Secrets from one of America's top sprinters

Few can match 'Super Mario' Cipollini's finish line speed  Credit: Alex Livesey /Allsport
In every group ride, there's always one yahoo who jumps first and wins the sprint to the town-line sign or coffee stop.

And if that yahoo isn't you, you're missing out on the sweet music of your fellow riders muttering, cursing, wheezing, and panting as they struggle in vain to catch your wheel.

There are no green sprinter's jerseys at stake, but who cares? You don't need no stinkin' jersey!

Ah, but bragging rights those are worth their weight in carbon fiber. (Don't aspire to out-muscle your friends? Say no more: the fine art of sprinting will also boost your total fitness and decrease your response time benefits all riders will appreciate.)

We asked Karen Bliss-Livingston, a seven-time US National Cycling Champion and one of America's best sprinters, about the secrets to explosive speed. She should know: during her 15-year career from 1983 to her retirement in '98, she won more criteriums and field sprints than any other female rider.

How much is brawn, how much is brains?
Even if you're not a natural sprinter, being confident and tactically smart can give you the edge over someone who's a better sprinter than you are.

Body position is the first consideration. Get ready for the sprint by gripping the bar down in the curved section of your handlebar, where your fingers will be close enough to brake or shift gears when necessary.

Your wrists should be straight, your elbows angled slightly outward, your shoulders square and your head up.

What's the anatomy of a sprint?
There are two phases: acceleration and top-end. The acceleration or jump is the initial series of pedal strokes that get the bike up to speed. The top end is the highest speed, which should be timed to last through the finish line.

The key is to pace yourself so you're still accelerating as you near the finish line not topping out or slowing down. To jump, come up off the saddle and lean slightly forward. Apply full power to your dominant-side, crank-arm first, while pulling up on the bar with your opposite hand.

If your front wheel pops up or skitters, simply don't pull as hard. Keep increasing your leg speed with your elbows pointed out.

Drop your head slightly. After the initial jump out of the saddle you can smoothly sit back down and continue to hold, or build speed for the duration of the distance.

How do I pace my sprints?
First you need to know how long you can hold your top speed.

For professionals, most sprints begin somewhere around the 200-meter mark. When I raced, I would always study the end of a course beforehand to pick out a spot about 200 meters before the finish and etch that point into my mind.

To find your pace, practice sprinting 50 meters, 100 meters, 150 meters, and 200 meters periodically to see how long you can hold your max speed. If you find your best sprint is 100 meters, then work that into your overall strategy.

Will weight training make me faster?
Sprinting requires very strong abdominal and back muscles, not so much for speed as for stability and precision.

The abdominal and back muscles are "core" muscles that stabilize the upper and lower body while pedaling, as well as anchoring the body to the bike.

Try sprinting with weak core muscle groups and your arms will feel like spaghetti looking for a plate. Follow a good abdominal and back routine three days a week.


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