Most 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; today we'll examine some tactics and strategies that will, firstly, put you in a potentially winning position and, secondly, hopefully deliver you to the finish line at the pointy end of the peloton.
Have a Plan
Once you have mastered the basic skills of bike riding, your attention will naturally turn to getting better results, but nobody is going to just deliver a win to you - you'll need to work for it, and part of that work is in your head. Be honest with yourself - recognizing your strengths, weaknesses, and overall ability will help direct your decisions. If you corner well, how can you capitalize on that? If you have a fantastic burst of raw speed, how do you make sure you can use it? If you are fitter than your opponents, how can you make them suffer so that your fitness shows through in the end? Everyone will have a weapon and you need to decide how you can best use yours. If you're so new to the sport that you genuinely don't know your own strengths, just watch some of the veterans in the bunch (especially those with a similar body type to yours) and see if you can get some insight from there.
Find the sweet spot
If you're new to racing, watch the rider who sits comfortably in fifth position all day long while others fight for wheels and move back and forth through the pack desperately trying to hold position. He or she has 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.
A great way to develop your racecraft is just to set yourself a goal of finding and staying in the sweet spot: it's an invaluable skill and becomes 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 stretch 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 a few 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.
Stay in the moment
Maintaining a consciousness of your thoughts enables you to focus on the tactical processes that you need to maintain in order to keep on track.
Don't go too soon!
Most riders start their sprint far too early. Take note of the wind direction, final corner, and road gradient when you think about when you're going to start your sprint. In a tailwind, it's often possible to start your sprint from up to 350m before the finish line. If it's a headwind, you'll want to follow a wheel until the final 50-100m and then come off someone's wheel to start your sprint.
Many experienced riders will use a tree, road sign or letterbox as cue to tell them it's 200m to the line - despite their bad intentions, very few people can hold a full throttle sprint for longer than 200m. Get used to what 200m looks like - it's a lot further than you might think.
Follow that wheel!
image: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
A (nearly) foolproof tactic for newcomers to racing is to find who the strongest rider in the bunch is and stick to them like glue. Follow their wheel, learn from their experience, take the same lines through the corners, and launch your sprint attack from their back wheel. It won't always work, but the plus side is that they will at least tow you from mid-pack up to somewhere near the front.
PRO TIP: When in a sprint, never look over your shoulder to see what the other riders are doing. Look at their shadows or back under your arm. This will give you much more flexibility to react to the inevitable attack that's coming when someone behind tries to catch you off-guard.
Evaluate your performance
When the race is done, evaluate how you did in relation to what you planned to do. Were your tactics effective? Did the race go the way you had expected? Were there any of those moments where you made the wrong decision and making a different one could have crucially changed the outcome?
All tactical decisions are fundamentally about where and when you want to spend your effort to receive the biggest reward. If you 'overspend' or 'underspend', you can be left with a disappointing result, but either way there's a lesson in there somewhere.
Don't be too hard on yourself
Sometimes it helps to remember that even the best pros on the planet get beaten far more often than they win - anyone can have a bad day. But if you gave it your best, stuck to your plan as much as possible, and got a buzz out of sprinting at full gas, then, really, you had a bit of a win anyway, didn't you?