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Make me a better sprinter

Marc Abbott
26 May 2020

What does it take to win a sprint, even if it's just to the next lamppost? Cyclist follows a sprinter's training plan to find out

Even getting out of the armchair hurts. Activating muscles I’d forgotten I had until two hours ago has every fibre of tissue in my quads screaming at me, firing urgent signals to my pain receptors. I give up and flop back into the comfort of my cushions, but with a feeling of deep satisfaction. After all, no cyclist ever improved their performance without pushing their limits, right?

Sounds like a plan

In my quest to turn myself from weekend rouleur to turbocharged sprinter, I have one useful weapon in my armoury, even if it’s the only one: I’m good at following orders. With that in mind, I enlist the help of Anthony Walsh at A1 Coaching – the training company responsible for David Millar’s time-trial system.

The thought of a teacher who’s invested time in devising a plan to make me stronger gives me the added motivation I need – and someone to impress.

A feeling of excitement tinged with impending doom hits me when I first read my four-week training schedule. I’ve acquainted myself with the training power zones, so I have an idea of the intensity of each day’s workout. I’m also equipped with a set of PowerTap P1 pedals to gauge my efforts and record my progress. Which instantly falls below expectations.

To measure my maximum power in a sprint and get a figure I can build on, Walsh offers some simple advice: ‘Warm up well and do three 10-second sprints, then use the average power of the three sprints as a baseline from which to gauge improvement.’

Sounds easy enough, but it quickly becomes apparent I’m not threatening the WorldTour in the power stakes. An average of 690 watts doesn’t fill me with joy but at least it offers plenty of room for improvement.

I could have chosen to use an indoor trainer for my sessions, but who wants to miss out on the brief British summer sweating on to their garage floor?

I reassure myself that my relatively low power output is at least partly the result of not knowing what gear to be in and when to hit the ‘turbo boost’ button.

Walsh explains the learning curve: ‘From a slow rolling start, a six-second sprint typically converts to three telephone poles. Ideally, try to find a road that’s quiet (so you won’t be overtaken by cars), is well surfaced and has long straights.’ That was the easy bit.

The weighting game

From day one of my training it’s clear that there’s more to boosting my capacity than simply riding hard. Track racers and WorldTour stars alike place importance on gym work. At 64kg soaking wet, the prospect of me hefting a barbell is daunting at first, but it’s after these sweaty reps that I’m starting to feel the most invigorated.

Nobody I know lifts weights, so I’m getting an advantage. And because nobody I know lifts weights, I find myself waiting sheepishly in line at my local Argos to collect my Muscle Mary starter kit.

Now that I’m familiar with the sensation of leadened legs that squats and lunges bring, I seek some scientific reassurance that this is for the best. Tobias Bremer of Physio Clinic Brighton provides the answer: ‘To improve max output and sprinting power, you need to train the fast-twitch fibres with high-intensity cycling and workouts in the gym.

'The fibres in the muscle become stronger and more efficient so it can generate more power. With a progressive sprint and gym programme your muscles become better at tolerating higher loads and intensities and over time are able to generate more power.’

Luke Rowe, Team Ineos rider and owner of coaching firm Rowe & King, agrees: ‘Gym work can help for certain people – a lot of this will be core work to make sure all the power you produce goes into the pedals and isn’t wasted.’ Walsh adds, ‘There is a strong correlation between sprint performance and squat and box jumping ability.’

All of their affirmations are echoed by sprint ace Alexander Kristoff, who sums it up thus: ‘To be a better sprinter, you need to be strong, and to do that you have to train your strength.’

It’s as simple as that. And as the weeks progress, not only is my capacity to complete these workouts improving, but my strength on the bike is increasing – much to the disgust of my riding partners. Or rather, it is improving until the spectre of injury looms.

How does your peak power stack up against the stars of track and road?

Power players
Sören Lausberg 2,600W
Sir Chris Hoy 2,483W
Robert Forstemann 2,000W
Mario Cipollini 1,943W
Andre Greipel 1,613W
Mark Cavendish 1,580W

What the Dickens?

Apart from making my living as a writer, there’s one other thing I share with Charles Dickens – I suffer from gout. It’s a deeply unpleasant crystalising of proteins around the joints of the big toe or ball of the foot that afflicts me from time to time, causing not only time off the bike, but borderline inability to even put one foot in front of the other.

And without warning, I’m suffering a gout attack. Faced with this training crisis just weeks in, I turn to Walsh for advice. 

‘I’d recommend taking an easy day of riding for each day you were sick,’ he advises. ‘So if you were sick for three days, take three days of easy riding and then return to where you left off in the programme.’

It takes me seven days to fully recover from my Victorian malady, which translates into a further week of easy spinning on the bike to get myself back into the swing of things.

It makes for a total of two weeks off the plan. But it’s all about patience, as Luke Rowe also tells me: ‘You just have to be realistic and patient. Taking an extra few days after illness can sometimes be a hard thing to do but is worth it because the issue can come back stronger if it’s not dealt with properly. In simple terms, rest is best.’ 

