Finish Fast: Race Strategy for Sprinting

By finding the sweet spot in the group, you'll be perfectly placed to finish strong without wasting energy fighting for position.

In Race Strategies for Breaking Away, I got you to the last kilometer of the race with as little energy expenditure as possible. So you've done everything right, you're perfectly set up for the finish--now how do you bring home the bacon? Much of sprinting success comes from timing, experience, and lots of trial and error, but there are a few simple things you can do to speed up the learning curve.

And for those climbers out there who are starting to yawn, pay attention, because this applies to you, too. From experience, I can tell you that in North America there are very few races that can be won on climbing talent alone. Chances are, even if you play your cards right, you're still going to arrive at the finish line with a small group of riders who you'll have to out-sprint at the finish.

Very rarely have I seen a proper lead out work for anyone but the most experienced racers. Aside from that, it is essential that before you ask your team to sacrifice their race for you, you be able to maneuver through the pack safely and efficiently on your own. Then, when you've got it down to a science, you can add the team element to make it that much easier.

The Sweet Spot

I always tell my riders to find the sweet spot in the group. Have you ever noticed the rider who sits comfortably in fifth position all day long while you fight for wheels and move back and forth through the pack desperately trying to hold position? He's found the sweet spot. It's hard to describe precisely, but you'll know it when you find it. It's that position far enough from the front that you don't have to worry about getting caught in the wind, but not so far back that you have to struggle to hold your position.

The sweet spot is especially important when it comes to the final laps of a criterium or the last stretch of road before the weekday, morning-ride sprint line. If it comes down to the final kilometer and you are still fighting to move up and get on a wheel, even if you do find a good wheel and a clear line to the finish, you'll most likely be too tired to ride it out to the finish.

However, if with five laps to go you can insert yourself cleanly into the sweet spot--usually about five or six riders back--you should be able to keep cool even as the pace hits break-neck speeds and everyone behind you is bumping shoulders and fighting to move up half a wheel length.

Making Your Move

Assuming you have made it to the beginning of the last lap in good position, relatively rested and ready to go, you still need to be ready to maneuver in any direction to get into a better position for the sprint. Often--especially in entry-level racing--riders will miscalculate the distance to the finish and start their acceleration too early.

As the ruler of the sweet spot, you need to be prepared for this eventuality. If the riders in front of you are dropping like flies and you suddenly notice yourself getting closer to the front well before you are ready to start your sprint, its time to look for a new train to follow. You can't wait until you have been shuffled all the way to the front, because even a few seconds of unprotected riding at a high-paced finish will ruin your hopes for the day.

When this happens you only have two choices: One is to launch your attack and hope to hold it to the end, and the other is to soft pedal and hope to catch a wheel as it comes zipping past you.

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