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Cycling Tips: How to Win a Sprint

Neil Bezdek Mountain Khakis

By Neil Bezdek

There are three elements to a sprint—positioning, timing, speed.

Positioning
Increasingly important if the race has a fast finish—as with team lead-outs, for example—a large group, or a constricted final few kilometers:

  • Move up early with a few kilometers to go. Stay as close to the front as possible but out of the wind.
  • If that isn’t possible, it’s better to be caught out front than caught in the back. You can always jump on a train as it moves by, but often there’s nowhere to go if you’re caught in the back or middle of the pack.
  • Try to anticipate surges that come from behind. Sometimes you can see shadows before you see riders. As a group starts to come by, accelerate and move in that direction so that you can hop on the train.
  • Don’t hesitate to move up. As the race comes to the finish, you’ll get only a few open lanes to move forward. Take them, then worry about drafting off someone else once you’ve moved forward.
  • Most moves that go off the front with less than 3k to go are doomed. Never chase, unless you’re working for a teammate.
  • Don’t sit behind a rider if you know he or she isn’t likely to sprint.

Timing
Increasingly important for slow finishes, with few team lead-outs, small groups, or a wide-open approach to the finish—think Floyd Bennett Field:

  • If the group is going slow, the first man to jump is more likely to open a gap that others can’t close.  
  • Jump as early as you can without totally dying before the finish line.
  • Try to surprise your opponents. Getting an early jump works best if you’re farther back in the group so that you fly right by the leaders and they can’t respond. If you’re second wheel, then the riders behind you are more likely to anticipate your jump and sit on your wheel. This works well out of a small break or a place like Floyd Bennett Field, where the finishing straight is open and you can maneuver around other riders as you draft off them.
  • Go early if the finish is downhill or if you have a tailwind. Go late if it’s uphill or a headwind.

Speed
Practice your sprint technique. Everyone knows they need to be fit enough to make it to the end of the race and strong enough to have a good kick at the end. But you need good form to translate strength into speed. Things to bear in mind:

  • Keep your head up and shoulders steady while pedaling with everything you’ve got.
  • Focus on using your upper body and core to counter your pedal strokes. This means pulling up with your right arm as you push down with your right foot. Use your entire body to create motion in just your legs.
  • Practice shifting while you’re sprinting. This means positioning your right hand on the drops so you can hit the trigger.

Finally: Pay attention—and strategize for your finish
Either inspect the finish beforehand or pay attention early if there are multiple laps:

  • Pay attention to wind conditions. If there’s a crosswind, plan to sprint on the leeward side of the road. Usually the promoter will put up a flag so you can check wind direction.
  • Look for tight corners. Sometimes the race is won by the sprint into the final corner, instead of the sprint to the line. The first few riders through the turn can carry a lot of speed, so it’s okay to burn some energy to get there.
  • Make note of good places to move up in the final kilometers.
  • Choose a tree, signpost, or another landmark that will be a good spot for you to start your sprint.
  • Think about how undulating terrain can affect your finishing speed. Suppose there is a small hump 300 meters from the line—think Tour de Parc. That’s a long way to sprint, but if you can get a jump as you go over the hill, no one is going to be able to catch you on the downhill.

Follow Bezdek on Twitter at @neilbezdek.

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EnduranceWerx bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010 0 35 27-18

Dialing it all in with an enduranceWERX bike fit

Daniel McMahon enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

Warming up early at my first professional bike fit at enduranceWERX. My position would become more aggressive by the time we were through.

“When I first turned pro, French coach Cyrille Guimard raised my saddle an inch and a half.”
—Greg LeMond

“Cyclists are often obsessed with bike fit. The more experienced they become, the more they worry about the subtle differences that a couple of millimeters can make. Eddy Merckx, probably the greatest cyclist who ever lived, always carried a five-millimeter Allen key in his jersey pocket. He was famous for making slight adjustments in saddle height several times per day, even during races.”
—Andy Pruitt, director at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine

(This article was originally published in September 2010.)

IS IT POSSIBLE to find the perfect riding position? Is there such a thing?

