This post is for the recreational cyclist, the average Joe or Jane with a day job who simply likes to ride a bike fast…
Do you see everyone jostling for position coming into the last two miles of the club ride just to watch them hammer by you to sprint for the finish? Would you like to finish first? Read on because I’ve got a fool-proof way to help you make it so.
First, the final sprint requires different training than what’s required to hang on for the first 30 or 40 miles. Let’s work backward from the finish for a second… The final sprint requires a lot of strategy leading up to picking the right time to roll out, sustaining the speed generated by your initial move and holding or building on that to the finish. I’ve written before about how I train to climb better and faster than the people I normally ride with and it’s pretty simple… Most people look at hills as a time to slow down and slog it out to the top. When I was running, the guys who brought me along and showed me the ropes taught me to attack the hills – to maintain my normal pace up the hills and let gravity help me to sustain that pace and rest at the same time on the way down. I simply took that same concept and applied it to cycling. Two or three days a week, on my harder training rides, I attack the hills on the way up and use gravity to maintain that speed (or even increase it) while resting on the way down. Now, you may be wondering how this can possibly help with a sprint finish on flat ground and the answer is pretty simple: Sprinting is all about mad, intense, raw power and acceleration over a short period of time. By attacking the hills on training rides and maintaining or increasing your speed up hills you’re actually practicing your sprint every time you ride up a hill – you’re developing the muscles needed to smoke the others and the ability to use them whenever you want. You’re also developing the respiratory system, training it to sprint – and if you’re lucky, you’re doing it a few times every training ride with increased resistance. Over time, sprinting becomes less of a challenge.
Next up is the strategy. Depending on how big the group is, ours is usually between 3 and 8 cyclists, you have to time your final pulls up front right so you’ve got time to recover before the big push. I like to spend at least two to three minutes at the back which is just enough time to start getting antsy to roll out… I think of it like being a Black Lab on a family trip to the family cottage on the lake. If you don’t know what this is like, a Lab that’s about to hit the water will smell the house, even in the car, about two miles before you ever see the driveway. He/She will start getting antsy, start roiling about the back of the vehicle, sniffing… He/She will become animated. That’s where you want to be two miles from the finish – at the front, pulling and just about ready to drop back to recover. Between 2 miles to go you want to drop back – if it’s a small group, 3-5 cyclists, head all the way to the back to take advantage of as much draft as you can. With a larger group, 10-20 or more, you’ll have to be careful with how far back you choose to drop – too far back and it’ll be too much ground to make up.
With a mile to go you should be back to square again with your breathing and you should feel recharged. Now is the time to get fired up. Do your best to start breathing deeply, from your diaphragm – you want all of the good air in that you can get and you want to exhale fully too (to get rid of all of the bad). With a half-mile to go you should be just about ready to pedal out of your shoes. Going back to that Black Lab, you’ve arrived at the cottage and let the dog out of the car… You want to feel like the group is going to slow, that you’re on a leash and they’re holding you back from a long-awaited dip in the lake… With a quarter-mile to go you should be about fit to be tied if you can’t let loose soon. An 1/8th of a mile is where you make your move. A quick glance over your shoulder to make sure you’re clear, up shift once or twice and go. At this point it’s all elementary. You either have it or you don’t – you’ve only got about 15-20 seconds left so give it everything you’ve got.
This is where all of that hill work pays off. See, because you’ve been sprinting up hill, not just interval training, you’ve developed some incredible power. You won’t be able to sustain it for very long but all of those other people who struggle up hills won’t be able to match you. Well, you might get smoked from time to time by someone who’s tired of you beating them, but that’s racing, baby.
Cycling is a funny sport. Anyone can learn to ride a bike and become a cyclist. Anyone.
However, not everyone can be fast. Cycling with any kind of speed hurts. It hurts the lungs and muscles a lot and there is only one trick that makes a big difference between an 18 and a 22 mph average. Sure, the bike matters, the wheels and hubs, shoes and melon protector – they all make a little bit if a difference. None of those are a game changer. Nope, top of the line everything will maybe add a mile an hour over mid-range equipment, maybe two over entry-level stuff. Bike fit though, that’s big. Don’t take my word for it, have a look:
To set this up, Tuesday is my big evening ride, my hardest effort of the week and the one ride a week I always reserve my best effort for… I’ve never taken it easy on a Tuesday night so what you’re about to see, the two ride overviews, are equal efforts.
