hold your pack position during the run-up to the sprint. This is no time to lose wheels, meaning getting gapped or blocked behind slower riders. In many cases, there is a sprint before the sprint, whereby the field splits. Be prepared for this initial sprint for position.
- When going for the win, look at the finish line and take a straight shot. Do not deviate from your line. Doing so may cause a crash.
- Do not hold back; put down the hammer and commit to the finish. A teammate once said, “When the sprint opens up and everyone is dashing for the line, you've got to pound [the pedals].”
- Keep in mind that sprinting can be a contact sport. Do not be a racer who initiates contact, but be prepared to fend off contact. Use the skills you acquired in bumping drills.
- Do not decelerate. Even a slight deceleration in the run-up will cost victory, either by having you lose momentum or by causing you to become gapped from the charging sprinters. Mario Cipollini—multiple Tour de France and Giro d'Italia stage winner and classics winner—says the following: “If you want to win sprints, don't touch your brakes.”
Practice with your team numerous times before executing a lead-out in a race. Leading out is a carefully coordinated effort, and if it is handled sloppily, it can lead to crashes. A proper lead-out makes sprinting safer. In a proper lead-out, the speed is higher, providing an environment where there is less chance of multiple people crossing the line simultaneously. The lead-out needs to start miles from the finish and not in the finishing straight. Keep the speed high in the last few miles to deter attacks. Move lead-out teammates toward the front at least 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the finish, and start moving together in the pack and controlling the speed (see figure 6.10). Most racers are thankful for lead-outs; therefore, being courteous and asking for slots in the run-in by announcing a lead-out intention will win graces. Paceline the lead-out at a constant speed. Increase the speed as the finish line grows closer.
Within the final 2 kilometers of the finish, each lead-out person should do a hard, even pull that does not drop his teammates. The lead-out teammate should pull off after a hard pull and should move out of the peloton's way, dropping off on the side to the back. The sprinter, who is second to last, should be verbally directing his lead-out teammates, announcing which side to pull off on and telling them to increase speed as necessary. The last lead-out person should pull only a short distance (100 to 500 meters), and the effort should be a sprint. This lead-out person needs to pull off so the sprinter can launch within the last 200 meters. The last lead-out person often needs to keep sprinting to the best of his ability in order to avoid being swallowed up dangerously by a fast-moving pack. This is a safe way to finish. The last person in the group situated behind the sprint is the gatekeeper, who keeps other sprinters off the wheel of the team sprinter. This will lessen the chance of the competition using the lead-out team as a lead-out train that they can ride to victory. See figure 6.11 for illustration of a lead-out train.
Executing a Sprint
To execute a sprint, place your hands in the drops with a firm grip and loose elbows. Having your hands in the drops prevents the bars from being hooked. The firm grip allows you to use your arms to power the body along in the hard effort. Keeping the elbows loose allows you to fend off bumping, cushioning the lateral bumps. Get low on the bike like a cat about to pounce. This keeps you aerodynamic and puts your legs over the pedals for maximum power.
Choose a gear that allows you to accelerate all the way to the line and also allows you to jump—that is, stand up and pound the pedals in the last 200 meters. Have the gear set before launching a sprint. Changing gears when the sprint is launched may cause a chain hop or skip, possibly causing a crash.
Read more about Cycling Fast.