Riding position has interested me ever since I started getting into road biking. When I was in my teens and began riding every day, I used to sit in high-school study hall and read Winning magazine and cut out photos of riders whose position on the bike I wished to emulate. Once home, I’d tape these pictures up on my basement wall, hop on my bike, and try to position myself like the pros in the glossy pages. But it was a slippery science and, admittedly, a fairly unscientific method. One month I’d be all about jacking my saddle up super high and pushing my stem down as far as it would go into the frame. The next month, depending on my fancy or even the latest photos I’d clipped, I might be reversing these adjustments. For better or worse, it was pure trial and error, and of course I had no clue what I was doing. What I did have, I soon realized, was a kind of cycling self-consciousness when it came to how I fit my bike. I was never happy with my position. So on I rode, forever changing it up whenever the urge struck me.

At some point I borrowed a book from the local library. It was Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling. Finally, someone had written the book I’d been waiting for. I read page after page about LeMond’s great attention to proper bike fit and tips for getting an aggressive racing position. In that classic—still a must-read—America’s first Tour winner devotes a whole section on how to set yourself up on a bike, giving examples of pro riders with good position, including LeMond himself, and those without, like Sean Kelly. I studied the LeMond method and took all the suggested measurements, made adjustments to my shoe cleats, and even changed bikes, going up to a 58-centimeter frame. Whether I was correctly fitting my bike at this point I couldn’t say, but I do remember feeling pretty strong in my new position and on my appropriately sized bike. If it was a DIY bike fit, LeMond was my Norm Abram. I probably fit my bike pretty well at this point.

enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

Go, go, Gadget level. All my fit data would be recorded and sent to me for reference later.

Many years later, after a decade off the bike, I returned to competition in 2009, and when it came to finding an efficient position I did so by feel, making the occasional tweak here and there. I did a dozen races, not many, and I would go out on the occasional five-hour ride. I felt comfy on my bike, so I didn’t bother too much thinking about fit and such.

Once the 2009 road season ended, however, I realized I truly missed riding my bike and racing, and so I took up cyclocross, got a coach, and, just after the cyclocross season ended, started a winter training program doing yoga, Pilates, and resistance training, which helped me become more flexible and strengthened my core. I was now focused on doing a full season of road racing in 2010. And that’s what I did. With upwards of 40 races under my belt this year, some decent results, and a category upgrade, I was feeling pretty good on my bike. Eventually, though, about halfway through the season, I started looking for ways to really improve. While my training, diet, and rest have been solid—thanks to my coach—and a new carbon bike and wheels certainly have helped me get faster, I knew a proper bike fitting was overdue, and could possibly help complete the puzzle of becoming a more complete cyclist.

I learned about enduranceWERX on my first visit to iFyxBix, where I go to get my bike worked on and my tubulars glued. The two companies share a space. I was impressed with what I saw: hi-tech trainers hooked up to a large video screen, a battery of measuring tools, and a definite sense that riders came here to get faster. The owner, Chad Butts, was not there at the time, so when I got home I checked out the company website and liked what I read about Chad’s fitting philosophy. I soon booked my fitting, and on a Saturday in June I showed up with my bike for my first-ever professional fit.

enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

Chad Butts of enduranceWERX makes sure all is in line.

Step 1: The Interview
When I walked into enduranceWERX for my fitting, I again got that sense that I was in for some serious performance enhancement—of the legal and mechanical variety, that is. Chad sat me down for a short Q&A, asking about my goals as a cyclist (I want to upgrade to Cat. 2 in 2011), my history as a rider (I raced a bit when I was younger, had a decade off, returned last year, then upgraded from Cat. 4 to Cat. 3 this year), if I had any injuries (I have a herniated disc that acts up now and again on the road but often during cyclocross races), and so forth.

Chad explained that the interview was important since no two riders are the same and each comes with a different background in the sport. “Depending on the rider’s experiences and his or her intended application of the bike—be it for racing, recreation, or aerodynamics—we start to get an idea of where the fitting is headed,” he said. “There are still way too many template fittings out there, and this first step will help dissect what each rider is looking for.”

enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

Initial measurements are important to record for later when tweaks are made.

