By Matt McNamara
McEwen, Freire, Cavensdish, Hushovd, Hunter. Sprinters are different, so the adage goes. They have rock star lives, podium girl fans and that lead out train! Who can forget the Lion King’s ubiquitous Zebra Train, Petacchi’s Fassa Bortolo Express, or even Davis Phinney and the Coors Light armada back in the day? These disciplined and professional groups executed wonderfully, putting their rider in position to win time and again. It seems almost too easy. Sit at the back of a big group of teammates, ride the draft and jump to the glory, right?
The race pattern and strategy are actually much more complex. Setting up the train is one of the most difficult things for a team to pull off correctly. It requires a huge level of trust in each other and also communication, because the entire peloton’s safety is in your hands. It also demands supreme bike handling skills from each rider, because other teams are also driving their trains and everything’s being conducted at warp speed through often narrow and twisting roads.
So, what can your team do?
The first thing you can do is learn to ride your bike! That may sound clichй, but it’s the plain truth. The front of the peloton is rife with danger at the end of a race. From the guy who runs up the inside looking for an advantage into the corner, to the guy who changes his line, and yours, half way through for no discernible reason; there are plenty of hazards to avoid so you have to know how to handle your bike.
Of course, keeping your body relaxed will help, but you should also practice emergency management – if you have never bumped someone at speed, or had to avoid an errant wheel crossing your line, will you really know how to handle it in a race situation? Comfort in tight quarters only comes about with practice and the development of some skills.
Think of the half circle running from bar-end to bar-end around the front wheel as your own little safety bubble – be cognizant of anything or anyone that enters that bubble. Learn to anticipate what will happen by watching 3-5, or more, riders in front of you. Set your body position to an “athletic” stance – elbows out to absorb impacts, hips and knees supple and reactive to quick line changes, shoulders firm, head level. Develop your peripheral vision and a ‘sixth sense’ for what’s going on around you.
Practice a variety of cornering drills – changing lines, off balance cornering, hops and micro-adjustments to your corner angle. Think outside the box as well; much can be learned from practicing bad technique too – enter the corner too hot, grab too much brake, or just see how different body positions affect your control. Be safe, and of course, bad technique should only be part of a training ride!
Let’s look at this from two common scenarios – 4 or more riders in the train, and 3 or less. With less than four riders you have limited options, but no less opportunity. It’s more a series of individual opportunities than a massive train that dominates the entire sprint. For each member of the team, the most important thing late in a race is the ability to continually protect and advance your position while everyone else is doing the same. Having a strong set up guy, or two, can help with this immensely. Even just seeing a friendly wheel for a few meters can make the difference.
Rather than trying to get together a few kilometers out, smaller teams should simply plan to be “at the front” with 5 or 7 laps to go. Then it’s a game of position. Smart teams will put a rider on each side of the group and one in the middle to help cover late surges and maintain position at the front to help one another. It cannot be stressed enough that defending your position at the front is a constant effort. Don’t expect to lay down one big effort, slide into the draft a few places back and start visualizing your two-armed salute.
You want that top five slot? So do I. So does everyone else, and they’ve probably got enough energy to make a few runs at it in the last couple of laps. This is where instinct and awareness take over. If you sense a surge, accelerate to cover. Don’t get boxed in on an inside line if it doesn’t open up in the next corner or two. Don’t be afraid to give up positions to get yourself out of a problem. Watch other riders. There is probably a “fast finisher” or two in your field – where are they? What are they doing? Can you follow them?
One good way to organize your riders is by duration of pull. Start getting together with 5 or 6 kilometers to go minimum, because it takes awhile to get everyone sorted out. Once together put the biggest diesels in the wind, get to the front, and start ramping the pace up until they are maxed out! Typically, that means they can pull up to and over 30mph for at least a minute or two (the more riders, the shorter the initial pulls can be, the longer the lead out and the higher the speed). The goal is to keep the pace high enough that no one can scoot off the front. If the train starts far enough out you should get a couple of rotations out of these riders.
Your next phalanx are the single pull, high speed guys that can push the pace up a bit to further keep the wolves at bay. Figure each of these guys is good for between 200 – 400 meters, but don’t leave it to chance – practice and KNOW how far each guy can pull at their maximum sustainable velocity.
