by Fred Matheny
A rider once told me about the greatest display of speed she ever produced. No, it wasn’t in a race. She was riding along minding her business when a huge Doberman, jaws dripping saliva and teeth glinting in the sun, rocketed out of a suburban yard and took dead aim on her calf.
Speed isn’t just for racers. Our heroine jumped out of the saddle, accelerated for all she was worth, and vanished down the road, leaving Fang frustrated and panting.
How did she develop such a doggone good burst of speed? She’s no sprinter and she doesn’t like hard intervals, but she’d been taking advantage of opportunities to get faster.
Here are the secrets for more speed with less work.
Rules for Getting Faster on a Bike
• DON’T FORCE IT. Speed training doesn’t require a gut-busting effort with eyeballs bulging and knuckles white from gripping the handlebars. You can go nearly as fast if you learn to float along in a brisk but relaxed way. When you pedal, don’t think “hard,” think “fast.”
• SPEED DOESN’T HAVE TO MEAN SPRINT. I’ll talk about how to sprint soon. But speed doesn’t necessarily require an explosive burst for 10 seconds. Aim for relaxed speed that is sustainable for a minute, speed you can repeat several times on a ride without feeling stressed.
• TRAIN FOR SPEED BY YOURSELF (most of the time). Your idea of speed may not be the same as someone else’s. Your friends may be faster or slower than you. The only thing that matters is your own improvement. So with very few exceptions, train for speed alone—at your speed.
• USE A GROUP TO DEVELOP SPEED (sometimes). When you feel comfortable with going faster from your solo training, venture out in a spirited group. Riders will attack, sprint for roadside signs, and bump up the pace on hills. Trying to stick with the group is a fast way to develop a turn of speed. The competition revs your engine in a way that solo riding can’t.
Sprinting Form: Use these tips to reach high speed quickly.
CHOOSE YOUR GEAR. Start the sprint in a gear that you can turn comfortably at about 80 rpm—a bit lower than your normal cadence. Your initial jump will get you above 100 rpm. Then, while still standing, shift to a higher gear, pedal it up to a fast rpm, and shift again. It’s easier to shift while standing if you ease off pedal pressure slightly just as you make the gear change. Practice will quickly give you the feel for this technique.
In the “olden days” of down tube shifters, choosing the right gear for the sprint was crucial because it was impossible to shift while standing. If you picked a gear that was too low you would spin out before reaching top speed. Conversely, an excessively high gear was impossible to accelerate quickly. Now, with indexed brake/shift levers you can start your sprint in a gear low enough for rapid acceleration, then shift to a higher gear to reach max velocity while still standing.
TRUST YOUR THRUST. To jump effectively, hold the handlebar in the drops. Rise from the saddle as you thrust strongly with your dominant leg. (Which is your dominant leg? It’s probably the one that’s forward when you descend with your crankarms horizontal.)
At the same time, pull up on the handlebar with the arm that’s on the same side as the leg that’s pushing down. The downward thrust makes the bike tip toward that side. Pulling up counters the force that would otherwise topple you over.
After the first explosive downstroke, continue to pedal powerfully while rocking the bike back and forth just enough to counteract your leg thrusts. Don’t throw the bike excessively from side to side. That wastes energy and scrubs off speed. It’s a danger to other riders, too.
EXAMPLE! I once attended Greg LeMond’s training camp that he ran with his friend, Canadian rider Steve Bauer. Famous as a road sprinter, Bauer often dueled with American Davis Phinney in Colorado’s legendary Coors Classics in the 1980s. Bauer personified power. A former hockey player, he was built like a powerlifter from the waist down.
At the camp Bauer gave us a demonstration of his sprinting prowess. We stood by the side of the road while he rolled along slowly in a big gear until next to us. Then he jumped hard. The bike creaked like it was cracking. Within 20 yards he was a blur. We could hear his tires humming on the pavement.
WATCH YOUR LINE. Sprinting with your head down or your eyes locked and blurry is a recipe for disaster. The best sprinters are like running backs in football. They see the whole field all at once so they can anticipate and make split-second decisions.
STAY GROUNDED. Powerful riders often have trouble keeping the bike’s rear wheel on the pavement when they sprint. It hops slightly on each pedal stroke, losing traction and wasting speed. Avoid the “hops” by keeping your hips back to weight the rear wheel. When you stand, concentrate on raising your hips above the saddle, not moving them forward toward the handlebar.
Solo Cycling Speed Drills
Want to develop snap and speed on your everyday rides like our Doberman defier? Try these solo drills. Always warm up first with at least 15 minutes of steadily increasing effort.
• CHASE THE BLUEBIRD. Pick a cue that appears frequently on your route: bluebirds, adopt-a-highway signs, white mailboxes, silos. Whenever you spot one of these cues, sprint for 20-30 seconds. Start your effort with a brisk burst out of the saddle, then sit down and crank up the gear. Don’t go all out. Sprint. Settle in. Spin.
• PICKUPS. On an obstacle-free stretch of road, pick up the pace gradually until you’re pedaling briskly at about 80 percent of your max heart rate. The pace should feel quick but comfortable. Concentrate on a smooth spin and a relaxed, flowing pedal style. Continue for about one minute then gradually back off to an easy pace. Repeat three times during the ride with at least five minutes of easy spinning between each effort.
• ROLLER COASTER. Find a course with three or four short hills spread over several miles. Or look for a short loop with one or two hills. It should take no more than 20 seconds to sprint over each hill. Roll gently between the hills, then attack each rise out of the saddle. Your gear choice should let you spin about 110 rpm at the bottom and at least 90 rpm at the top. Again, don’t go all out. You want to ride briskly but not exhaustively.
Tips for Competitive Cycling Sprints
Okay, you’ve been sprinting on your solo rides and you know you’re faster. But how can you snag bragging rights in a group sprint against several friends?
• POSITION IS EVERYTHING. You’ll rarely win if you lead out a sprint, especially into a headwind. Position yourself one or two riders back, take advantage of their draft, and wait until the last minute to jump and come around. The exception is a slightly downhill sprint or one with a tailwind. Sometimes you can jump early by surprise and hold your gap to the line.
• CHEAT! Feign fatigue and sit on the back, or time your pulls so your last turn comes about a mile from the line. Then you can hide in the paceline until it’s time to fire your afterburners.