Velon Road to 2018: Sprint training with Tom Steels

In the first part of our Velon Festive Christmas Countdown we speak to Quick-Step Floors sprint coach Tom Steels - winner of nine Tour de France stages - about specific sprint and lead-out training for next season:

Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) celebrates a sprint win at Tour of Guangxi (Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty)

For many of us, the month of December is a time when festive food and drink takes priority over fitness training and a disciplined diet.

For pro cyclists it is a different story. Holidays are taken in October or November, while December is a month when crucial preparation is done for the new season.

The riders are back from holiday and training - is a top sprinter on a specific plan, separate from their team-mates? Quick-Step Floors sprint coach Tom Steels says the priority now for every rider is to build base fitness:

“As a pure sprinter, the quality of explosiveness always stays in the body,” Steels says. “You do have to work on it, but as a sprinter, first you must make sure you make it to the finish line. Building base fitness now is as important as for any other rider.

“It’s a very important time. The seasons don’t get any easier, you have to take a good recovery of three or four weeks. It’s very important mentally to get the hunger again for the bike. After that you start building up.”

In a bunch sprint the difference can be a matter of millimetres - or a couple of watts of power - how do sprinters maintain straight-line speed and that explosive acceleration?

“You go to the gym, get tension in the legs, tension in the muscles, and make sure you don’t lose speed,” Steels says. “In the first part of your career, talent is usually enough to be very fast. The older you get, the harder you have to work in the gym to build explosiveness. You also do sprints on the rollers and on the track.”

There are some small but important differences in training. While a climber wants to get stronger but avoid weight gain at all costs, a sprinter needs to train the leg muscles for speed, with weight gain not such an important factor.

“It’s a small part of it, just to get the feeling and to train that little part you need to win races,” Steels continues. “But that’s maybe two per cent of your programme. One or two per cent for the speed, the rest is basic training, to get as fresh as possible to the finish line. 

“In the later part of the pre-season training programme a sprinter do very high weights and low reps in the gym - two or three repetitions with really heavy weights, and that’s it. For the other guys you’d leave it out. For them it’s more about core stability: getting stronger while avoiding weight gain.”

Steels - who won nine Tour de France stages - wins the Belgian national championship road race for a fourth time in 2004 (BENOIT DOPPAGNE/AFP/Getty Images)

Lead-out training

We know winning a sprint stage is not just about the first rider over the line - there is a whole team of riders who help to set it up - so when does lead-out training come into the picture?

“Lead-out training is usually something for the first training camp, a little bit, then the second training camp even more,” Steels says. 

“For lead-outs, a lot of the work is done in the meetings before races. They’re all professional riders, they have to know more about the course and discuss amongst themselves where they want to be and how they want to do it. 

“On the bike we do some sprints in training - that moment where you have to do full gas. But the most important work is done in the meeting on the bus.”

Decision making

Mark Cavendish (Team Dimension Data) has previously written about reading logic puzzle books to help his decision making under pressure in sprints. Is mental training part of the sprint programme?

Steels says: “Those kinds of decisions form part of the very long process to become a professional rider. Partly on the track when you’re 15 years old, and in your first road races, and you still learn a lot day-by-day when you become a professional."

“It’s true you need to make decisions on instinct, or you trust your lead-out man, he has to take quick decisions, and that’s something you learn in practise. What’s very important is the guys are relaxed, that they are not stressed by anything around the race - that’s the job of the staff to make sure everything is organised. 

“It’s very competitive, especially in the bunch sprint, and the more relaxed you can be the better. The best medicine is to win. A sprinter who wins always takes the right decisions and that’s all about confidence. I don't think there is any book or psychologist who can beat that."

The bike that won Marcel Kittel five stages at the 2017 Tour de France (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

What's it like working with Fernando Gaviria?

“Fernando is a natural. He follows his instinct more than anyone else. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes we ask him to do things a little bit differently, but he learns. He can go really from far, he can play with all his qualities to win races, and he already won a few races by taking decisions that didn’t really look logical. But he wins them. 

“As long as he feels his chance of winning is above 70 per cent, to be honest, as long as he’s confident … because you [the coach] don’t feel the legs of the riders, and you also don’t feel the legs of the competition. 

“Often it seems he takes a decision that’s not very logical - but in the end he wins a lot of races. He’s cold-blooded and he doesn’t have fear, and he has a good race instinct. So you don’t want to mess around with that too much."

“Fernando lives in Colombia, so at the moment it will all be altitude training and longer climbs. He has to gain some speed - but the thing with talented riders is that even if they ride their bike backwards, they are still going to be in condition. 

“They’re a different class of rider, but of course they have to train also, especially when they get older. He’s working now, but not doing something different from anyone else.

“We’re working with Elia Viviani now, we did the Six Days of Gent and he’s like everyone else - building up his condition.

"At a certain point we will go to more specific training for a sprinter but he’s building a solid base. Depending on the rider and when he starts his season, it’s a similar programme.

“If a rider’s goal is still far away, you stick to the basic training as long as possible. You leave the intensity out. Then when it gets closer you raise the intensity and follow a specific programme in the weeks before important races. Just to get the level as high as possible."

There is plenty of work to do to get in the best possible shape - so can riders afford to enjoy some celebrations with family and friends over festive season?

“What you usually do is calculate that between Christmas and New Year, you don’t have to train that much,” Steels says. “You kind of party with the handbrake on. We see it as a recovery week. Because after that, from 1st or 2nd January, it’s full gas. It never stops.”

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