Sunday, January 22, 2012

Five Tips for Bunch Sprints


This post provides some pointers, along with a recent case study, on how to win a cycling bunch sprint.  If you’re not a cyclist, this essay may not be for you—though you might try reading it as an allegory.  Sport is good for that.

If you’re talented sprinter, perhaps this post isn’t for you either—though really, there’s always somebody faster than you  so you might find this useful anyway.  Primarily, this post is for slow-twitch types like me, who need to do everything right if they’re to have a chance.

If you’re looking for credentials, no, I was never a top sprinter, but back in college I helped my teammates pick up a fair bit of glory, and I had a few good criteriums myself.  Here's the UCSB team on a prime lap at the collegiate national championship criterium, executing a perfect leadout:  Dave has just swung off, leaving Trevor free to go for the line, while I create a gap behind them.
Here’s how this post came about.  The last time I did a bunch sprint was the last Saturday of this past November, which was the last group ride I did.   The next day, I crashed hard and broke my femur.  Now, I can barely pedal my bike on my trainer because my leg is so stiff and weak.  The thought of one day sprinting like that again is a huge source of motivation for me.  And maybe by writing about it I can add to my gumption reserves for the long road of physical therapy still ahead.)

Tip #1 – It helps to be underestimated

Being underestimated should be pretty easy for most of us.  When you’re not the man (or woman) to beat, it’s of course easier to seize the element of surprise, which can be really helpful in a sprint.  Your opponents are surprised that you, a lousy sprinter, would even try.  But it doesn’t end there:  they’re likely to ignore you all the way up until the finish line.  Most of the time they’re right to do this, because you fade and lose out—but it’s the odd exception you’re shooting for.

What do you do when it’s the same guys you ride with or race against year after year?  Well, even if they have a good measure of your general ability, whenever you find yourself in particularly good form you can surprise them with it.  For me, my sprinting is the best during the dead of winter.  That’s when I do a lot of riding on the stationary trainer, which seems to be good for my power.  Plus, since all I do on the road is climbing workouts, my sprint gets slower the fitter I get.

The desire to be underestimated is surely behind the age-old tendency of cyclists to begin a ride by talking about how lousy they feel, how totally out of shape they are, and how little they’ve been riding.  When I hear such talk, I automatically translate it as “I’m going to attempt to crush you today and I hope I catch you off guard.”

So, on my last ride with the club, I made sure to mention here and there that I’d been sick all month and had only ridden outdoors three times.  I didn’t emphasize the workouts I’d done on the indoor trainer.  I wanted to be completely written off when it came time for the Walking Man sprint.

(What, you haven’t heard of the famous Walking Man sprint?  Well, let me describe it.  I’ve been riding in the East Bay for over twenty years, and on every group ride I’ve done—whether with the Cal cycling team, the Berkeley Bike Club, or with the East Bay Velo Club, which I’m on now—there’s been a sprint at a certain pedestrian crossing near Moraga.  The pedestrian crossing sign gives the sprint its name.  For a rider’s-eye-view video, click here and start watching about 10 minutes in.)

Of course not everybody seeks to be underestimated.  Some riders engage in trash-talk, which we naturally assume is designed to psych out their competition.  But this isn’t necessarily the motive; myself, I may talk smack simply to make losing more fun.  Ages ago, I was visiting my hometown of Boulder and did a ride with a friend and a bunch of his riding buddies.  I’d raced against one of these guys at the collegiate national championships a year or two before, and in the spirit of inter-school rivalry I told him beforehand, “I’m going to show you the meaning of suffering.”  As it turned out, he completely tooled me on the ride.  When I saw him that evening he jeered, “I thought you were going to show me the meaning of suffering.”  I replied, “Well yeah, I was gonna show you what it looks like, but you weren’t around to see it.”

Tip #2 – Always give it a try

Obviously you can’t win a bunch sprint if you don’t try, but I’m often surprised at how few people in my group really give it a go.  (They’re not unique; throughout my cycling days I’ve observed a great number of riders who never contested a sprint.)  I always try to win Walking Man, and though I’m never surprised when I lose, I’m perplexed that I seem to get beaten by the same guys every time, when I know there are other guys who could be beating me, too.

One reason a lot of dudes don’t try to win bunch sprints is that they don’t fancy themselves sprinters, and so don’t bother.  I can understand this specialization at the pro level, but really—on a club ride?  In this context, thinking you need some special talent to even make an effort strikes me as a copout.  (Dostoevsky would say this is the kind of self-deception that denies you your humanity, making you into a piano key or an organ stop.)

Even at the pro level, many riders manage to excel in multiple disciplines.  Consider Laurent Jalabert, the French champion who twice won the coveted Tour de France green jersey, given to the fastest sprinter.  After a bad crash in a bunch sprint and some nagging from his wife, he changed his ambitions and became a great all-around rider and even a strong climber, twice winning the polka-dot jersey of best climber in the Tour.  His ability to span two specialties, at the highest level in the sport, ought to inspire us club-racer-types to define our abilities less narrowly.

Still not interested in making your mark in the sprints?  Okay, consider this joke.  A giant new bull arrives at a feed lot.  The reigning bull, though he acknowledges the superiority of the newcomer, decides he’s not going to just hand over his entire harem of cows.  So he makes a big show of clawing the ground and snorting and looking fierce.  The giant new bull observes this and says, “Give me half your cows.”  He gets his way.  Then the interloper looks at the second-largest bull who also snorts and claws the ground.  The newcomer gets three-quarters of these cows.  Meanwhile, the second-smallest bull sees the very smallest bull—a pathetic runty little thing—clawing the earth and snorting, and laughs.  “Do you really think you’re going to hang on to a single one of your cows?” he asks.  The smallest bull says, “No, I just want to make sure he knows I’m a bull!”

