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by Matt de Neef
October 11, 2019
Photography by Cor Vos and the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science In Sports
Caleb Ewan’s sprint position has become something of a fascination in recent years. Here at CyclingTips we’ve written a handful of articles on the subject, largely because there’s been a bunch of research showing how effective the position is.
In the past year, no fewer than three independent studies, from different researchers, using different methods, have shown that a super-low sprint position is more aerodynamically efficient than a regular sprint position. The biggest question that remained from all of those papers was this: is it possible to produce the same power in the low sprint position as you would in a regular sprint position? Because all the aero gains in the world won’t count for anything if your power is significantly reduced.
No research has been able to answer that question. Until now.
Paul Merkes is a Dutch researcher who’s completing his PhD at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. He was the lead author on one of the three aerodynamics studies mentioned above — he and his team used field tests to confirm the aero benefits (and subsequent speed gains) of what he calls the “forward standing position”.
In his latest paper, published late September in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science In Sports, Merkes and his collaborators found that “Sprinting in the forward standing sprint position does not impair power output, cadence, and torque when compared with the seated and standing sprint positions.” That’s an exciting discovery.
The three positions tested by Merkes and co. Seated (A), standing (B) and “forward standing” (C).
As you can see above, Merkes and co tested three sprint positions in this latest study: in the saddle, out of the saddle (the most commonly employed sprint position), and the “forward standing position”, used by Ewan in competition since January 2016.
The researchers took 11 recreational male road cyclists into the lab and put them to the test over four sessions. In the first session the riders did a seated incremental test (to establish a range of physiological parameters) and then spent some time getting familiar with the three sprint positions. They were then sent home and told to practise all three sprint positions on subsequent training rides.
The three remaining lab sessions were each dedicated to one of the three sprint positions, with two sprints per session. Each session proceeded as follows:
– A 10-minute warm-up at 50% of the rider’s power at VO2max (PPO)
– Three minutes of rest (at 30% of PPO)
– A full-gas, 14-second sprint in the position being considered
– 10 minutes of “incremental high-intensity” cycling (from 50% to 90% of PPO) to simulate the build-up to a bunch sprint on the road
– Another all-out, 14-second sprint.
Looking at the data from the sessions, the researchers found that participants produced a higher peak and average power in a standing position compared to when seated. No great surprise there — many other studies have found this and indeed anyone who’s been riding for a while knows they can generate more power if they stand up.
The researchers also showed that it’s not just smaller riders (e.g. Ewan, Mark Cavendish and Jakub Mareczko) that are able to utilise the forward standing position — the participants in Merkes’ study were up to 183cm (6″) tall and all were able to get low and forward.
But as noted above, the most significant finding from this study was that “peak and mean power output in the forward standing position was not significantly different from either the seated or standing position.”
That is, when it comes to power production, there’s no detriment to getting low over the handlebars while sprinting.
The forward standing position as seen in the lab.
Interestingly, the researchers went into the study with the hypothesis that the forward standing position might produce more power than is possible while seated. That makes sense — as discussed, it’s well established that sprinting from the regular standing position generates more power than sitting down. So why doesn’t the forward standing position generate a similar advantage?
To quote from the Merkes paper: “The low and further forward position could have limited the transfer of power across the hip (a reason why more power output is produced in the standing position when compared with the seated position) and increased muscle activation in the upper body due to the shift of weight further forward and therefore lowered power output.”
They also suggest that inexperience might have been a factor. While the study participants had some time to practise the forward standing position, that preparation might not have been enough for them to get the most out of the position. After all, it took Caleb Ewan over a year of practice before he was confident using the position in races.
The researchers also found that torque production varied from position to position, and according to the crank angle. A crank angle of 0° refers to a vertical crank pointed straight up.
The aero benefits of a low sprint position were already enough to make it worth trying. The fact that it doesn’t inhibit power production seems to make this a no-brainer for riders looking to get more from their sprint.
Of course, if you are going to try this position out, please don’t try it for the first time in your local club crit. Practise first (away from traffic), take your time getting familiar with the position, and build your confidence and bike handling skills. And if you do end up using it in races, do as Caleb Ewan does — wait until you’re clear of the chaos of the bunch before dropping down.
“[I use the position] more so when I try to maintain my sprint when I’m already out in front,” Ewan told CyclingTips back in 2016. “If you get a knock while in that position it’ll end pretty badly. When I’m around other riders and close to them I’ll still be low, but not that low.”
If those precautions are good enough for one of the world’s best, they’re good enough for all of us.