How to win a bike race
Many riders who race but don’t win assume that they need to train some weak area of physical ability. One can train in specific ways to improve the power that can be sustained for mile after mile, for a few minutes, for the length of a sprint or for a moment of acceleration. One can increase power to weight ratio to improve climbing. In some cases these corrections will dramatically improve race outcomes, but what about riders who don’t win even though they already have better physiological measurements than the riders who do win? Some of them are wasting strength during the races but others fail despite coming to the line as fresh and strong as the riders who win. Why?
Simply being strong and fast at the end of the race does not lead inevitably to winning races. Many factors cancel or add to the effectiveness of physiological ability. Good ability to accelerate and high top speed are obviously advantages. Momentum at the start of the sprint is also an advantage, as are proximity to the front of the group, having a draft, control of the fastest line, willingness to bump shoulders, confidence, and a dependable lead-out. The relative values of the different advantages shift as the sprint progresses. On the line, lead position is worth all the points and all the others are worthless. Fifty to one hundred meters out, momentum can be worth more than lead position and 200 meters out, sprinting into the draft is worth more still. The configuration of the finish and the distance to the line affect the values of the different advantages.
Advantages of different sorts are somewhat interchangeable. A rider who has acceleration and the draft can trade them for momentum or the lead position when he or she chooses. A rider who has lead position and ownership of the line can negate another rider’s acceleration or momentum. Let’s see how the advantages balance against physical ability in some specific instances.
Speedy Starts Too Far Back and Waits Too Long
Speedy has the advantages of tremendous acceleration and a top speed of 37 mph (60 kph) in a field whose next best sprinters can do 35 (57 kph), but Speedy is five bike lengths back when the leader crosses the line. Speedy loses, but when? If the leaders are holding top speed in the final meters, Speedy can close on them at 2 mph (3 kph) or about a bike length per second. Speedy needs 6 seconds to close 5 lengths. In this time, the leaders will cover roughly 100 meters. Thus if Speedy has not reached top speed from five riders back with 100 meters left to race, he loses 100 meters before the line. If Speedy needs 10 meters (3 pedal circles) to reach top speed, and has not jumped by 110 meters, he loses there. The winner is much slower than Speedy in a sprint. The point of all this is not that you should duplicate these calculations but that timing is equally important with speed for winning sprints. The value of Speedy’s acceleration and speed go from big to zero if he doesn’t use them early enough.
Sprinting in the Draft
If two riders with equal power and top speed in the laboratory sprint at the same time from the same position, who will win the race? That’s a trick question. Two riders can never start from the same position, and generally one position has some advantages over the other. For instance, if two riders who can sprint 35 mph (57 kph) in still air sprint at the same moment but Rider A manages to sprint within the field or on the protected side, with a decent draft, while Rider B sprints in still air or even against some wind, the Rider A can do a bit over 38 mph (61.5 kph) assuming a 30% reduction in wind resistance due to being in the field. If the two riders start their sprint at 200 meters and burst past the front of the field at 100 meters, Rider A wins by two full bike lengths, unless of course Rider B gets to A’s draft and then catches up. Again the point is not to memorize the numbers but to recognize that the position relative to the field during a sprint is as important as the top speed a rider could do sprinting alone. The advantage of the draft in a sprint that is affected by wind can balance a large difference in physical ability.
The advantage of sitting on a wheel versus plowing into the wind in a sprint is so great that if two riders are even vaguely closely matched, the rider who starts the sprint in the draft of another can eventually gain the lead, maybe before and maybe after the line. If Rider C sprints early enough that Rider D can get to C’s wheel, sit in for a moment and then come around before the line, Rider C loses after sprinting first. If the riders wait a bit longer, the D can initiate a pass but not complete it before the line. If C has some acceleration left, that will make it that much harder for D, the ideal situation for C. If a rider sprints into the leader’s draft, either while overtaking or by dropping back to take advantage of the slingshot effect, the overtaking rider picks up a little more relative momentum and a small additional advantage.
Course and Conditions Affect Strategy
A variety of factors affect the advantages of different physiological abilities and strategic choices. One of the most obvious is the distance from the final corner to the finish line. There is one fastest line through any given corner. If the maximum speed at which a corner can be negotiated is less than the speed attainable coming into that corner, the field will be forced to single file when sprinting through that corner. A single-file line at near maximal speed for a corner has two important characteristics: No rider can go faster that the leader and each rider is a number of bike lengths back corresponding to that rider’s position in the field. (The second rider trails by one bike length, the third rider by two lengths and so on). The second and later riders can’t accelerate much until they are out of the turn. For a particular distance from corner to line, there is a limit to how many riders can pass the former leader before the line, even if the former leader sits up. If a rider farther back in the field opens a gap, there may be no way for any rider behind the gapper to ever rejoin the sprint for the win. Ability to accelerate and a position five or ten riders back are much more advantageous in straight-line sprint than in a situation where a corner comes in the final few dozen meters.
