Webster’s Dictionary defines “sprint” as “to run or go at top speed especially over a short distance. As an example, the dictionary states “[t]he bicycle racers sprinted for the finish line.” When we think of sprints, we think of races like the 100 meter dash — where speed rules. But when it comes to bicycle sprints — sprint races, that is — that’s not quite the case.
Bicycle sprints — sometimes called “match sprints” — are three lap races pitting two cyclists against each other. The races are typically 1,000 meters (1 kilometer) long although smaller arenas feature 600 meter races. Cyclists are able to bike the 1,000 meters in short order: the world record in completing the distance is a mere 58.875 seconds. But many match sprints can last much longer than that. The one seen below? It lasted nearly five and a half minutes.
If you watch the video, you’ll note that while the race begins 20 seconds in and the two cyclists coast slowly for the first lap. And then, they get even slower, pulling to a complete stop — a difficult task, to say the least, while balancing on a bicycle — at around the 3:38 mark. The literal stop-and-go battle continues until the 4:28 mark when, again, both competitors halt in place, wiggling slightly for nearly twenty more seconds as they hope to maintain their stasis. Once that falls apart, the racers go at a medium pace until there are about 200 meters left, and then, absolute pandemonium breaks out as the two cyclists speed up, hitting speeds over 40 miles per hour. Fifteen seconds later, this five minute, 29 second race comes to a relatively sudden end.
What’s going on here? It’s part tactics and part aerodynamics.
The tactical advantage should be clear — the racer in the rear can make a sudden move when the front racer isn’t looking, catching the front racer flatfooted and therefore unable to catch up. But this advantage is moot if a cyclist believes he can simply outrace his opponent over the 1,000 meter course. That’s where aerodynamics come in. Vehicles in motion create slipstreams behind them — basically, rifts in the air similar to what a ship creates in the water. Other vehicles close behind them travel within this slipstream and get a benefit from it: they “draft” and experience less drag, and therefore need to expend less energy in order to go the same speed.
In the case of match sprints, this gives the trailing cyclist an enormous advantage. If the lead racer pushes it from the start, he will end up with only a slight lead with 200 or so meters to go — but his opponent will have much fresher legs. So in order to combat this, we get this weird do-si-do — on bicycles.
Bonus fact: The record for the fastest speed by a bicyclist on a flat surface is 167 miles per hour, set by Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, in 1995. How’d he go so fast? He drafted behind a custom-built drag racing car, taking advantage of the car’s slipstream. For comparison’s sake, the 167 miles per hour speed is more than twice that of the fastest cycling speed without drafting — 83 miles per hour, held by Canadian cyclist Sam Whittingham and set in 2009.
From the Archives: Bat Man: The blind man who can ride a bicycle.
Related: “Bicycle Race,” by Queen, a 99 cent mp3. Also, “Bicycle History: A Chronological Cycling History of People, Races, and Technology,” by James L. Witherell. 4.5 stars on 3 reviews, available on Kindle.