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
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.,...