Hennie Pienaar and Will Payne
Publish Date: Monday, 4 May 2020
Hennie Pienaar and Will Payne

Improving sprint cycling performance

Research by Hennie Pienaar and Will Payne into the biomechanics and muscle activation patterns of elite track sprint cyclists aims at enhancing the performance of New Zealand’s top cycling athletes. ​

Hennie is an accredited exercise physiologist with a Masters in Human Movement Science and has been teaching in the Bachelor of Sport and Exercise programme since 2002. His colleague Will Payne, tutor on the Bachelor of Sport and Exercise degree programme, is a sports nutritionist with a Masters of Human Nutrition, a Postgraduate Diploma in Sports Medicine and a Bachelor of Physical Education and Human Nutrition from the University of Otago. Since 2011 Will and Hennie have been using their combined expertise to carry out research aimed at improving the performance of New Zealand’s top cycling athletes. In 2013 they shared their findings at the Sports and Exercise Science New Zealand Annual Conference in Christchurch. Their findings were presented at the conference in the novel form of an animated e-poster, presented on a large HD television screen, and the pair came away with the Best Presenters Award.

The New Zealand track sprint team has had an outstanding few years, coming from a ranking of fifth in the world in 2009 to winning silver at the World Championships in 2013 and coming fifth at the London Olympics where they also broke the New Zealand record. The research by Hennie and Will focused on a vital aspect that may have led to improving the speed of the first lap of the race. As Hennie explains, ‘we carried out a series of tests on elite cyclists in order to analyse that first lap, including the starting sequence of track cyclists.’ They applied biomechanical principles to make recommendations that may have contributed towards improvements in the standing start performance. They were also able to gain a better understanding of muscle activation patterns in the first lap in sprint cycling including how these are involved in force and power development.

Twelve highly trained, elite sprint cyclists took part in the study. Testing was done under controlled conditions at the ILT Velodrome in Invercargill and in the Southern Institute of Technology’s Human Performance Laboratory. From video analysis of the higher ranked riders Hennie and Will found that timing is crucial in order to avoid losing time during the start. ‘Initiating drive from the gate either too early or too late can cost a team as much as one second off the overall time,’ says Will. ‘That might not sound like much but, when you consider that the New Zealand team lost the gold medal to Germany in 2013 by 0.049 of a second, then you can see how vital it is to get off to a good start.’ Cyclists must have their push-off timed to the moment the gate releases and, after rolling straight out of the gate, they need to apply coordinated pressure through the pedals to accelerate up to speed.

A successful race-winning start requires the cyclists to be able to optimise a complex series of actions. ‘They need to push off from the gate as it releases, drive their bodies forward and initiate proper mechanics for the first pedal stroke,’ Hennie says. ‘The fastest starters tend to be those cyclists who are able to coordinate these three actions.’