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Smash Your Sprints!

Ever watch top sprinters like Mark Cavendish or Andre Griepel and wonder what it would feel like to be able to ride that fast? Well, I can’t promise that you’ll end up riding as fast as them, but in this edition of The Speed Doctor we’re going to examine some techniques and training sessions that will ensure an increase in your absolute top speed.THE SCIENCE OF SPRINTING

There are many physiological reasons why speed work is necessary if you want to maximize your potential at any distance, from road races to in-town criteriums. During speed work you train your body to recruit the muscles necessary to be able to sprint. You also learn a sense of relaxation at race pace, which comes as a result of training your muscles to function at an accelerated pace.

The physiology of sprinting is not quite as complex or trainable as endurance performance – you’re using energy stored in the body (in the form of ATP and Creatine, for those who are interested!) and once it’s gone it’s pretty much gone. You can’t top up when you’re riding flat out, and even if you could somehow take on a gel or drink, it wouldn’t have an effect anyway!

However, there are variables that you can control which will help you lift your top speed. We all know a local rider who, despite being a little bit tubby, always manages to position him or herself in the perfect spot to deliver a killer sprint. You may not see them at all during the race or ride, but with 150m to go there they are, tearing past you on their way to another win. They have perfected the skill of ‘sitting on’ the wheel of those riders who are fitter and more aerobically accomplished, expending very little of their own energy. It’s easy to assume that because of their size they have power to burn, and that’s how they manage that high top-end speed.

This is not actually the case: in a series of tests conducted by British Cycling, it was found that one of the most important factors in developing sprint speed was low body fat. Even though, unlike running, there is no need to move it vertically against gravity (assuming the sprint is taking place on a flat stretch of road), unnecessary body fat in cyclists still has a detrimental effect on three counts: an increased energy cost of acceleration at the start of a sprint, increased rolling resistance of the wheels on the ground, and increased frontal area of the cyclist – and thus increased air resistance. Of these, the increased air resistance is the most important – 5 kg of extra weight adds about 4 seconds in a 1000m track race due to this factor alone…Consider the fact that most bunch sprints are decided by a wheel length or less, and it makes sense that a lean sprinter is a fast sprinter.

Force is proportional to velocity squared. Huh? What this means in real-world cycling terms is wind resistance increases with the square of velocity, so that to double your speed you would have to overcome four times the wind resistance. Attach some numbers to this equation and you get a clearer picture: cycling at 40km/h is actually four times harder than cycling at 20km/h. This is why our not-so-streamlined local sprinter gets the chocolates every week – even though they are overweight and, in relative terms, quite unfit, they are better than everyone else at conserving energy and avoiding the hardship of overcoming wind resistance. But the fact remains that they’d be even faster if they were leaner so don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to get all beefed up to crank your top speed up a notch or two.


Plan your position in the group during the last kilometre before the line. Usually about fourth back is best, sitting in the slipstream of the fastest riders in the group. The longer you are sheltered from the headwind the more energy you’ll have in reserve for the final effort. Keep your head up and watch the other riders, making sure you’re neither boxed in, nor losing touch with the fastest riders.


Timing is everything. It’s almost always best to wait for someone else to make the first move, then jump into their slipstream. When you think they’ve wasted enough energy riding in the wind, pull out and go for it. Most people go too early and fade before the line. But don’t leave it too late either, or there might not be enough time to get past. Think ahead: an uphill finish or headwind will effectively lengthen the distance to the line.


Select a gear you can spin up to full speed quickly. Don’t make the mistake of choosing too big a gear and then spending too much time and energy straining it up to flat out speed. By the same token, it’s no use starting your sprint in too small a gear either, as you’ll be ‘on top of it’ instantly and spinning out before you hit the line. Dips or rises in road gradient at the finish will affect your gear choice too.


Grip the bars firmly on the drops. This wide and low hold on the bike will keep it as stable as possible as you pull against the bars to leverage your jump, and then anchor your flat out pedalling. It will also give you a lower centre of gravity for stability, and make you more aerodynamic. But don’t forget to keep your head up so you can see where you’re going – or at least keep looking up as you bury yourself.


Pull up on the bars and push down hard and fast on your strongest foot just as it passes ‘top dead centre’ of the pedal stroke. Maintain a straight, efficient torso initially, rather than wasting energy swaying the bike from side to side. As soon as the first pedal stroke reaches the bottom, follow through with the other foot and increase the cadence to your maximum as quickly as possible. This is where your core strength and stability is vital for a stable platform, and a strong upper body can help too. 


