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Full gas: how to be a better sprinter

James Witts
11 Sep 2020

Discover the training regimes, mental toughness and tactical nous required to be one of the pro peloton’s speed merchants

On Saturday 29th August 2020, 11 weeks after its original start date, the 107th Tour de France set off from the cycling playground of Nice on the south coast.

Stage 1 covered 156km and contained a few punchy hills scattered along the route, but a lengthy downhill run-in to the finish should have ensured that any speculative breakaways were reeled in and the peloton arrived back in Nice in one big bunch. This was set to be a stage for the sprinters.

As it was, the weather played more of a part than most would have expected, or hoped, but we still got a sprint finish and a surprise winner in the shape of Alexander Kristoff.

As a breed, sprinters are unique and they require a unique set of skills. They have to be physically capable of riding the same distances and climbing the same mountains as the rest of the peloton, and yet still have enough in the tank to be able to produce over 1,000 watts in the final 200m.

They need to be able to plan race finishes with military precision and organise their troops, yet be tactically astute enough to change the gameplan at a moment’s notice while doing 70kmh inches from other riders.

They also need to be fearless, charging headlong into a maelstrom of flesh and carbon that presents a very real chance of serious, even life-threatening, injury.

What does it take to be a sprinter? Cyclist talked to some of the world’s best to find out.

The training

‘We do sprint-specific work all year round, starting with the pre-Christmas training camp [which Cyclist attended in Mallorca, 2019],’ says arguably the strongest sprinter in the world right now, Caleb Ewan of Lotto-Soudal.

‘We practise the leadout and sprints within longer rides, which is anything from five to 30 seconds on repeat. Being a sprinter, there’s a lot of peak-power efforts.

‘That said, relatively we don’t train that much for the sprint,’ the 25-year-old adds. ‘Most sprinters are honing their natural talent; we’re loaded with fast-twitch muscle fibres, which make us fast.

‘The problem is that all-out sprinting takes up as little as 200m. Before then, we might have ticked off 250km. The offset to high levels of fast-twitch fibres is a lower level of endurance-friendly slow-twitch fibres, meaning we don’t possess the same amount as, say, a climber. It’s why you’ll never see me climb as fast as Egan Bernal and Bernal won’t sprint as fast as me.’

Maybe not, but a road sprinter still needs a healthy mix of muscle types, as demonstrated when making anatomical comparisons with track sprinters. Chris Hoy reportedly generated a peak of 2,500 watts, just behind the mooted 2,700 watts of the 29-inch-thighed giant Robert Forstemann. Hoy measured 1.85m tall and weighed in at 92kg at his peak.

A study of elite Australian track sprinters records a more conservative average of 1,792 watts, 1.8m tall and 86kg. But it still dwarfs the road sprinter profile from the same study: 1,370 watts, 1.76m and 71.8kg. The likes of André Greipel reportedly peak at around 1,800 watts, but that’s still 50% shy of Forstemann.

So a sprinter’s training must balance peak power, peak stamina and explosive power, and it melds road work with gym sessions. Again, there are myriad ways teams deliver gym workouts but, broadly, it will be high-weight, low-rep stuff in the winter to build power and vice versa in the summer for repeatable strength. As you’d expect, legs are the primary focus in developing explosive sprint power.

‘I’ll do squats, deadlifts, leg presses, calf raises and box jumps,’ says Ewan, who was using his Monaco home’s gym three or four times a week during lockdown.

‘Once out of lockdown I’ll admit that dropped to zero. But that’s not too detrimental as I put on muscle easily so I need to be careful. I have to weigh up the absolute power on the flats with the extra muscle mass and weight I’d carry on the climbs.’

Ewan’s to-lift-or-not-to-lift conundrum highlights the specificity of training, with the subtlest change in weight and repetitions tapping into a different physiological adaptation.

Individualism is even more finely honed at Trek-Segafredo, which employs a device called T-Force to measure the speed of the squat. Riders move between 0.9m and 1.2m a second depending on the aim of the session, be it boosting the neuromuscular system or, as per Ewan, explosive power.

 

The tactics

Sprinting is very much about the individual but, as a winner’s post-stage platitudes prove, they’re nothing without their supporters. In other words, the leadout train.

Over the years, this high-speed relay has been the focal point of some of the most illustrious teams in the sport, arguably peaking with Mark Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad outfit.

 

Before Cavendish moved to Team Sky at the end of 2011, coinciding with the HTC team’s closure that same year, the men’s squad had accumulated a staggering 318 victories in four years, of which 75 were racked up by Cavendish, supported by the likes of Lars Bak, Tony Martin and main leadout man Mark Renshaw.

HTC’s sprint baton was picked up by Marcel Kittel’s Shimano team, whose scientific approach saw them split the leadout trains into two categories: ‘pure formation’ for Kittel and his flat, all-out sprints, and ‘power formation’ for John Degenkolb, when the stage featured a late climb.

