Case Study: A day in the life of a Sprint Specialist

Photo Credit above: DMunson Photo
When a sprinter stands on the top podium step we all see the same thing: arms up in the air and that smile, rehearsed to show sincerity while trying to hide that extreme confidence bordering on a cockiness that could be unappealing to the fans and media.  But behind the scenes, we don’t see the pressure and expectations that accompanies the title Sprint Specialist.  
The Sprinter has the easiest ride all day but also the hardest job.  They are the ace in the hole for the team.  With a Sprinter, the team has the option to ride overly aggressive all day while knowing that, in the end, the Sprinter will finish out a bunch gallop to the line.  They are the closer.
To a Sprinter the daily strategy is usually overly simple: minimize your high power expenditures all day, constantly hedging until the end where they bet everything on a single, maximal few minutes and seconds of effort to rocket you to the finish line.
I have the honor of working with Cory Williams of the Elevate- KHS Pro Cycling Team and this is a case study analysis of his sprint victory at the Tour of Murrieta Criterium.  
First, a quick review/ summary of the team strategy on the road that day.  With Cylance Pro Cycling (Cylance) fielding a full roster at the race and Elevate- KHS short-handed, the team was going to need to key off of the game plan Cylance was showing. That day, the call was for a field sprint, which simplified the strategy but complicated team tactics.
Strategically, the team sets up shop behind Cylance and allows them to control the race.  Easy.  Tactically, keeping the team safe and sheltered behind Cylance while avoiding the scrum of “the bubble” is easier said than done.  We chose this particular race as it is a near perfect example of how subtle changes in tactics while maintaining team strategy can dramatically change the outcome of the race.

Protecting the Elevate- KHS Sprinter, Cory Williams

The Tour of Murrieta Criterium gives an excellent example of two distinctly different approaches taken by Sprinters.  In this case study, we were lucky enough to see both techniques executed by the same Sprinter in the same race.  In the first part of the race, Cory is taking the approach of “floating.” He’s using the peloton in a way that allows him to cede position when it’s difficult and regain position upon an easing of pressure.  However, that comes with its own pitfalls and there’s a distinct and noticeable difference in the ride relative to that of the second part of the race.
To backtrack, Elevate- KHS director, Paul Abrahams, and I have observed Cory’s racing in person and, while analyzing some of Cory’s race films, and power files, we were able to notice that, while it seems as if a rider is seeking “shelter in the peloton”, the reality is that Cory spends a lot of energy making big accelerations with big power, and burning big matches, just to stay present in the race with any sort of useful position.  Comparing and contrasting the first two parts of Cory’s race file is an excellent display of what it looks like to float a criterium but not be protected relative to what it looks like being a protected rider and maintaining a position with the assistance of a capable team in a criterium.  Midway through the race, Paul made a decision to change Cory’s position and technique from floating to assume the role of a protected rider.  This decision and execution likely influenced the outcome of the race.
In the image below you see the race file showing power and speed, slightly smoothed with three outlined sections along with some raw numbers for the first and second portions:

These numbers, in a nutshell, show that once Cory made the mid-race adjustment, he was able to ride at the front with superior position while spending less energy and having less exposure at higher power outputs (i.e. more efficient). To note, once the speed drops, typically the result is higher Variability Index value and a similar Intensity Factor as riders tend to continue to battle for position, only at slower speeds.
Sometimes, simply showing an athlete some raw numbers isn’t quite enough to make themselves, or really myself, a believer in the initial data.  The subjective input from the rider is equally important at the highest level of sport. In discussing the race with Cory, his response was interesting.  On one hand, the race was physically easier. On the other hand it wasn’t any easier.  Upon further discussion, we learned the protected position was something relatively unfamiliar to Cory. Coming from the back to sprint is easy when you’re already the best sprinter in the race by a wide margin and one of the most fit riders.  However, as the level of competition increases, the margin for error becomes exponentially smaller. When placed in a situation where Cory was sprinting against not only some of the best finishers in North America in Cylance, but also everyone else in the race, beginning from anywhere but a competitive position would have prevented him from winning.  
Below you see another chart that displays accelerations (in green) and speed (in blue).  This chart uses quick speed increases along with power output to provide a visual representation of the number and severity of accelerations Cory performed.  Just like before, there is an easy-to-spot change in the style of riding due to his positioning and the team execution.

One item of note that you see at the end of the race is that the speed and power climb with the lead-out speed.  However, the acceleration severity does not follow this pattern, with the exception of the finale due to the continued high speed, high power, and relatively little speed change.  

Sprint Finale

Now we’ll take a look at the final box in the file…

As Cylance begins the final push towards the finish line, there is an immediate reaction in the peloton.  As the speed creeps up, the physical penalty for moving into the wind begins to increase.  Towards the end, only the best riders are able to do anything more than maintain their position and any encroachment into the clean air outside of the draft results in immediate loss of position.  It’s here that Cory is able to realize the benefits of his position and the efforts from his teammates.  Because of his superior position and relative freshness, he’s able to increase speed without absorbing the massive accelerations expected would he had attempted to move forward from a less advantageous and competitive position.
The last lap is always considered the most important in a sprint finish and to a large degree it is.  However, without the preparation beforehand, the last lap would not have been possible with the desired outcome.  Here’s a screenshot of Cory’s last lap (below). This chart shows us an analysis of the severity of matches burned, yellow being moderate matches and red representing major matches.  Of note is the severity of the last minute of effort beginning where Cory was put in the wind (+1000W spike) before the last two corners. However, because of his relative freshness and at the end of a 33 mph lap, he was able to accelerate out of the last corner and all the way to the line.   Final lap below. 

Last lap!


Check out some of our other road cycling focused articles from the Source Endurance team.

Adam Mills’ true talent comes with his ability to combine his vast experience with his knowledge of sport. He is indeed a student of science, sport, athletic performance, strategy, and tactics. He continuously educates himself by keeping up to date with current trends and methods in sport. Adam is able to incorporate these attributes to help his clients reach and exceed their goals whether they are a beginner or a seasoned professional. Learn more about Adam and Source Endurance here.