The Evo­lu­tion of Sprint Cycling

Gordon (Gord) Sin­gle­ton has raced from 1974 to the present day. A former worl­drecord holder, he has an im­pres­sive list of ac­co­lades to his name. He is the first Cana­dian rider to win world-cham­pion sta­tus and the only cy­clist in his­tory to si­mul­ta­ne­ously

Pedal Magazine - - Contents - by Gordon Sin­gle­ton

Be­fore I bought my first record, Jethro Tull's Aqualung, or pur­chased my first car, a 1967 Ford Galaxie 500, I had my first two-wheeled bi­cy­cle – a bright-red Cana­dian-made CCM. It's an in­ter­est­ing sight, putting it be­side a bike of today. From wool to Ly­cra to the lat­est high-tech car­bon-disc wheels, I was lucky enough to race and ride through it all in the quest for great­ness and per­fec­tion in the sport. I have been re­flect­ing upon the changes in sprint cycling over the years. I'm not sure whether it is the re­cent pass­ing of my former team­mate, Jo­ce­lyn Lovell, watch­ing my son cap­ture a Cana­dian ti­tle or ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an evening on the track with the 2014 World cham­pion sprint team, who hail from New Zealand – no, I'm not go­ing through a late midlife cri­sis. Hav­ing just turned 60, I'm pretty sure I have earned the right to com­pare the past to the present.

In the sum­mer of 2014, my son Chris trav­elled down to the Le­high Val­ley Velo­drome just out­side of Al­len­town, Pa. for a sprint tour­na­ment, and I ac­com­pa­nied him. For the past 39 sum­mers, Le­high Val­ley has hosted the World Se­ries of Bi­cy­cling. This bike track has been the hot­bed of U.S. track cycling since it was built in 1975. I ac­tu­ally raced there at its of­fi­cial open­ing night in May 1976, and re­turned in 1980 to set three new track records. The event usu­ally at­tracts the top North Amer­i­can rid­ers and a half-dozen Euro­peans, all look­ing for a great place to train, com­plete with fine weather and good food.

In at­ten­dance at the 2014 tour­na­ment was New Zealand's three-man sprint team fresh off their first World-ti­tle win. The next day, af­ter the Ki­wis had com­peted all day, their coach, An­thony Pe­den, in­vited me to at­tend and ride the track with the three guys: rac­ers Ethan Mitchell, Sam Web­ster and Ed­die Dawkins. For me, it was amaz­ing and a thrill to be back on the out­door track with World cham­pion sprint rac­ers. Sprint­ers are a spe­cial breed – un­like road rac­ers, triath­letes or any­one else.

I par­tic­i­pated a bit in their ses­sion. We all sat around in be­tween ef­forts on the track, drink­ing cof­fee and telling jokes as we com­pared notes on how I trained and how they now train. It was quite in­ter­est­ing, and made me re­flect on what I have ob­served over the years.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, ad­vance­ments in aero­dy­nam­ics changed the phys­i­cal com­po­nents of bi­cy­cles. I saw a move from tra­di­tional round spokes to the mod­ern ver­sion, which are flat and re­sem­ble blades. I re­mem­ber the first time I tried the bladed spoked wheels; it felt as though my wheels were cut­ting through the air. This ad­vance­ment made a mar­ginal dif­fer­ence in my time-trial event times. I still have the orig­i­nal pair on dis­play in my of­fice.

Bi­cy­cle-frame tub­ing be­gan to shift to an aero­dy­namic teardrop shape rather than the con­ven­tional round or cylin­der shape. Our per­son­ally crafted frames were man­u­fac­tured by renowned Mon­treal, Que. framemaker Giuseppe Mari­noni. We Cana­di­ans aligned our­selves with him be­cause he was al­ways think­ing out­side the box – he was very cut­ting-edge. I had never ap­pre­ci­ated a Mari­noni bike un­til I was set to ride one. Lovell and I would joke about how fast th­ese frames were; they gave us a se­ri­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal ad­van­tage. I'm sure our op­po­nents felt some­what in­fe­rior on the start line.