While the more controlled environment of the pure formation featured all nine riders, the more erratic nature of the power formation generally comprised six riders. Each of the riders was given a role, with the pure formation comprising: Marcel Kittel, sprinter; Tom Veelers, leadout; John Degenkolb, accelerator pilot; Koen de Kort, speed pilot; Roy Curvers, captain; Albert Timmer and Tom Dumoulin, positioners; Dries Devenyns and Cheng Ji, controllers.

The monikers vary throughout teams and generations, but the aim remains the same: to control the stage. More often than not this means letting a breakaway go, ensuring that it doesn’t include riders from other teams who are in sprint contention.

Then, towards the tail end of the race, with the breakaway in their sights, the positioners would start to bring their team towards the front of the chasing pack. They’d crank up the pace and take 1km or 2km turns up front. With around 1.5km before the finish line, the speed pilot would take charge.

‘Yeah, I was the second-to-last guy to go,’ says Koen de Kort, now road captain at Trek-Segafredo. ‘I’d lead things out until around 500m to 200m to go. I’d then leave it to Marcel. We were very specific in our preparations, training our sprints exactly to the race efforts for each role.’

The rise of power meters has resulted in military-like precision but, De Kort concedes, ‘At least 50% of stages didn’t go to plan, if not more. Sometimes we’d execute things perfectly and Marcel wouldn’t win; sometimes we’d make a right mess of it but Marcel would be strong enough. Ultimately, the sprinter needs to have the legs.’

And legs is just what Greg Henderson had countless times in a career that took in Team Sky and T-Mobile. The Israel Start-Up Nation coach also became André Greipel’s wingman at Lotto-Soudal. He’s an authority on sprinting and the nuances of this very fast organism.

‘The first thing you’d do is dominate the protected side of the road so, for instance, the left-hand side of the road if there’s a right-hander coming up,’ says the New Zealander.

‘That’s where you’d have really important guys like Lars Bak, who could ride 4km out at a really high pace. It doesn’t look like he’s doing much on TV but he really is. Whoever was at the front then identifies upcoming road furniture, that sort of thing.

‘I’d always leave one lane open down the protected barrier side so Greipel could come down it, but no one else,’ Henderson adds. ‘Everyone knew not to follow Greipel because I’d close the gap. And lots of guys couldn’t handle that. They’d panic. And that gave us an advantage at every race.

‘If I was in a tricky situation, I’d call out Gringo’s name [Greipel] and they’d naturally move aside for him, even if he wasn’t there. The sprint’s very much about mind games.’

It’s also about intuition. ‘A leadout eliminates many of the things that can go wrong, but you also have to trust yourself,’ says Ewan. ‘Sometimes I’ll want a proper leadout, sometimes I’ll want to be dropped off on another rider’s wheel. If it’s a long, straight road, a leadout’s not as useful because you leave yourself exposed.’

A sprinter must possess the reactions of an F1 driver to pick the right wheel to follow and to pick the right time to go. This natural instinct marries with detailed team meetings before every sprint stage, if not earlier, to dissect apps such as Google Maps for key landmarks.

Jumbo-Visma has even been known to visualise key sections via virtual-reality units in search of that competitive edge. It’s about controlling the controllables. Which you can’t do with Mother Nature…

 

The tweaks

When the wind blows, the best a team can do is to keep their sprinter protected. ‘But there’s little you can do about the rain,’ says De Kort. ‘It upsets the visuals, especially at high speeds.’

Beyond wind and rain, however, arguably greater climatic impact derives from air density. The fantastically named Ingmar Jungnickel has the equally fantastic job title of principal investigator at Specialized Futures.

As the name suggests, this is the future-proofing department of the American bike manufacturer. Jungnickel has spent hundreds of hours in Specialized’s own wind-tunnel, the Win Tunnel, and suggests the impact of air density is too often overlooked.

‘At the speeds sprinters hit, more than 90% of drag comes from air resistance, so if you change air density by 20%, which is like going from Belgium to Colombia, you’d have less drag,’ he says. ‘That means you’ll sprint faster at the Tour of Colombia than you might at the Tour of Flanders. It’s not 20% faster, though – more like 6%.

‘The knock-on effect is a shift in sprint timing. If air density’s lower, or you have a tailwind, you’ll want to start your sprint earlier. If it’s higher, or you have a headwind, you’ll want to start later. Why? It’s down to duration of power. Say your tank’s empty after 10 seconds, just how far can those 10 seconds carry you? That’s air density-dependent.’

Most years, Jungnickel will aim to have two sessions in the wind-tunnel with the Specialized-backed WorldTour teams, Deceuninck-QuickStep and Bora-Hansgrohe. Covid-19 has messed up this year’s plans, but that hasn’t stopped the Specialized bods from looking to tweak the sprint positions of Peter Sagan, Sam Bennett and co.

‘We do work with specific body types even when the pros aren’t here,’ Jungnickel reveals. ‘I can’t say whether we have specific mannequins or use local riders. What I can say is that before Specialized, I worked for the German Olympic team. There we had a Tony Martin mannequin, as it was difficult for the federation to get him in the tunnel.’

Jungnickel concedes the younger sprinters are arguably more receptive to advice than their elder statesmen when it comes to individual tweaks, but everyone is open to new ideas when it comes to the group.