Finally you get to your main support rider, your Giovani Lombardi or Ron Kiefel; the guy who will turn themselves inside out to get you to the front, and keep you there. Ideally this rider is a pretty good sprinter in their own right, has excellent bike handling skills and great vision. They must be able to shepherd you to the front smoothly. They have to know how to get YOU into position – it’s a selfless job. Too often I’ve seen a leadout rider simply ride a sprinter off his wheel by shooting a gap only wide enough for one, or taking an overly aggressive line into a corner. A note to all you set up guys – you gotta be smooth, fast and safe! If there is a doubt, put yourself in the wind to advance your sprinter. If your rider can’t follow you they aren’t going win.
Practice Team Drills
So you have some speed, some handling skills, and even better, some guys to help you use them! The first step in the creation of a win is to practice. Good teams become great teams through practice. This means more than just lining up and railing it to some imaginary line. Here are a couple of drills that you can try:
If you race bikes you paceline. A group or riders working together seamlessly at the front of a hard charging peloton is exquisite to behold. In a race your paceline should always have a purpose. As you and your team line out to practice your run in there should be a purpose to each effort as well. Getting a baseline for the pulls, how fast and how long, is the first priority. Riding in tight formation the second.
Once these are down solid it’s time to step up the tactical elements. Practice a soft echelon into corners to take up more space and cut down on passing lanes. Send two riders off the front to lengthen the sprint. Typically ‘spent’ riders exit to the outside of the course, instead have the lead rider drop to the inside of the corner to try and add another rotation or take away an inside line. This IS NOT to be an aggressive shut down, they still have to keep their speed up (see below).
Some teams will use a ‘sweeper’ to help keep the sprinters wheel free of unwanted leeches – those riders looking for a free ride. The sweeper’s job is actually quite fun because they get to stave off the competition, and for extra support and kicks, the good ones can create a substantial advantage for their sprinters by trailing off through that last corner. I say this with an obvious caveat – don’t impede the path and progress of the rest of the racers! It is unprofessional and dangerous.
The idea of ‘blocking’ is taken to extremes all too often when people hit the brakes, swerve, or otherwise pull those bone head moves that have come to define lower category racing. Don’t be bonehead! Trailing off in the final corner is as simple as letting a small gap open and softening your pedal stroke a little. We are generally talking about an advantage of Ѕ a bike or less, so it doesn’t take much to tip the scales in your favor.
The Form Up
Getting your riders together can be surprisingly difficult in a race. Some may be in front, some the back, right, left, center, they will be all over the place. Designate one rider to set the train in motion. During your pre-race meeting (yea, you should have one!) decide who and when the team will organize. Typically the designated sprinter will have another teammate in attendance throughout the race so that rider is the most likely candidate to start the paceline. The rest of the team must quickly slot in around this duo. Initially you can simply surround the sprinter as your team moves into their designated place in the rotation. Once you have a cohesive formation it’s time to do your thing. So do YOUR thing – get out in the wind, away from the rest of the field, or at least on the periphery. Don’t play games with position, execute your strategy and dominate the finish.
Team vs Team
Want to know who the fastest, strongest leadout riders are? Why not race for it! Split your team in two, or three, small trains and race each other to the line. It’s also a great time to practice some tactics and handling skills, but ultimately the point is to practice fast group riding and see what the order of the leadout might be. Try it on different courses, in different conditions and with a differring mix of riders to see how things change and what the fastest combination truly is.
If you can find an experienced driver, then pacing behind a scooter or motorcycle is another step up in realism. Though most often used for individual training, group motorpacing is the best way to simulate the speed, and requisite high speed handling demands, of a race finish. Practice rotating through the draft at race speed. Jump from the back of the group to the front, or drop to the side of the draft and try to hold the same speed for as long as your riders can – then sprint to get back on!
Field sprinting is a blast, and it’s even more fun when it’s a true team effort! These are just a few of the myriad ways to improve your team’s execution, cohesion, and results. The most important lesson to remember is that almost nothing you do as a group will be counter productive to the team’s development, so long as you are willing to work hard, try new ideas, learn from your mistakes and keep pushing the envelope. Watch and wonder at the professionals and amazing abilities, then go out and find your own. It’s why we ride.
About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the President of Sterling Sports Group and races road, track, and cyclocross in Northern California. Sterling Sports Group is a growing company focused on creating a seamless interface between athlete and coach, technology and personal attention. Visit us online to learn more at www.sterlingwins.com .