From an interview with Brian Viner in July 2009 this comment by Chris Boardman sums up the psychology of sprinters, he was talking about Mark Cavendish;
"And he doesn't see the world in the same way as everyone else. In a sprint, with bodies everywhere all going at 70mph, I'd see the bodies, but he sees the gaps between the bodies. That's the difference"
I think he meant 70kph but it's still pretty fast; drive down the road at 40mph in your car, these people would be passing you. Now imagine that in a tightly packed bunch just inches apart.
Generally during a sprint, and in the last few minutes before it, the sprinter's body is full of adrenalin. He or she is in the full fight mode. In this situation the brain collects and processes information as fast as it can to such an extent that sprinters often remember every detail as if it were slow motion. The road surface, the movements of the other riders, the moments to make a move, when to make a final kick; all of those things happen so quickly yet the sprinter has plenty of time to react. This high speed processing creates a feeling of control and considering the potential for big accidents they are actually quite rare suggesting that the control is impressively real.
The adrenaline really does, as Chris Boardman said, let the sprinter see things differently from the rest of the bunch. The sprinter's brain really does see possibility; the gap will open up, there is enough room, I can do this. In all the high speed and pressure of a handful of intense seconds the sprinter is still making considered decisions, just faster than any other considered decision you'll ever make. Can I get through, what if so and so goes early, do I follow, do I go 95%, left or right the decisions all taken faster than you can read the words. That's what adrenaline can do. Adrenaline can also make a person hide, shake and run away, turn them into a quivering wreck, but the sprinter uses adrenaline, lives for it and harnesses its power, that's the difference. Of course there is so much more to the psychology of sprinters.
To anyone other than the sprinter the lead up to the sprint, high speed jockeying for position and that last few hundred metres looks dangerous. Spectators and non-sprinting cyclists see high speed, close proximity, the odd elbow being used and riders blocking each other and pushing to get out of a box and all of this at a speed hovering around 40mph (60kph). In fact for very many cyclists it is just too much and they won't get involved. There is very definitely an element of risk and an element of fear.
The sprinter sees things differently. The biggest risk for the sprinter is not ending up in the gutter with a broken bike and broken bones; by far the biggest risk for the sprinter is someone getting to the line ahead of them. You can recover from broken bones, most serious sprinters know this because they've done so (or they've seen their opponents do so), your bike can be mended, but you never recover from the missed opportunity when you were second across the line. That second place stays with you. The fear of not winning is greater than any fear of crashing and it is this fear that stokes the adrenaline level mentioned above.
Nobody likes to finish second but in a sprinter's mentality it would be better to win the sprint for second place when a lone rider has already won the race than to be beaten to the line in a bunch. It is all about being the absolute fastest in the final rush for the line. There is no greater thrill in sport. The sprinter may dream of a lone race win, and occasionally it might happen, but they tend to be realist and understand that their best chances will always come from within a decent sized group. Winning at the head of a charge of 50 or more riders is always the biggest rush.
When the sprinter doesn't win it doesn't matter what he or she says, they feel a very deep sense of failure. That feeling is horrible and leads to a level of self analysis which some will share and others will internalise. The sprint takes about 10 seconds at the end of hours of racing but in those seconds the sprinter has invested everything, a fraction of a second's hesitation, or starting an effort a fraction of a second too early, misjudging the wind, the gradient or the opponent; all of these things can make the sprinter lose. They are all failures and failure is the sprinters biggest fear.
Telling the failed sprinter that they have another chance tomorrow is no real consolation. Challenging the sprinter to do better (no doing better isn't enough to), challenging the sprinter to win tomorrow has a better chance of success.
When you see Mark Cavendish almost in tears because he or she got it wrong and doesn't need sympathy, he needs the challenge of another race, another boost of the sprinters number one friend adrenaline followed by the second drug of choice; endorphins - winning gives a shot both and makes the sprinter feel better; until the next time.
Essentially the sprinter is the world's fastest addict!
So how do we get into the realm of the sprinter? My next "Back to basics" blog post will focus on the techniques of the sprinter and then I'll look at the tactics of the sprinter and finally at training....