If you want to start a debate in the café post-ride ask a group of bike riders this simple question, “If Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish were in the same race, who would win the sprint?” Simple on the surface but it raises a huge number of questions on what is the difference between a road and track sprinter.
Just looking at the two riders side by side there is an obvious difference, bulk. Pure track sprinters are massive slabs of muscle. To be a good track sprinter you need to have been born with a higher proportion of fast twitch fibres in your muscles. These fibres are good for explosive action, but they require a lot of energy and they tire fast. Fast twitch fibres respond better to weight training and track sprinters spend a lot of time in the gym. Sprinting from a slow or standing start is a whole different kettle of fish to being in the front of an already fast moving bunch. They need to generate huge amounts of torque to start their sprint. On raw numbers alone Hoy is clearly more powerful. Cavendish has said his highest peak power output is 1580 watts but Hoy can claim an absolutely massive 2,200 watts!
Road cyclists, even sprinters, have more slow twitch fibres. These are good for endurance and are more economical with their use of fuel. Road sprinters not only have the acceleration to beat everyone in the sprint at the end of the race they have the endurance and tactical knowledge to get themselves to the finish in the first place, and with enough energy to spare for the final effort. If it were a road race the track sprinter would struggle to be in contention for the sprint.
Another key difference is gears, track riders only have one gear and its fixed so you have to keep pedalling, no free-wheeling. On the track cadence and acceleration is the key to success and track riders use much smaller gears than road riders. Road riders in a bunch sprint will be clicking through their gears and winding up to finish their final effort in something like 53 x 11 or 53 x 12 126” or 116” gear inches. Cadence would be between 100 and 120rpm to generate a speed close to 40mph. On the track to reach similar speeds riders would be using 50 x 14 or 51 x 15 to create a 90” gear but pedalling at 134 or 141 rpm! One of the reasons for Cavendish’s success as a road sprinter comes from his track experience, he can turn the pedals fast and accelerate past riders right the way to the line.
The technique of sprinting on the track is also very different thanks to the fixed gear and also the shape and banking of the track. Road riders get out of the saddle and use their body weight to increase forward propulsion, throwing their bike from side to side. On the track riders upper body tends to be more still, once out the start gate, and a lot more acceleration happens in the saddle. If they get out the saddle they keep their weight back over the nose of the saddle, keeping an even weight through front and rear wheel.
Road riders need to put up with a moderate degree of suffering for a long time, races easily last from 4-6 hours, endurance and fueling is the key. On the track sprinters need to swallow a really intense degree of pain but races are over in seconds or minutes. Over 1km Hoy would be the victor but over a 100km, it is unlikely he’d be there at the end to contest it.