One mas­sive dif­fer­ence be­tween my era and today is the size of the gears the rid­ers can turn. When we raced, we used the same size of gear­ing our pre­de­ces­sors from the 1920's to 1960's had used. For races, it was mostly 88” through to 94.5”. Today's sprint­ers are ex­per­i­ment­ing with 135”, though they mostly race on 115” to 124”. The dif­fer­ence is that my 200-me­tre world record on a 94” gear was 10.58 sec­onds. Today, the record is 9.347 sec­onds. I'm es­ti­mat­ing the racer was on more than a 124” gear.

Track rac­ers of my day com­peted on out­door tracks made of con­crete or asphalt and the velo­dromes var­ied be­tween 333 me­tres and 500 me­tres. Today's events take place in 250-me­tre in­door velo­dromes. There is a mas­sive dif­fer­ence when racing down the back straight of a 500-me­tre velo­drome with a 25kph head­wind.

When the use of Ly­cra and Span­dex was in­tro­duced, I re­al­ized that ad­vances in aero­dy­nam­ics would con­tinue to af­fect change in the sport. The Ly­cra style was first seen by cy­clists at the 1976 Olympics in Mon­treal, Que. Re­call­ing my first Olympics, cy­clists wore what were called “skin suits.” East Ger­many and Switzer­land were the first to don the new style. They were tight, form-fit­ting and fast-look­ing – but we didn't have the money to pur­chase them. For the next two years, I raced in the silk shirt pro­vided by the Na­tional team and stan­dard wool shorts that I pur­chased my­self.

A few months prior to the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Ed­mon­ton, Alta., Lovell, who was the top track racer in Canada, told me he was get­ting his own “skin suits” made lo­cally. I ap­proached a seam­stress and had two suits made for my­self. They were not made to last be­cause my races were so short in dis­tance. We didn't even put chamois leather in them, but they looked cool. I took home a gold and bronze from the Games and Lovell won three gold medals. Rid­ers, such as my­self and many oth­ers, sim­ply didn't un­der­stand how aero­dy­nam­ics could make a dif­fer­ence.

I had never ap­pre­ci­ated a Mari­noni bike un­til I was set to ride one. Lovell and I would joke about how fast th­ese frames were; they gave us a se­ri­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal ad­van­tage. I'm sure our op­po­nents felt some­what in­fe­rior on the start line.

In 1979, I gained my first spon­sor, U.S.-based AMF Sport­ing Goods, and from that point on, I was pro­vided with elite racing at­tire man­u­fac­tured by Swiss com­pany De­cente. AMF also pro­vided us with all of the best equip­ment: tires, wheels and Mari­noni frames. It was the first time in my racing life where my spare wheels were just as good as my race wheels.

Al­though the tires look sim­i­lar, today's de­signs have sig­nif­i­cantly less rolling re­sis­tance. Af­ter I re­tired from Professional racing in 1982, car­bon-fi­bre wheels were in­tro­duced. The Union Cy­cliste In­ter­na­tionale (UCI) be­gan al­low­ing car­bon-disc wheels, which are by far the most aero­dy­namic. In my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, com­par­ing the equip­ment from my 1982 era through to 2010, the racer has gained 0.5 of a sec­ond over a short 200-me­tre dis­tance us­ing car­bon-disc wheels. That is im­pres­sive when ex­panded over four kilo­me­tres.

Ath­letes have known for cen­turies that bet­ter nu­tri­tion pro­motes bet­ter per­for­mance. In my era, we were aware of our pro­tein, car­bo­hy­drate and fat in­take, but in most cases, we grand­fa­thered what we were taught or copied the stars of that day. Most of my train­ing and nu­tri­tion reg­i­mens were mod­eled af­ter Reg Har­ris. On a typ­i­cal race day, I fu­eled up on an egg, banana and toast. Today, nu­tri­tion­ists and sci­en­tists have it di­aled in much more so. Ath­letes such as my son are told to eat or­ganic, that it should be whole­some as pos­si­ble and to eat very lit­tle pro­cessed foods.

The ex­perts un­der­stand from their re­search ex­actly how much an ath­lete can digest at a meal and how much they re­quire be­fore and af­ter work­outs.

