It’s a simple thing, seemingly. It’s one big effort, a grunt of all our most ape-like energy. It’s a middle finger to conservation, to patience, to moderation, to every evolved judgment about athletic effort. We’ve done it running since we were kids. We’ve done it in group rides, the end of races, and, if we’re honest, we probably did it the first time we got on our first quality bike.
The last time I was in a spin class our instructor got us out of the saddle, huffing up some imaginary hill and just when I thought I might be eligible for a coronary event, she cheerily exhorted us to sprint. With Whitney Houston bopping along in the background, she jabbered away about us visualizing the finish line looming into view. Thirty interminable seconds later she was still “sprinting” and still talking. By this time my legs were empty as a spendthrift’s bank account; I sat down so that the sweat could run down my back rather than directly into my eyes.
I’m not sure how long she thought a sprint is, but I can tell you it’s a hell of a lot shorter than a Whitney Houston song.
It was as a liter of fluid dripped off of me and onto the parquet floor that I realized the execution of a sprint might not be common knowledge to all bipeds. We’re talking Webster’s definition here. You might not be able to write it out in a way that won’t get your friends cackling, especially after a couple of beers, but I’m certain you know in your bones exactly what a sprint is.
It’s that one effort—the whole of your life force in an electrical signal. Whether you’re starting from a standstill, or leaping off someone else’s wheel, it is the shortest distance between where you are and all that you have.
Once you point out to people how straightforward an effort it is, how in track and field it’s a roughly 10-second effort, everyone gets it. It’s a single Raaaaaaaaaaaagh! an effort so short in duration that forgetting to breathe as your body tenses won’t cost you all that much, a labor so great you’ll still be breathing hard minutes later as your body attempts to deal with all the lactic acid flooding your bloodstream—all the sand on a beach.
But the beauty of a sprint comes as you begin to appreciate the elegance of the effort, how refined technique can save time or increase distance. It’s the sort of endeavor so short in duration that there’s no time to think and the difference between a big push and a genuine sprint comes down to something as primitive as muscle memory.
When I purchased my first racing bike I loved sprinting up to speed and feeling the bike oscillate beneath me, turning out of plane under a pedal stroke and then the front wheel tracking back beneath me as my foot came over the top of the stroke. That gentle serpentine lent the feeling that I knew the handling of my bike, that my bike and I were one.
Then a teammate showed me how allowing the bike to weave that way wasn’t efficient and risked giving up the ability to react as conditions changed. The answer was to keep the bike pointed straight ahead and for me to rock the handlebar back and forth, always balanced over the line my bike tracked so that if I needed to respond to someone else’s veering line I could move with a simple shoulder drop.
Track class demonstrated that I knew even less than I thought. As the ultimate racing reduction sauce, I was taught that rocking my bike was a good way to lock bars with another rider. In such an economy of space my movement needed to be just as economical, with all my motion going into the pedal stroke itself.
It was as I gathered points toward an upgrade I realized there was yet another dimension to sprinting—the acceleration itself. A real sprint, that is, one executed like a master chef making an omelette, isn’t a matter of just going as hard as you can, or going faster than you had been going. What defines a sprint is that lethal explosion of muscle that makes top speed as different from the recent past as a full moon is from an eclipse. The real sprinters, I learned, could go from 32 mph to 36 mph in the time it takes to flick a light switch. It’s a grenade of fast twitch that leaves the rest of us with arched eyebrows.
I tried to follow any number of those ignitions and realized I didn’t know a thing about sprinting.
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