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People who know me will think that this is some kind of a joke that I’m giving tips on sprinting. Hincapie has a better chance at winning Paris-Roubaix than I do at winning a mass sprint. However, I think that my pathetic sprint makes me even more qualified to be giving sprinting tips. Why? Just like Big George on his way to Roubaix, I’ve mucked up more sprint finishes than you can count on fingers and toes. I’m constantly seeking advice on how to better my sprint and I’ve made lots of mistakes that I try to correct. Nobody has spent more time thinking about this than me. Many natural sprinters keep their cards close to their chest on the secrets and tricks of the trade. Damn them. But…I’ve been keeping notes.
The following are a few common mistakes that many riders make in a sprint finish:
1. Shifting into the 53-11T (or some gear far too big) right away. This is a mistake on two counts: 1) the loud “ching ching ching” alerts the rest of the bunch that the sprint is starting and you’ll cause a mass reaction. The element of surprise is gone. 2) you won’t be able to get the jump / acceleration required to create a gap so that others can’t get on your wheel and follow if you’re in too big of a gear.
Instead, figure out what gear is best for you to accelerate quickly but not spin out too fast. It’s okay to shift one or two gears while you’re in the middle of the sprint to keep accelerating until the finish line (see explanation below). Since all terrain and weather conditions are different, if it’s multiple lap course (such as a crit course) it’s a good idea to do a mock sprint in one of the early laps to see what is the best gear to be in. This will help you work out the ideal gear with the wind and gradiant of the road in mind.
To the point above, this power graph shows one shift in the middle of a sprint (the slight dip in the yellow line at the 82.2 point on the x-axis). You can see that the power is decreasing (yellow line) after the shift because the acceleration is leveling off, but after the shift the speed is still increasing (blue line). Just remember not to overdo it. Every shift is is a split second where you lose some acceleration. Many good sprinters I talk to will shift once or twice in a sprint finish (depending on the speed coming into their sprint).
2. Starting your sprint far too early. Take note of the wind direction, final corner, and road gradient when you think about when you’re going to start your sprint. In a tailwind, it’s often possible to start your sprint from up to 350m before the finish line. If it’s a headwind, you’ll want to follow a wheel until the final 50-100m and then come off someone’s wheel to start your sprint.
3. Being too far back in the pack when the sprint starts. If the pack is strung out single-file and you’re back more than 10 places in the final 200m, there’s no way you’re gonna get past all the other riders before the finish. You’ll have to be going quite few km/hr faster than the rest of them to get around before the finish. Unlikely to happen unless you’re McEwen or Cavendish.
Many criterium courses have a final corner just before the final 200m and you often need to be in the top 5 around that corner to stand a chance at winning the sprint.
Road races are sometimes more difficult to figure out. Since you don’t usually do the same road race circuit week after week like you would a criterium circuit, you won’t be as familiar with the twists and turns in the final kilometer. This is why you need to scout out the finishing meters of the course before you start the race. What I like to do is ride from the finish line backwards and count with my odometer where the 200m mark is. I’ll then look for a landmark like a street sign so I can see it from far away to know when to start preparing and when to start my sprint. Sometimes the 1km, 500m, and 200m signs put up by the race organizers aren’t very visible.
Why look for the 200m point? Well, 200m is the place where riders usually start their sprint because not many people can hold a full throttle sprint for longer than 200m. Get used to what a 200m distance looks like. It’s a lot further than you might think.
4. Being at the very front of the pack too far before the finish line. If you constantly find yourself pulling the rest of the pack at 60km/hr at 500m to go you’re probably a better lead-out man than a sprinter. Instead, try catching on to one of those swarms that often come up along side the peloton in the last 500-1000m of the race. The lead-out train is an effective team tactic against these swarms because their job is to keep the pace of the peloton so high that their sprinter does not lose his position because of others overtaking. The speed will be so high that no one will be able to gain any positions in the final few hundred meters or kilometer of the race as the peloton will be completely strung out.
5. Coming underneath on the final corner. This is a bit of an etiquette argument. What “coming underneath” means is that you enter and pass everyone on the inside on final corner of the course just before the sprint. This is a mistake on two counts: 1) you could get cut off very easily by the rest of the group apexing the corner and you won’t get through. Your sprint will be over before it’s begun. 2) if you do manage to get through the inside of the corner while everyone else corners wide, you’ll probably have a few riders say a few passionate words to you at the end of the race. “Coming underneath” will disrupt the fast moving line of the rest of the pack since you will probably swing wide through the corner. Hard to explain, but hopefully you get the picture. Do it once and let the guys you just “chopped” explain it for you.
6. Boxing yourself in. What this means is that you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the pack or beside the barriers just before or during the sprint starts while swarms of riders are coming along side of you. You’ll have nowhere to go and you won’t be able to start your sprint. Always try to leave yourself somewhere to manoeuvre so you can pass other riders in your sprint.
7. Dropping the wheel. If you find yourself in a top 10 position coming into the final meters before the sprint starts and you let as much as a handlebar width between your front tire and the back tire of who you’re following, someone will steal that wheel from you before you know it. Stay on that wheel, keep your position and don’t let anyone bully you off of it!
The exception to this rule is the old sprinter’s trick: drop the wheel.
The higher level of racing you get up to, the more aggressive and crazy the final meters of the sprint will be. If you’re not capable and confident enough to be up there, then don’t even try to participate in a mass sprint finish. Watch, learn, and slowly gain experience until you start getting the hang of it.