One sim­ple ex­am­ple is hy­dra­tion. I know for a fact that I ran un­der-hy­drated, no fault of my own. We sim­ply didn't know. I went out on many train­ing rides that were more than two hours in length with less than a bot­tle of wa­ter. Some of my train­ing bud­dies who were pur­su­ing road-racing ca­reers would do long train­ing rides with their el­der and more ex­pe­ri­enced team­mates, only be­ing al­lowed half a bot­tle of wa­ter and half an ap­ple over a six-hour pe­riod. They were told, “You have to toughen up.”

Weight- or strength-train­ing is not a new con­cept, but for cycling pur-

poses, it was pri­mar­ily used for train­ing in the winter months, as it was be­lieved that when the cycling sea­son be­gan, more time should be spent train­ing on the bike. For me, my sprint ca­reer came com­pletely full cir­cle when I be­gan a year-round weight- and strength-train­ing pro­gram. In the winter of 1978-79, I met Bill Gvoich from Stoney Creek, Ont., a professional strength-trainer whose cre­den­tials in­cluded work­ing with teams such as the Toronto Arg­onauts, Hamil­ton Tiger-Cats and Detroit Red Wings. Back then, there was the old wives' tale that bulk mus­cle and cycling didn't mix well, but he con­vinced me with proven knowl­edge and ev­i­dence that if I were to fol­low his pro­gram, re­sults would be seen. To my knowl­edge, I was the very first sprint cy­clist this side of the Iron Cur­tain to work with weights sys­tem­at­i­cally year-round, and it paid off in spades.

My new weight-train­ing rou­tine in­cluded com­plet­ing a com­bi­na­tion of power squats and en­durance squats, a reg­i­men that was quite dif­fer­ent from my team­mates and con­tem­po­raries around the world. Af­ter three to four years of prac­tice, I would squat sets of 50 reps with as much as 225 pounds. I used this tech­nique to sim­u­late a Kilo­me­tre race that was just a lit­tle more than one minute in length. When racing a Kilo­me­tre, it was a com­plete ex­plo­sion off the line. Then you had to hold the speed for the re­main­ing dis­tance. The win­ner of the Kilo­me­tre was al­ways the racer who could hold his speed the long­est. When my squat reps hit be­tween 40-50 this hurt more than when I reached the 45-sec­ond mark in my Kilo­me­tre race, I felt that I could hold my speed for maybe three to five sec­onds longer than my com­peti­tors.

Gvoich, who was a former pow­er­lifter and ki­ne­si­ol­o­gist, had ad­di­tional unique train­ing strate­gies for me. He struc­tured my strength pro­gram in such a way that I would achieve a per­sonal best in weightlift­ing once per month. We then cor­re­lated the per­sonal bests to co­in­cide with ma­jor cycling events such as the World Cham­pi­onships or Olympic Games. In other words, on my race day, I would have been sched­uled for a weightlift­ing per­sonal best, but in­stead of lift­ing weights, I was com­pet­ing on the bike. This com­ple­mented Gvoich's ap­proach so that I was at my strong­est on race day.

In 1979, af­ter less than six months of a struc­tured strength pro­gram, I started to win all of my sprint matches, beat­ing many rac­ers I had not beaten be­fore. My ca­reer ad­vanced from hov­er­ing around 24th place in the world to be­com­ing No. 2 inside nine months. Soon my strate­gies were be­ing copied by my peers and fel­low com­peti­tors. Once the Iron Cur­tain came down and West­ern­ers were ex­posed to the East Ger­man meth­ods, ev­ery­one was do­ing it.

Wind-tun­nel test­ing was com­pletely un­heard of in my day, yet it is the norm today. In the past 15 years, all the top rid­ers are com­plet­ing wind-tun­nel test­ing to de­tect de­fi­cien­cies in the racer's rid­ing po­si­tion and cloth­ing. Af­ter all my years in the sport, it still amazes me how rid­ers can gain 15 to 20 watts of power by ad­just­ing their set-up. In an at­tempt to cre­ate a level play­ing field, the UCI has in­tro­duced stan­dard­ized bi­cy­cle ge­om­e­try.