A final thought for the slow-twitch types:  the more you lose at bunch sprints, the more likely your riding pals are to underestimate you next time around.  (See tip #1 above.)

Tip #3 – Have a plan

In this post I won’t go into the tactics of a group sprint, as I’ve already described that in detail elsewhere (click here; hit Control-F and search on “Our team’s strategy was simple”).  Tactics always play a huge role in a bunch sprint, and my favorite thing about bike racing is how complicated it is—that is, how much opportunity exists for those who are cunning, rather than merely strong.  As a little kid I hated swim team because I was slow and there was nothing I could do about it.  Michael Phelps is a phenomenal swimmer, but I don’t think anybody has called him a master tactician (though he has been called the king of bongs).

The approach to the Walking Man sprint is long, and every time I ride it with the club, I create a detailed script, in my head, of how the sprint is going to play out.  This script incorporates who is on the ride, who seems frisky, etc.  How accurate such a script ends up being has to do with your level of experience (along with luck, the number of riders involved, and countless other factors).  Will the script end up being wrong?  Probably.  But so what?  If things unfold completely differently from how you expected, well, fine—after all, how else are you going to learn?

My script for that last Walking Man was this:  I won’t lead it out; somebody else will, and it won’t be Lucas or Rob.  (These two are the fastest sprinters on our club.  I’d beaten Lucas once or twice when all the planets lined up, but I’d never beaten Rob.)   I’ll stick to the lead-out guy’s wheel like glue and when Lucas or Rob gets impatient and jumps, I’ll get his wheel if it’s available, which it may well be because the other one of them may let me in, to enjoy the superior draft he’ll get being two guys back.  Of course he’ll naturally assume he can come right by me when he’s ready.  I’ll hope that he waits too long, and that the first guy will falter.  Not much of a chance but it just might work.

It may seem silly to work up such a script, knowing that it probably won’t pan out.  So why do it?  Well, it helps you take initiative.  If you don’t have a script, it’s awfully easy to end up watching the action unfold ahead of you until it’s too late to take a part in it.  Sure, you can simply wait and watch and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, but how quickly can you react if you haven’t sized up your competitors ahead of time and tried to figure out what the group dynamic will be?

Tip #4 – Be flexible

If you’ve ever watched the seeming chaos of a bunch sprint in a big professional race, you might well ask if any plan could ever be expected to work.  (One seasoned veteran of cycling, Steve Tilford, questions whether lead-outs actually work at all.)  In the small ponds of my experience, though, teamwork and other tactical ploys work very well.  Still, a bunch sprint—even just on a smallish group ride—has a lot of moving parts, so whatever your plan is, it’s important to be able to improvise. 

For Mark Cavendish, certainly the best sprinter in the world right now, the seeming effectiveness of his lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, has seemed almost too much of a good thing over the last couple of years.  Some questioned how much of Cavendish’s success was really owed to Renshaw, who routinely brought his man right to the front within easy striking distance of the finish line.  That said, several times last year everything broke down but Cavendish figured out another wheel, another ploy, another scramble to the finish line and won anyway—thus showcasing the full scope of his amazing talent and ability. 

Coming right back down to Earth, my last Walking Man sprint certainly didn’t start out how I’d hoped.  At about 300 meters from the finish, when I’d intended to be tucked in behind some guy going all-out, instead I found myself on the front, not going very fast.  I slowed down so somebody would come by, but nobody did—instead the whole group slowed down too.  It seemed as though the others were waiting for me to drag them toward the line.  If this was their tactic, it was a good one—I almost took the bait, because my acceleration is terrible and I prefer a high-speed run-up.  But I knew if I led out the sprint I was sure to lose.

So I waited, as our group crawled along.  Finally some dude I’d never seen before decided to take up the effort.  He looked kind of old, but he was in a Morgan-Stanley kit and they’re a good team, so I got in behind him.  He brought our speed up nice and high, and the next thing I knew Rob came flying by me.

Was Rob’s jump hard enough to leave a gap behind him?  Yes—either that, or Lucas, the next closest rider, was looking to get my wheel and overhaul me (which he’d particularly relish since I’d trash-talked him a bit earlier in the ride).  Rob’s sprint was as good as ever and in no time we were within striking distance of the finish line (i.e., the crosswalk).  I started to come around Rob, pleasantly surprised that Lucas had yet to come by me, and as I came up on Rob, I could tell he was judging my speed to see how hard he had to go.  He probably assumed the victory was in the bag and he wasn’t going to strain himself if he didn’t have to.  He must have judged that I was already flat-out, but I had one last dig left and I dug.  I pulled level with him and only then did he realize he could lose.  As I pulled slightly ahead he dug a bit himself, but I somehow managed to hold him off.  I took the sprint, beating Rob for the first time in my life!

Tip #5 – Maintain your perspective

It’s pretty fun to win a sprint, even just against the guys.  For me, it was a great feeling for the very reason that I almost always lose.  But it would have been a mistake to assume that Rob even cared—I mean, how many times has he won this little sprint?  As for the other guys, aside from Lucas they probably didn’t even see how the sprint ended.  Once they’d known they weren’t in contention, they probably sat up and picked back up the conversations they’d put on hold a kilometer before.

Of course it’s tempting to mention my little victory to them, but frankly, it’s better that the guys don’t know.  After all, I’m counting on them to underestimate me next time.
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