Step 2: Pre-Fit Physical Assessment
Next, Chad had me stand up straight, then slowly lean over forward with my arms hanging loosely at my sides until I came to a natural stopping point. He took a number of measurements as I completed some additional range-of-motion exercises. Details were recorded, along with all the day’s measurements and adjustments, and later sent to me as a PDF in a follow-up email, which I keep today as reference for when, say, I change bikes, set up my cyclocross rig, or travel and have to reassemble my bike.

Chad studied the measurements and classified where I ranked in each measure. As he explained, “This process is about determining your actual levels of flexibility and posture. In the interview, we talked about where you have been and where you would like to go, but now we’re finding out just how possible that is.”

Specifically, he noted where the natural bend in my back happened, how flexible my lower back was relative to my hamstring muscles, and other body anthropomorphics. “Here we really start to get an idea of what a person will look like on the bike,” Chad explained. “Knowing these measures, and screening for imbalances and deficiencies, will tell me what considerations there need to be once the rider gets on the bike. This single step is the most important part of the fit. Without this process, and without knowing the rider’s history and injuries, nothing is really individualized, and there will be no real direction in the fit or what to do to help a rider going forward.”

Daniel McMahon enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

Chad explains leg extension and the importance of finding the correct range of bend.

Using all this fresh data, Chad determined that my right hip and hamstring were much tighter than the left. We figured this could be the result of the previously mentioned slipped disc in my lower back. There was also a slight shortening of my left leg as I went from a flat, lying position to sitting up.

It was during this part of the fitting that I really began to see Chad’s expertise come through—the art and experience of the fitter, as it were. Like he said to me, “The whole process is about taking the body through a set of exercises and seeing what happens. The results will tell you what someone is capable of, and knowing the extent will help you modify the fit just enough to make the difference for each rider.

“Technology is great, and knowing the angles to the millimeter are nice, but numbers alone are just numbers: A fitter needs to be able to assess and adjust the bicycle to accommodate potential limiters,” he said. “I know I need to get knee extension close 150 degrees for most people, but if this is too much for someone with really tight hamstring muscles, not only are they susceptible to lower back issues and instability in the pelvis, but they can also inhibit the quadriceps muscles from firing because of a thing called ‘reciprocal inhibition.’

“So if I just hook someone up to a machine and adjust a bike to get 150 degrees of  knee extension without taking those other things into consideration, I’m doing them a disservice. I’m all for technology, but one also needs to have the sense and experience to know what to do given all the circumstances.”

enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

My saddle is raised 1.5 centimeters.

Step 3: The Fit Warm-Up
Following my off-the-bike screening, Chad set up my road bike on a CompuTrainer, then hooked it up to the SpinScan. I pedaled at a reasonable but sufficient 180 watts for the next couple of minutes while he watched and rated different aspects of my pre-position. Explained Chad: “Once riders are on the bike, I start to look at what I thought they’d look like based on the pre-screening, and what they actually look like in their current position. I’ll rate different aspects, like seat height, fore-aft saddle position, bar height, knee tracking, SpinScan, and so forth subjectively. And, after a couple minutes, I’ll explain the direction of the fit to try to achieve what the rider is looking for.”

Step 4: The Fit
After the warm-up, the actual fit began. Chad explained what the order of operations would be: He’d start with my shoes and cleats, move on to pedal stroke and pedaling dynamics, then look at saddle fore-aft, next saddle height, and finally bar and stem. During each step, he explained the neutral ranges and, more important, where within those ranges—based on the screening we did before the fit—I should be.

“I like to educate people about the bike position and why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he said. “A fit is a dynamic and multivariable thing. You can really empower someone by educating them about what will happen if you do this or do that, because even with ranges there will be times when something just does not work. So then we take the next step to help alleviate the problem.”

enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

Getting all the important measurements is key.