The Win Tunnel’s USP is its ability to accommodate several bikes at once, meaning Specialized can play around with leadout formations in an attempt to minimise drag and maximise speed.

‘We can fit up to eight riders at once, although we usually focus on four as the results are similar and it’s more manageable. Each team generates slightly different data, be it in the tunnel, via the computer or track testing. That’s intellectual property, but what I can say is that the drafting wake behind a rider is longer than it is wide.

‘That’s important because riders are so close that they regularly touch tyres – slightly scary at 70kmh. Naturally you move to the side but that’s wrong. Aerodynamically, dropping 10cm back is much better than 10cm to either side.

‘This pays off for a concept called “the sprinter’s gap” too,’ Jungnickel adds. ‘Top sprinters are extremely close to each other, so when they’re readying to sprint they drop off ever so slightly to identify a gap and accelerate into that gap, similar to as you would accelerate around a hairpin. It’s far more economical to do this from behind than the side.’

The terror

Crashes are an inevitable part of any sprinter’s life. They’re dramatic, painful and potentially in plentiful supply at this year’s Tour.

Not only is it expected to be windier but, as Henderson says, while you can replicate power profiles and positioning in training, you can’t mimic the maelstrom of testosterone generated from ‘10 pitbulls going at each other’.

Leadouts and sprints are refined in races. Fewer races means less refinement, which means pain for the riders and joy for TV producers, making their job that bit easier when it comes to the highlights package.

It’s the sadistic side of humans that means you won’t have to dig deep to recall Peter Sagan’s disqualification after nudging Mark Cavendish into a barrier at the 2017 Tour; Cav again in 2014, crashing in Harrogate; or, readers with longer memories, Wilfried Nelissen’s spectacular crash at the 1994 Tour, caused by a policeman stepping out to take a photo.

Caleb Ewan has endured ‘many crashes but no broken bones yet’. He says, ‘The 2015 Tour of Poland stands out. I was a neo pro. It was one of those sprint pile-ups that blocks the road. I came off a leadout, two guys came past me but then eased right.

‘At that moment I started sprinting and they flew over my front wheel. Look it up on YouTube. I say it wasn’t my fault; many say it was.’

Whoever’s fault it was, what’s beyond dispute is a sprinter’s fearless mindset. They put themselves in the riskiest position in cycling in search of glory (and to satisfy sponsors and extend their contracts, of course).

They have to close their minds to danger and open their arms to speed. In this toughest of sports, it takes a bulletproof character to shrug off the real threat of career-ending crashes.

‘There’s actually greater fear earlier on in a stage when things are more relaxed and less focussed,’ says Ewan. ‘Come the sprint, you’re zoned in. Sometimes you have to sneak through a gap by a barrier at 70kmh. You must rely on instinct. Once you start questioning your instinct, or fearing it, you’re done as a top sprinter.

‘You find that with a lot of the older generation. The way they’re sprinting, they’re a little more nervous in the bunch. Young guys don’t have that fear, I guess.’

Does having children make sprinters question the risk? ‘Well, I have a one-year-old daughter and I’m OK at the moment,’ Ewan replies. ‘But they do say you can tell the sprinters that have kids and those that don’t. Hopefully if the fear does come, it won’t be for a while yet.’

And certainly not before Ewan has looked to become the first rider to wear the yellow jersey at this year’s Tour. With both Dylan Groenewegen and Fernando Gaviria heading to the Giro d’Italia, it looks like the Aussie’s main rivals will come in the shape of QuickStep’s Sam Bennett and Cofidis’s Elia Viviani.

But there’s every chance that Ewan’s sprint intervals, aerobic work, a leadout that includes smain man Roger Kluge and a child-forgetting fearlessness will justify the favourite tag come 5pm on Saturday 29th August.

 

Positioned for victory

The likes of Mark Cavendish and Caleb Ewan have shown that sprint success is about more than brute strength…

Mark Cavendish is the most successful sprinter in the history of the Tour de France, his 30 stage victories only eclipsed in the all-time list by five-time champion Eddy Merckx. If selected by Bahrain-McLaren, he’ll aim for number 31 in Nice. And if he does win, he can once again thank his incredibly aero riding position.

Likewise Caleb Ewan if he wins. Ewan is of a similar stature to Cavendish, which means that his absolute power output can’t equal that of larger, heavier sprinters such as André Greipel.

On paper, Ewan’s 1.65m and 67kg is no match for Greipel’s 1.83m and 78kg. ‘That’s why I’ve honed a really low position over time,’ says Ewan. ‘That and my size means I can reduce drag.’

Ewan has taken Cav’s aero position to the extreme, often getting his head lower than his handlebars. It looks dangerous but it’s worth the risk.

A study by Paolo Menaspa, a researcher at Perth’s Edith Cowan University, showed a 10% reduction in frontal area can result in more than 3m advantage over a 10-second sprint. In a tight race, that can be the difference between first and tenth.

Throw in Ewan’s minimal weight and the Aussie admits that a sprint stage with a mild uphill finish is his dream profile. Who said size was everything?

Illustration: 17th & Oak

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