This one is from last night:
Not bad of I do say so myself (and I do). That was a personal best for me by a full half mile an hour average. Now this is on open roads so we have to slow down and stop for traffic signs. 5 of the first 20 miles were slower than 22 mph and 5 were faster than 24 mph – two of those 5 were north of 26. After that first 20, a group of three of us broke off and tried to wait for a couple on a tandem to catch up so we took it easy for a mile or two before letting them ride it back at their own pace. After that we picked up the pace and kept it between 20 and 24 mph for the last ten. It was a good ride.
Here’s last week’s effort where I worked just as hard:
That’s, in case you missed it, a difference of four miles per hour – and I was able to sprint off the front at 28 mph in the last half-mile last night. A sprint finish was all but impossible last week. Now, I went into both rides just as rested, I was well fed and ready to go in both instances. There was, however, one significant difference between the two rides: Group size. Last week’s group was five to seven cyclists. Last night’s group was much larger, probably 30 cyclists strong before we broke into a smaller group at mile 20… That said, I struggled just a week before that with a larger group at an easier pace (I didn’t track that ride) and I had a tough time later that week on a weekend 60 mile training ride that ended with an 18.6 mph average and it felt like 21. Add to that my bonk at the Assenmacher 100 where the pace was slower and the group was bigger and the before and after correlation is undeniable… I was struggling because my saddle, after switching to an older model of the exact same saddle, was off.
Seven millimeters is all that we’re talking about. Just seven millimeters too far forward was the difference between kicking ass and getting spit off the back. If you don’t know how much that is, take your thumb and forefinger and do the “missed it by that much” thing… That’s about seven millimeters, or in other words, not much. Thus the importance of getting a bike fit. I’ve had three of mine fitted and I’ve demonstrated how much it matters. Just a simple rush job switching out a saddle had me scratching my head, wondering what went wrong. What makes this really troubling is that I actually know what I’m doing (or not, depending on how you want to spin it). I’ve got tens of thousands of miles in on expertly fitted bikes and I still couldn’t manage to get mine right by eyeballing it and then adjusting it by “feel”. There are tricks to getting the setup right, which is how I found, and eventually corrected, my error, but I probably wouldn’t have gotten there without having gone through the process with a pro, first for a couple of reasons:
1) When we’re kids, we pretty much set the saddle where we think it feels good and leave it there. Why would that be any different now that I’m older?
2) How can an inch here or there possibly matter? It’s just a bike!
These two thoughts are engrained in us from our first bike. There are dozens of reasons for this and to examine them all would be time consuming for no good reason, simply because when you’re talking about real cycling, riding a bike for a workout, race or simply to be fast, setup is everything. Without the proper setup to the bike, to fit the cyclist, speed is restricted exponentially. The two photos above show this beyond a shadow of a doubt.
For those who don’t know, there are a couple of simple ways to get your bike close on your own. First we adjust the saddle height: Place your heels directly over the pedal spindles and pedal backwards (either support yourself in a doorway or, ideally, do this with your bike hooked up to a trainer or have a friend hold the bike upright). Your legs should just barely, without rocking your hips, end up perfectly straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If you do this correctly, when your leg straightens there will be a slight pause in the ability to pedal. Remember, you cannot rock your hips to do this. If your hips rock or you cannot keep your heel on the pedal, the saddle is too high. If your legs don’t straighten, it’s too low. Now, many people have a longer leg – one is longer than the other… You set the saddle to the shorter leg or get your cleat shimmed and set it to the longer (this latter method is preferable). Next comes the fore and aft positioning. Either in a door way, with a friend holding you up or on a trainer, get your butt on the proper part of the saddle (where you normally ride comfortably). Then, pedal backwards until your pedals are parallel to the ground… Take a 4′ level and place one edge against the outside of your knee and the other against the extended crank arm. That should be perfectly plumb… If not, adjust the saddle forward or back until it is. Another way is to use a plumb bob. For that, you have a small protruding bone directly under your knee cap – the string goes there and you let the bob dangle over the pedal… It should point directly to the center of the pedal spindle. Again, adjust forward or back until it does. Then, once that’s set, recheck your saddle height… If you moved the saddle forward you’ll have to raise the saddle a bit. If you moved it back, you’ll have to lower it.
Bob’s your uncle (that means you’re done).
That’s not the end of the story though. After that there’s reach. Specifically how far you have to reach to grab the handlebar on the hoods (brake levers for a road bike or grips for a mountain bike but the rest is a little above my pay grade.
Ride safe – and comfortably, get a fitting done, it’s worth it.