Beer Bellies and Track Racing

This is my third posting about track racing; a discipline I've participated in exactly twice! I guess I found the whole scene fascinating, because I keep thinking about it while I ride to work.

So, one thing that really struck me, but didn't surprise me, was how many of the serious track racers do leg weight training. I talked with one veteran, Tim Montagne of LGBRC, who has been racing at the velodrome since before I was born, I mean, for over 20 years. We're actually fairly close in age. Sigh. Anyway, he told me that he could leg-press 510 pounds.... with one leg!!! Yikes! I had just finished doing my first-ever standing start track sprints, so I could totally understand what his goal was. To finish with a winning time it is critical to get up to speed fast, especially in the shorter 1K. They time you from a full stop, so every second you spend accelerating from that full stop up to cruising speed is that much more time spent on the track, so the advantage to being "strong" is huge.

But I kept turning this concept over in my mind while riding to work, instead of paying attention to the traffic trying to kill me, and something didn't make sense to me. How strong do you really need to be? I figure you really only need to be strong enough to be able to stand on one leg. After all, that's what you're doing when you mash down on the forward pedal. So maybe all of that weight-training they do is a waste of time? Well, before you cancel your 24 Hour Fitness membership, I know that ignores a few details:

  • You need to add some weight to account for jumping down on the pedal. We don't just stand on it, we kind of jump up and stomp on it.
  • You need to add some more weight to account for how we pull up on the opposite pedal... or at least I think we do.
  • Perhaps we also need to add some weight to account for how we can sort of leverage the handlebars to apply more force to the pedal. Sort of like standing on a bathroom scale while pushing up on a towel bar or something.
I don't know exactly how to account for those extra forces, but I did come up with a possible test-method, however Rube Goldberg-esque:

Clamp your bike in a trainer with the crank arms horizontal. Find a box that fits under the forward pedal with a couple of inches clearance. Put a bathroom scale on the box and slip it all underneath the forward pedal. Get up on the bike, clip in, and have a friend read the scale while you stomp and pull on the pedals as hard as you can. Come to think of it, you might need to bolt the trainer to the floor!

I'll make a wild guess: The total weight registered will probably be way less than 510 pounds, and probably something more like, oh, let's say, your body weight plus maybe 50 pounds or so. In my case that would be about 200 pounds. I should try this test myself someday, but I bet that's a good guess. And here's another thing: as soon as you start moving during a standing-start track sprint, the force on the pedal decreases, and it decreases more as your cadence increases. That's pretty accepted physics. So you only need your maximum strength for the first split-second of your sprint.

[After a while I thought of another way of checking maximum pedal force: ride a bike with a power meter and convert from Watts to pounds of force. Duh! I think most really good sprinters are capable of between 1200 and 2000 Watts at full sprint, so if anybody can work from that info to pedal force in pounds, let us know by adding a comment here.]

So, that means the maximum force on the pedal is well within the limits of any person who can walk up a step. And you only need your maximum strength for the first pedal stroke or so. Correct me if I'm wrong by clicking on the "Comments" link below and telling me why. Maybe that extra strength somehow translates into better "power" for longer efforts. Convince me; I even have a gym membership already. :-)

Oh yeah, "beer bellies:" I figure that big, heavy dudes with a beer belly would be able to apply a much higher force to the pedals in a standing start, assuming they can stand on one leg. A 250-pound guy might be able to apply 100 pounds more than I can. But they also have more mass to accelerate, so perhaps that cancels out any advantage??? Heck, I don't know... I'm just asking questions here, not answering them! :-)

By the way, the fastest guy out there at the California Elite State Track Championships was Ben Jacques-Mayne. Not exactly a huge hulking weight lifter. More evidence that you don't have to be super strong to be fast in any cycling discipline. But "power" sure helps, and that's a different subject.

Well, I'm planning on attending my third track event this Sunday, and that will bring me that much closer to being a for-real trackie instead of an armchair trackie!