I rest, I recover and I get back on it. Actually, the rest seems to have done my legs some good as my first training session – a two-hour interval block that Walsh warns ‘is a real widow-maker’ – reinvigorates me. As he predicts, I’m ready for bed by the time I get home, but it feels good to know the plan hasn’t been derailed.

Now that I’m back on the programme, I get busy with my solo training sessions, testing myself against the time and power numbers on my bike computer. However, it turns out that the solitary approach might not be the best way for someone hoping to reach Cav-bothering levels of sprinting ability. 

Kristoff suggests that rather than hide away on a turbo trainer with headphones on, the best motivation is having another rider alongside. ‘Training with others helps to motivate me – having a sparring partner helps to push me much better than music ever could,’ he says. ‘But that person needs to be at my level, or even a better level.’ 

I imagine it’s difficult for Kristoff to find a sprinter at a better level than him. I have no such problem. My riding partners are generally stronger in the sprint than I am – and this helps me to push my limits.

Kristoff adds, ‘I train in the gym in the winter, and do sprints in the season – you train and you get better. You can learn from watching other sprinters, by being there and trying to perform and fight for position.’ This, I find as the weeks pass, applies as much to sprinting for road signs as it does to a finish gantry.

My training becomes a solid mix of solo rides when I have specific, hard intervals to perform, and group rides where mates can join in.

They’re all reaping the benefits of a block of full-gas sprints in a two-hour endurance ride, only I’m complaining less and recovering more quickly. There’s tangible progress in not only my strength, but the speed with which my Twiglet-like legs are adapting to heavy loads.

Low down and less dirty

When the main purpose of improving your sprint isn’t to win an elbow-to-elbow Grand Tour stage, the reality is that power isn’t everything when you’re racing your mates to the 30mph sign at the entrance to a village. Rowe reassures me, ‘Getting your position correct and as aero as possible will often make a bigger impact in a sprint than adding 100 watts to your peak power.’

All you need to look at for proof is the performance of Caleb Ewan in his first year as a pro. Scalping big-name sprinters in WorldTour races when giving away 500 watts in top-end efforts proves that a super-low position can balance a power disadvantage.

Kristoff reckons getting out of the wind is one of the best ways to improve your chances of victory, saying, ‘Being aerodynamic and having a good lead out are crucial.’

Do I want to be using my friends as a lead out train on public roads though? My instinct tells me this will end in tears. Kristoff adds, ‘I don’t know if you can learn to take risks in a sprint, or whether you just naturally have it inside.’ I don’t know either, but I decide I’d rather get home for my dinner than eat hospital food for a few days. 

Rowe does offer me some advice if I’m thinking of trying this in a race, however: ‘The key is to use your team as much as possible. It sometimes takes a few months and a few races to get used to your lead out squad, but once you’ve gelled you have 100% faith that they will leave you in the perfect position. A good lead out is tough to perfect, but when it goes well it’s a thing of beauty.’

I’m some way off the level of yelling instructions at my well-drilled lead out train in a race sprint, so I get back to focusing on my training. I’m trying not to pay too much attention to my power data, firstly for fear of not seeing the results I want and secondly because I’d rather see one huge improvement over four weeks than incremental gains.

It’s a bit like when you used to visit your nan as a child and be told, ‘Haven’t you grown?!’ It’s not something you notice if you measure yourself every day.

I’m starting to struggle with days off. I’m so anxious to smash every session that it’s becoming hard in the fourth week to take it easy when the plan says I should have my feet up. Walsh reminds me of the importance of rest, saying, ‘Easy days for a motivated athlete are the hardest part of training.

Training doesn’t make you stronger. Training makes you weaker but allows for the possibility of increased strength. This possibility is only realised when an athlete recovers and allows the body to repair the damage caused by training.’

In the first two weeks of my training, the throbbing in my legs was verging on excruciating; getting down the stairs was a challenge, and I relished a day off.

Now, as my month of dedication nears its conclusion, I don’t feel the need to plunge into an ice bath, and I’m no longer at risk of nodding off at the dinner table. I’ve adapted or rather my body has adapted, to the demands of big ring flat-out sprints, standing minute-long hardest-gear efforts, and full-bore, relentless power intervals.

Quicker everywhere

On completion of the programme, I reflect on how my strength has improved and also on the most unexpected result of my training – the fact that I’m quicker, stronger and more capable in every area of my riding.

Rowe tells me that sprint training benefits all aspects of riding: ‘Top-end power is crucial whatever you do. Even in a race, just kicking out of a bend helps. If you require 1,000 watts to stay on the wheel and your max is 1,500, it will take a lot less out of your energy stores than if your peak power is 1,000, and you’re pretty much having to accelerate out of every bend at your absolute max.’ 

He’s right – I’m jumping out of every corner, leaping up every short, punchy climb and, crucially, I’m hammering my mates. Actually, I’m happy enough just to not be the slowest member of our group.

And while, at the end of my four-week plan, a final average top-end of 880 watts might not put me in the realms of the true sprinter, it’s an impressive 28% improvement in the space of a month. And at least now I can hold my own when the hammer goes down next Sunday.

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