Somewhat to my surprise, we found a few oddities in my existing riding position. I couldn’t believe my eyes—I think sitting there on the CompuTrainer in the studio made everything seem clearer somehow—but my right foot appeared to be pointing ever so slightly to the right. What’s more, my right knee tracked very close to the frame compared to my left knee. Why had I not noticed these things before? Was it a case of not noticing what you’re so used to seeing?

At any rate, Chad adjusted the cleats so that they were straight, or neutral. Then he moved my cleats 2 millimeters forward, explaining that I was limiting the leverage of my foot by having my cleats too far back. We tested the new set-up and it immediately felt more powerful. “For a given foot size,” Chad said, “people can have different length toe bones or metatarsals. If you position the cleat relative to foot length, you change the balance of leverage and control at the ankle joint. I’m not a proponent of ankling or excessive ankle motion during the pedal stroke, but there should be a certain amount of leverage for a cyclist.”

With the new cleat set-up and my shoes in the neutral position, we moved on to pedal stroke. As mentioned, Chad’s high-tech studio features a large screen that shows real-time rider data taken directly from the CompuTrainer and displayed in a clear visual format. While I was pedaling, the SpinScan showed how much power and torque I was producing at each point of the stroke. According to Chad, SpinScan is good for a “gross generalization of pedaling technique,” and he uses it to see if the rider is in the ballpark regarding activation of the pedaling muscles. “At the end of the day,” he said, “a powerful and comfortable position requires the right activation of the right muscles at certain times. Part of this is fit, part of it is technique. SpinScan is sensitive enough to determine the activation of certain muscles and where in the pedal stroke they start producing power.

enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

We red-taped where my seat post should be for quick and easy visual reference later.

“An ill-fitting bike and poor technique can delay the start of power production during the down stroke. Teaching and guiding an athlete with certain cues and drills while they are seeing the result real time is a great teaching tool. Athletes can take these drills and sensations away to practice outside for a more productive pedal stroke.”

While I was pedaling, Chad had me keep my heel lower and the same angle throughout the pedal stroke, yielding a more solid structure. “Pretend you are balancing a bean bag on the top of your foot while pedaling,” he said. “Most of the pedaling should come from quads and hamstrings, when your foot is coming over the top of the pedal stoke pretend you are rolling a log in the middle of a lake. This one drill does wonders for activating your quadriceps sooner and starting your down stroke sooner.” I was able to do this easily, and it felt more powerful, too.

Chad next asked me to pedal a few revolutions under load, then he grabbed my foot and held it in place at the bottom of the stroke, measuring the angle of bend. One key finding made during my fit was that my legs were not extended enough. “Your flexibility is fine,” Chad told me, “and there is no reason we can’t raise the saddle to activate the hip extensors—namely the hamstrings and glutes. Essentially, we’re adding muscle to your stroke. A muscle needs to be placed in a certain amount of stretch to get the most activation. A rider who is very flexible and limiting themselves with too low a saddle height is not activating the hamstrings enough, and placing too much stress on the quadriceps.”

We moved on to saddle fore-aft position. I learned that the three o’clock pedal position is pretty close to where you hit your peak torque numbers during the down stroke. Chad explained where he wanted me to be relative to neutral (neutral was determined using a plumb bob dropped from my knee). “Fore-aft saddle position has a lot to do with weight distribution on the bike,” he said. “The more experienced and flexible you are on the bike, the farther back you can get. This activates more butt and hamstring muscles, yet not everyone can get there. The tighter you are limits how far back you can go.” That said, we determined that I was pretty good with respect to this position.

enduranceWERX PDF fit data

All my fit data is recorded. No matter what bike I ride, I will always have my exact measurements.

Chad went on to say that this balance of muscle activation is also the cornerstone to comfort. “One big misconception about bike positioning I see very often is raising the bars in an attempt to get more comfortable. Now, in general, someone who has bad back structure, injury, or poor flexibility may need to reduce flexion in the back while riding, but more often than not I see riders limit the use of lower back and butt muscles.