Be prepared to ‘go again’ if someone is matching you in a sprint. This is something that Mark Cavendish specialises in, and it’s a great tactic if you’re confident enough to begin a sprint at a certain speed and then still have enough in reserve to be able to kick again. This second burst is the one that finally shakes off your rivals, because it will demoralize anyone who’s flat out already and thinks you are too.


Like every other facet of cycling, the only way to improve your top-end speed is to practice. However, there is one significant difference between endurance/threshold training and sprinting: other riders. You can smash out some fantastic intervals and tempo efforts on your own, but when it comes to sprint training it often works best when you have some training buddies. There are two reasons for this: firstly, it’s good to have some motivated, likeminded riders with you to help you push yourself to reach new top speeds. It’s also crucial to be able to recreate race scenarios as much as possible, and the best way to do that is to work together, gaining valuable bike skills and making use of the slipstream your team mates and training partners provide.

Following are some sprint workouts designed to increase your absolute top speed, and to provide valuable practice time riding your bike and developing your skills while riding flat out.


You can increase your reaction time on group rides by sprinting for specific road signs. The designated sprinter in the group decides when he or she will initiate the sprint without informing the group. The others respond and chase until the initial cyclist is caught or ends the effort.

Take turns initiating the sprint and vary the distance from 100 to 300 metres.

This drill will force you to learn to sprint in various gears, uphill, downhill, into the wind, with the wind at your back, and at various positions in the group.


After a good warm-up, start with a sprint of 60 seconds, then 50 seconds, 40, 30 and 20, all at maximum effort, with a very short recovery between each sprint (ideally one minute or less). Allow your heart rate to return to E 1 (easy) training zone, then repeat the sequence. This series of sprints simulates repeated efforts during race situations, and teaches your body to respond when you demand maximum performance. 


When he was riding for Columbia-HighRoad, Cavendish and his lead-out team would practice sprinting while in and out of the saddle during training camps. You start by jumping (rising) out of the saddle in a big gear, for 10 pedal revolutions, and then sitting back down in the saddle, then sprinting for another 10 revolutions. 

Repeat these sprints three times while jumping out of the saddle and then sitting back down, and then coming out of the saddle. You will have sprinted 30 revolutions in the saddle and 30 revolutions out of the saddle. These sprints are best done with the wind at your back or on a slight decline in order to get your sprint speed as high as possible. 

This drill works on your ability to sprint and accelerate several times during a long sprint. This ability is needed during racing when riders keep jumping in the final kilometers of the race. 


For this workout, train on either a slight incline, or the equivalent resistance on a wind trainer or spin bike. Warm up for at least 20 minutes, starting easy and building up effort slowly to the point that it becomes difficult to speak. Once warmed up, perform three full intensity sprints of 20-30 seconds, with a 2 minute recovery after each one. This completes the first stage of the workout. 

The second stage is a three minute long sprint interval. Pedal at 90-95rpm for three minutes, with effort spread evenly over the three minute period. Ideally by the end of the three minutes you should only have enough energy to go for another 10 seconds before hitting the wall (failure). You do not want to collapse at the end of the three minutes, but close to it. You need to be able to recover to repeat the workout after a rest. 

Pedal slowly for at least 10 minutes – even longer if that’s how long it takes to recover. Lengthy recovery is essential to give time for your muscles to restore their oxygen levels. Once the recovery cycle is complete, repeat the workout. Aim to complete each short sprint with focus and intensity, and finish each interval properly, i.e. without failing. This means that you have to carefully choose the gear/resistance and speed at which you cycle. It is better to perform only one good sprint interval than a few poor ones.

This is a brutally hard training session if done correctly, and should really only be attempted once every 10 days or so. The benefits, however, are enormous: the workout combines top-end sprint speed with high-speed, high-intensity endurance, which means you get faster and you teach your body to go fast for longer periods of time. 


This workout can be done with your training group or on your own. After a warm-up of at least 15 minutes, change up into a large gear (53 x 14-16) and pedal along smoothly at a good pace. Stand up on the pedals and accelerate as quickly as you can for 10 seconds, utilizing all your power, energy and focus. Coast along for 15 seconds, then jump straight back up and do it again. Repeat until you have completed 6 sprints. It doesn’t sound much, but your legs, lungs and energy system will feel it after this session! 


While it’s fine to include sprint training during or after your long rides every now and then, it’s a mistake to believe that sprint training should only be done in a fatigued state to simulate ‘the real thing’. 

When you are tired, dehydrated and your glycogen stores are empty, you have probably also lost your concentration and motivation. The circumstances might be psychologically comparable to race situations, but they will never represent optimum training of your physiological sprinting skills.

So train fresh, and sprint fast!


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