Prior to and dur­ing my era, we were al­lowed to jockey for race po­si­tion and al­most block an­other com­peti­tor – within rea­son. Today, they are so con­trolled by the rules. Once the sprint looks to have ac­tu­ally started, the rac­ers have to re­main in a straight line.

There have also been some very ma­jor rule changes with re­gards to sprint­race tac­tics. Prior to and dur­ing my era, we were al­lowed to jockey for race po­si­tion and al­most block an­other com­peti­tor – within rea­son. Today, they are so con­trolled by the rules. Once the sprint looks to have ac­tu­ally started, the rac­ers have to re­main in a straight line. I re­mem­ber a race at the old Vig­orelli Velo­drome in Mi­lan, Italy: I was com­ing over my Ital­ian op­po­nent in turn three so fast; just as I was level with his han­dle­bars, he turned right and took me up to the rail. That's a swing of around five me­tres. I kept my com­po­sure and still nipped him at the fin­ish line, but there was no dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion on his part.

Rac­ers be­fore me, through­out my era and prob­a­bly into the late '80's, com­peted much more than sprint­ers of today. We also par­tic­i­pated in a wide va­ri­ety of track events. In the early sea­son, we would race short road races and Cri­teri­ums. On the velo­drome, we of­ten raced in 10km and 20km events. At the same time, we would race our sprint events. We al­most raced our­selves fit.

Today, most sprint­ers at the World level race five to six times per year, mostly World Cups and then World or Olympic Cham­pi­onships. They have to race World Cup events to gain points that en­able them to move onto the World Cham­pi­onships. Plus, they only race in their spe­cial­ized event. To me, it sounds as if all the fun has been taken away.

Re­flect­ing back, I am amazed at the changes in train­ing since the 1980's. The rac­ers don't train longer than yes­ter­day's racer, they train smarter. They fo­cus on ex­actly what they need to im­prove on. In my era, work­outs were sim­i­lar to today's, but I didn't per­form as many sprint ef­forts and I did far too much en­durance work, as com­pared to present-day sprint­ers. Nowa­days, they gain en­durance by do­ing fre­quent, shorter ef­forts and more two-a-day track work­outs, com­bined with much more weightlift­ing. Think­ing back to my time on the track with the Ki­wis, I re­al­ize that as much as things have changed and ad­vanced, much has re­mained the same. Go­ing fast is about turn­ing the ped­als quicker than the other guys.

Af­ter I left the sport to be­gin my busi­ness ca­reer, I kept in touch with Lovell right up un­til his un­timely pass­ing. I have many great mem­o­ries of our days in the sport. It's a proud moment when I get the chance to watch my son Chris com­pete with the level of tech­nol­ogy that wasn't avail­able in my day. The day he was pre­sented with a Na­tional ti­tle in the three-man Team Sprint brought a tear to my eye. I look for­ward to watch­ing the di­rec­tion that tech­nol­ogy takes sprint cycling in the decades to come.

(from far left) Sin­gle­ton cel­e­brat­ing dou­ble gold at the 1979 Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico. Sin­gle­ton racing in an early skin suit on his way to the 500-me­tre World Record in Mex­ico City in 1980.

(top) Giuseppe Mari­noni rode the ma­chine he built for Jo­ce­lyn Lovell in 1978 for his 75+-hour record in 2012. (above) Jo­ce­lyn Lovell, dubbed the Muhammed Ali of Cycling, was a su­per­star for Canada in the 1970s and 80s; he also de­signed and built more...

(be­low) Reg Har­ris at Zurich in 1957 was one of the United Kingdom's great­est sprint cy­clists, win­ning the World Professional Sprint Cham­pi­onships four times.

(op­po­site) Cana­dian men’s Team Sprint squad, Evan Carey, Joseph Ve­loce and Hugo Bar­rette, at the 2015 World Cham­pi­onships in Saint-Quentin-en-Yve­lines, France. (above) Canada’s Hugo Bar­rette won sprint gold at 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, Ont.,...

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