“You have the front of the leg muscles constantly pulling on the pelvis rotating it forward each pedal stroke,” he said. “Without the balance of stretch on the opposing muscles in the low back and butt, the pelvis will be unstable and rely on other muscles to take up the slack. Given this, someone with limited issues and too high a bar, which often leads to neck and shoulder tightness, can get more aggressive and perhaps surprisingly more comfortable, too. It’s all about balance. The trick is finding the balance for each individual.”

We ended up lowering my stem 2 full centimeters, which helped put me into a more aggressive position but at the same time made me feel more comfortable. I felt I still had good control of the bike while gaining a less bunched-up feel in my upper body.

Step 5: Pedaling Advice and Conclusions
I really liked Chad’s pedaling-technique advice. “As you pedal, pretend you’re rolling a barrel in a lake, kicking your leg forward over the top,” he said. “That initiates the quad to start the power phase a bit sooner. It’s more like elliptical pedaling instead of up-down. And for posture, imagine there is a string pulling your chest toward the headset, protracting over the frame. Bend at the hips versus arcing the back.” Finally, as mentioned, to go along with the pedaling technique, Chad said to imagine there was a bean bag sitting on top of my shoes. The goal was to make sure the bags don’t fall off, all the way around the stroke. Doing this helps you keep your ankle more level so that your foot isn’t pointing downward so much.

In sum, the main adjustments we made to my position were to raise the saddle 1.5 centimeters, lower the handlebar 2 centimeters, and move my shoe cleats forward by 2 millimeters. The result is not only a much more aggressive position but also a position that is surprisingly more comfortable. The cleat adjustment allows my feet more leverage on the pedals, and that means more power to the pedals. While I don’t look dramatically different on the bike, I definitely feel the difference, and it is good.

Going forward, Chad said I could explore raising the saddle a little higher even, something I’ll be doing this off season, after cyclocross. His final observation was that my position looked “nice and fluid, with good action in the legs and no overreaching.”

It’s been three months since the fitting. I can say that I’ve benefited from the adjustments made to my position at enduranceWERX, and I now ride more comfortably and powerfully. My legs are more extended, and as a result I get more power as I’m using more muscles with greater efficiency. I’m also more stretched out and flatter up top as a result of the lowered stem, and that’s increased my aerodynamics and, to my surprise, my level of comfort. And I’ve actually incorporated Chad’s pedaling advice into my riding—with the imaginary bean bag and barrel roll happening each pedal stroke. I’ve always had a pretty high cadence relative to other riders my size, and the pedaling advice has combined to increase my efficiency at all speeds. While some of the end measurements may seem easy enough and straightforward, they were not possible without the thorough examination and careful exercises carried out in the studio, all of which helped us arrive at these adjustment decisions.

Daniel McMahon enduranceWERX bike fitting with Chad Butts June 2010

Chad explains pedaling efficiency. Note the lower handlebar height and increased leg extension.

Post-Fit
My fitting took place in June, right about the time I upgraded. I was pretty excited to test out my enhanced position and get some results. Unfortunately, my season since the upgrade has taken an unpredictable turn or two for the worse. After a planned midseason rest of two weeks, I came back to racing feeling fresh and ready to get back the speed in my legs. But in my second race back, at Floyd Bennett Field, I got caught up in a crash that brought down a half-dozen riders. I limped away with a deep laceration to my ankle and lost some skin elsewhere after catching someone’s chainring, and that put me off my feet for over two weeks. Suffice it to say, that month off the bike, and the long time coming back to form, meant it was many weeks till I got back up to racing speed. As soon as that was happening, the road season ended. Well, mine did anyway. I’m already in cyclocross mode.

So now, approaching mid-September, I look forward to my second season of CX, and I’m excited to transfer my road position to the CX bike, which is being shipped to me as I write this. I’ll be raising the stem height a bit, as is common for roadies to do when they turn to cyclocross, but most of the road bike position is coming over as is. I look forward to continued trial and error with my position, too, but I have to say for that the first time ever I feel really sure after my first pro fit. I know why I sit on the bike the way I do now, and I understand, at least on a basic level, why specific aspects of my fit are appropriate for me. I have never been so efficient on the bike, and the aggressive position feels fast.

—DM

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