Picking the right wheel to follow is essential when the race comes down to a sprint finish. But the best plans don’t always work out. These pro tips can help you find the right wheel in a sprint, and make adjustments when things don’t go as planned.
For more on race tactics check out our Race Analysis YouTube Playlist.
Choosing the Right Wheel
There are many ways to decide which rider to mark. The more information you can gather, the better your chances will be of getting it right. Before the race, take a look at the standings. Is one rider dominating the series or stage race? Riders that are well placed, but need maximum points could be a good choice as well. Look out for teams that specialize in criteriums or a rider that is known to be a sprinter.
You can go a step further and watch the other riders during the warm-up. As silly as it sounds the warm-up can give you valuable intel. Riders that appear to be practicing their sprint in earnest or ones that have equipment designed for sprinting can be a tip-off. So keep a lookout for aero bikes, deep-section wheels, and aero race suits.
Fighting for Position
Once you have marked a sprinter to follow, you have to get onto the wheel. This is easier said than done. Chances are, you aren’t the only one who wants that position. Fighting for position consumes energy, but it’s worth it. Be willing to use your energy to hold the wheel instead of trying to conserve it for the sprint. An efficient technique is to anticipate the accelerations and movements of the rider you are following. This will minimize the gaps ahead of you and stop others from taking your position.
You can’t win a sprint if you hit the tarmac. Be assertive, but not aggressive. Anything you do should aim to maintain your position, not move another rider. If needed to keep yourself upright, lean into another rider, rather than push them. You can’t use your hand to move a rider, so keep your hands on the bars. As long as your handlebars are in front of another riders’, you control the line.
Signs You’re on the Wrong Wheel
Even if all of the signs indicate you are on the right wheel, everything can change at any moment. While fighting for position, you have to continue to read the rider you have marked. Their line choice, effort, and body language can send clear signals whether or not they will sprint all out for the finish. Staying situationally aware will set you up for late-race strategy changes.
What to look for:
- They are too far back in the group during the last few laps.
- They aren’t actively seeking the best lines.
- They aren’t building momentum as they get closer to the finish.
- They sit up or come out of the drops to ride on the tops.
- They appear excessively fatigued.
- They are looking back for another rider that they plan to deliver to the line.
Changing Your Gameplan
Crit racing is a fluid situation, and the best plans can quickly go awry. If you have decided that you are on the wrong wheel, you have to be ready to react quickly. With a bit of planning beforehand, and the ability to think outside the race you can turn things around for the sprint.
Mark your launch point.
- Before the race, know how far you can sprint.
- Find a landmark at your sprint distance on the course.
- On the last lap, launch your sprint when you hit your mark, regardless of the wheel you’re following.
Think outside the race.
- When the rider you are following sits up, give some space, sprint into the gap, then come around.
- Jump on with someone else’s attack. Use their effort to launch your own.
- If you are sprinting from the last corner, close off the inside line. Make the riders behind you take the long way through the turn.
Even when the race doesn’t go as planned, you can still find a way to win. Just remember to be situationally aware and ready to make adjustments. For more information on sprinting, check out Sprinting 101: How to be Explosive.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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