When you combine the effects of the corner forcing the field to single file and the limit to how many riders can be passed in the short distance between the corner and the line, the order of riders in a tight final corner can determine the order of the finish. Thus in a criterium, the experienced riders often sprint for a certain position in the final corner rather than for the line. If the final corner is wide open enough to allow several riders abreast or if the distance to the line is great enough to allow numerous riders to pass the leader, order in the final corner becomes less important.
Effects of Wind
Wind changes the relative value of draft and position. The advantage of drafting is increased in a headwind and decreased in a tailwind. In a headwind sprint, each rider who takes the front is suddenly at a huge disadvantage compared to riders who are still drafting so going early is less likely to pay off and waiting longer to take the lead is more effective. Conversely, in a strong tailwind, the advantage of drafting disappears: Two riders with equal power will make equal speed and thus maintain relative position, giving an advantage to rider who takes the lead earlier. Sidewinds change the relative value of sprinting on different lines. Once a rider initiates a sprint, riders behind gain the advantage of the draft. In a sidewind sprint, the lead rider can eliminate the competitors’ advantages by moving to the down-wind side of the road, leaving little room for others to catch the draft. Remember that the rules say that in the final meters you have to move in a straight line, parallel to the side of the road and leave a bike width for passing. This rule becomes more difficult to interpret if there are corners or curves in the final 200 meters.
Effects of Grade
In a downhill sprint speeds are high so one’s draft sticks out farther and also a pack moves faster compared to an individual. A gap that may be large enough to be insurmountable on a flat finish becomes trivial as the pack speeds along and swallows up the early leaders on a downhill sprint. Thus a downhill is like a headwind in that it punishes the rider who converts acceleration to leadership position too soon. In a downhill sprint, drafting is worth more later than in a flat, still-air sprint.
An uphill sprint is more like a tail-wind situation in that the effect of the draft is diminished. Whoever takes the lead first wins if he or she matches the speed of the other riders. A good rule for uphill sprints is to just start the sprint a distance from the line that will allow one to ride hard the whole way, and then to go as hard possible for as long as possible, not worrying too much about relative position.
Effects of the Road Itself
A bike rolls faster for the same power on smooth pavement than on bumpy pavement, so choosing a line with smoother pavement can make the difference between winning and coming in farther back in a close race. Rolling from the crown of the road down towards the gutter can add a bit of speed during a sprint. Saving that move for the optimal moment can make the bit of difference as well. These two factors explain why you will sometimes see expert sprinters not only pre-riding a finish but getting down on the ground and examining the condition and contour of the pavement at close range.
Single lane sprints on narrow roads are often frustrating affairs as the entire front of the field settles into a grid with no opportunities to change positions. If the front holds, there may be no chance at all for riders not in the front row or two several miles out ever to see the front in the sprint. That means that the width of the road can determine the outcome of the race.
Psychological and Other Factors
An early lead and ownership of the best line through a corner can be a huge advantage, if one has the nerve to protect them. Many years ago I watched a very wily sprinter riding solo beat an entire professional team leadout train simply by taking the inside line through the final corner and guttering the leader of the leadout. Most of his team ended up in the grass. The leadout made the error of not carrying maximal speed through the corner and not closing down the inside line. The sprinter on the train was used to having the leadout, the line and the advantage of tremendous acceleration. He had a case full of medals and trophies to show for it, but the wily solo rider had decent acceleration and nerve. He took an aggressive line, was willing to bump shoulders a bit, and won.
Making it All Add Up
I was never the fastest rider in sprint training, but I still managed to win a few races. Races are often won or lost by inches, so even seemingly trivial factors can make the difference between winning and losing. If a rider has a deficiency in sprint speed or acceleration I’ll prescribe training specifically to correct that of course, but the differences that can be made by factors such as timing and taking account of winds and position end up being larger by far than small differences in physical ability, so racers should invest as much effort working on sprint strategy as on physical sprinting itself. If a rider is close to as fast in a sprint as the winners and has been finishing with the leaders but not winning, studying the course and conditions of race finishes is an obvious step. The rider, perhaps working with a coach or more experienced and successful teammate, must figure out where to be when to possibly win. Figuring out the relative value of different positions on the road, different times to launch the sprint, and different points from which to sprint will allow one to devise a possibly successful strategy. Then one will have a great increased chance to win.