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The Expert: Thirty-four-year-old Willow Koerber Rockwell (Trek World Racing) may have just returned to World Cup racing after taking last season off to focus on her pregnancy (Raven Starr Rockwell was born on Dec. 31), but that doesn’t mean she isn’t ready to rock this season. In fact, she’s especially motivated, with a potential spot on the U.S. Olympic Team within her grasp.
If that seems unlikely, you don’t know Rockwell. At the 2010 World Championships at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Rockwell was holding a solid second place with less than a lap to go when an unfortunate crash left her tangled in the barrier on the side of the course. While she was extricating herself, two racers passed her. But then Rockwell turned on the sprint of her life (“I just saw red and had to pass,” she says), and in a matter of minutes worked her way back into contention to finish with the bronze. It was impressive, to say the least. Looking to add a bit of sprint mastery to your own riding life? Here’s Rockwell’s advice on how to do it.
Practice It Naturally: “You can’t expect to win a sprint if you’ve never practiced sprinting in your training,” says Rockwell. At the same time, many mountain bike sprints aren’t for the finish, but happen at other points in the race, often to battle for position. How to train? Work sprints into your ride. “For me, if there’s a small hill, I just stand up and hammer to the top,” Rockwell says. “That’s my favorite way to train.”
Trust Your Instincts: If you’ve practiced your sprints on your rides, Rockwell says you need to trust that it’s downloaded into yourself and that your body will know what to do. All that’s left is for you to get ready mentally: “Going into the race I know that everything I’ve practiced is there to access,” she says. “It’s about being intuitive in the moment, not second guessing if you’re ready.”
Don’t Go Too Soon: Rockwell admits that her long-form sprint at Mont-Sainte-Anne was an anomaly—most finish-line sprints don’t last nearly that long. And that means the challenge is in the timing, and in your position. “The rider in the back has the better chance,” Rockwell says. “You don’t want to lead out, you just want to be close.” Beyond that, the finish is up to how you’re feeling. “You want to give yourself enough room to just get around the person in front of you,” Rockwell says. “You just don’t want to get so lactic in those last 10 or 15 seconds that you get swept back up by the riders behind you before you finish.”
Gear Up: Once you’re in position, you need to quickly do your prep work. That means finding the right gear—not so tough that your leg speed drops dramatically, but not so easy that you end up flailing before the finish. Generally speaking, that means quickly shifting up two or three cogs, hitting the lockout on your fork, then standing up and going for it. “Then it’s time to dig in,” Rockwell says. “Commit to go as fast as you can go.”
Once You Go…Go! There’s no good way to say it: A good finish sprint hurts. “When you do sprint, you need to commit 110-percent,” Rockwell says. “Don’t think, ‘Oh, I went too soon,’ just go. Yes, you’ll feel like you’re going to die but that’s part of the experience. Who cares, the end is right there. It will be over before you know it.”