Are cycling sprinters born or made? Could Mark Cavendish or Sir Chris Hoy have achieved so much renowned world championship success if they were not born with specific physiological benefits? The answer is yes – with specific training programs and focus, sprinters can be made. But no – to get to the levels that Cav and Sir Chris attain, then you do need to be blessed with the physical features that mean you can find that extra sprinting kick, when it really matters.
So how can you make yourself into a good elite cycling sprinter?
The champion cyclist will have the right bias of ‘fast twitch' muscles in his or her legs, to be able to get all their power into a 300m burst. To accelerate hard, build the power and kick hard when it's really close on the finish line, you have to be blessed with this type of muscle composition from birth. But how far can you get without such a genetic gift? If you want to be another Cav or Sir Chris, how can you follow a training plan that gets you into a chance of a winning position in a final sprint?
How can you improve your cycling sprinting, regardless of your allotted quantity of fast-twitch muscle fibres?
The process is really all about simulating the pain of that final effort, making your legs take the pain off sheer intensive effort. And to be ready for it even after 3-4 hours of racing. It starts in the gym and concludes in your mind. But most of the development of your sprint training speed comes from the road.
1. Gym work needs to build your strength throughout your body – but it should not be overdone. Twice per week during the winter, once per week during the spring as you step up your foundation miles and perhaps a very light session each week, during the summer racing season. Your winter sessions can use heavier weights for bench presses and squats – using the apparatus and equipment under careful qualified direction until you have a safely improving program.
But as the season approaches and then once you start racing, you must just keep the weight low and rely on longer and more frequent repetitions, combined with lots of stretching. And each night at home you can try to do the skier's exercise of sitting against a wall. Try to increase your count of seconds doing this each time. And take the last 20 seconds to lift the balls of your feet up and down.
2. Whether you want elite cycling fitness for road or track, road training is where you make all the big leaps forward in your sprinting power. You need the foundation of at least 150km per week of winter training on high cadence. Then you use intervals to build your strength through High Intensity Interval Training. 30-40 minutes of road intervals on a quiet circuit, sprinting for trees or accelerating out of corners.
Then make the final 5-600 metres absolutely full power in two spurts of total effort, probably in the gear that you would sprint in on the flat- 53×13 for an elite rider.
3. Racing to win road sprints is all about conserving your energy for the sprints that count. In an elite road race you may be called on to make 5-6 key efforts to close gaps or join a break. Then 3-4 efforts as the attacks ensue all around you in the final kilometers. The more you wait for others to close gaps, then the more points of energy you have in the tank for the final 500m of two big efforts. One to get to the front and one to put everything into the last 200m.
Only you can judge just when to wait, if an attack goes. But once you decide to close a gap unaided, treat that like a sprint. If the riders in the breakaway group are any good they will be attacking at say 45kph. So it's in the maths. If you want to close a 30 second gap you have to sprint at an average of 55kph for at least 2 minutes. This also means surprising the bunch to escape with an intense sprint attack of about 65 kph for 20 seconds on full power.
4. So think of racing as a series of sprints. And think of sprinting as your route to sheer self-belief and the elation of victory. Your mental strength is absolutely critical. It starts with your foundation training and your commitment to condition your legs to take sheer pain of intensive effort – until you almost enjoy it!
Then your confidence at the business end of a race to be able to judge where to position yourself in the front ten riders. Who to follow and who to get ahead of. The better you get, the more instinctive this becomes – and the more the other riders will be maneuvering to follow you!