by Michael Barry
The town-line sprint features in most group rides. A club of retired old men will line up for a sprint when houses appear in the distance; a group of professionals riding toward their team hotel at a training camp will race each other for the town sign with the same energy as a dash to the finish of a Classic race; and a group of kids will sprint for the corner store as if they’re pros racing up the Champs-Élysées. We sprint for fun, we sprint for bragging rights, and we sprint to test ourselves. Like any race finish, there are tactics involved in a town-line sprint. The strongest doesn’t always win the tactical game. Positioning, timing, a burst of speed and commitment will win.
To win a town-sign sprint, there are a few simple tactics. First, know your rivals’ strengths and weaknesses. Body size and brute force is a good gauge of telling who will be quick in a sprint. Generally, the more muscular riders will be faster. Figure out who those riders are and keep an eye on them in the run-up to the line, as you’ll judge your sprint off of theirs. Ideally, you’ll want to be positioned in their slipstream and will come around them in the final metres.
Gauge the distance. If you know there is a town coming up in a couple of kilometres, start conserving energy and begin positioning yourself. Be sly about it as you want your clubmates to continue co-operating and doing the work in the wind. A key metric to remember about drafting is that you are doing 20 per cent less work, on average, when you are in the slipstream of another rider. You don’t want to be in first position when the town line is in sight. The other riders will have the advantage: they’ll be in your slipstream. They’ll be able to gauge their sprint against your position. If you’re in a big group, you want to be close to the front, but not in the wind. If you’re riding with a group of four or five, it is ideal to hover at the back, saving energy, and preparing to pounce at the right moment.
If there is a corner close to the finish, positioning is critical going into and coming out of the corner, as gaps can often open, especially if it is technical turn. If the finish line is roughly 200 m after the turn, you will want to be sitting in second or third position in the corner. If the finish is roughly 100 m from the bend, you will want to be in first or second position leading into the turn.
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Once the sprint is launched, stay in a straight line and avoid any erratic movements that will put the other riders at risk of crashing.
In the group, be sure you’re able to manoeuvre easily around others. You don’t want to be boxed in with a rider on one side and the curb or shoulder on the other. Always maintain a spot in the group where you’re free to surge around and ahead of the others.
Gauging the effort you can sustain is crucial. Sprint too soon and you’ll be passed; leave it too late and you’ll never catch up. As a general guideline, most sprints start about 200 m before the finish. In a headwind, where the effort is harder, you’ll want to start your sprint slightly later. With a tailwind, where you’re able to hold the speed longer, you’ll want to jump sooner. It is the same if the sprint is uphill or downhill: on an uphill, leave it late, while going downhill, jump earlier.
The burst of speed is crucial. Mark Cavendish wins often and convincingly because his initial surge is potent. He accelerates an average of 4 km/h faster than his rivals, so he forges a significant gap immediately, which the others are forced to try to close. Once he is up to speed, he pushes hard to maintain the speed to the line.
As a rule, town-line sprints don’t have the ferocity of a race sprint. Etiquette dictates that riders shouldn’t elbow each other or jostle for position like the pros might. Once the sprint is launched, stay in a straight line and avoid any erratic movements that will put the other riders at risk of crashing. Always be aware of where the other riders are in the group and be sure not to impede their sprint line.
Be sure to always sprint to the line. It sounds obvious, but far too often riders will sit up just before the finish line as they think they’ve won, only to be passed a few centimetres before the finish. Likewise, a rider coming from behind can always pass others if he or she persists and is committed to the effort. In the final metre, thrust the bike forward. A well-timed bike throw can make the difference between winning and losing.
And, finally, the winner should offer to buy the doughnuts at the end of the ride.