"It’s a Weird Sort of Thrill."

By Danny Summerhill

photo: @veloimages


During his stop in Salt Lake City, Danny Summerhill (American Cycling Group) took some time to give us the rundown of how his transition from consummate lead-out man and general off-the-front antagonist to team sprinter. We’d say it’s going relatively well, as he’s been logging wins across the country and – as of early August – holds the ACC leader’s jersey by 29 points over Miami Nights’ Alfredo Rodriguez.

Below is an excerpt of parts of our conversation with Danny, lightly edited and arranged for clarity and length.

Becoming the team leader

Historically, I've always been excited and happy to be a lead out rider. I mean, I know that I'm a very, very talented lead out rider, but I'd also never really been given unlimited access to go for wins myself up until our sprinter, Jordan Parra, got mono earlier this year. I don’t know why I was content just playing lead out man for so long – that’s a good question, and it’s probably one that my therapist will be better able to answer.

I think it's mostly just because I've done that role for so long, for so many years, that I know how to do it. Maybe it was also the relative lack of pressure on the lead out man. I knew that the pressure wouldn’t be on me that way, and that the outcome was up to our team sprinter. So, if the win doesn't happen, that's not my fault, because I know that no matter what, my lead out was of winning quality.

But this year, I'd say I've enjoyed the pressure as the sprinter – especially just realizing that I can do it. The wins that I've had in the past have come from different scenarios, like winning from a breakaway or solo moves, but obviously, this is totally different. Though no one was planning on it happening, this unfortunate scenario for my teammate who got mono has given me this chance, it's really opened my eyes to other possibilities and other capabilities – in this case, that’s sprinting for wins in these US Crit races.

Learning to race as a sprinter

Personally, I'm a very front-of-the-race oriented rider. I know plenty of other people who ride in the middle to the back of the race. My teammates would be across the board with different answers there, but because of my racing style, I’ll stay at the front of the race more often than not, just to be in a good position while I’m coming into the last few laps. If you’ve been staying up there, then when the last few laps are happening, you've already been there the whole time so you don’t have to fight for your spot as much.

But now that I'm racing to keep this leader's jersey, I race in an atypical, non-aggressive style, where I’d usually be quite aggressive. At the race in Salt Lake, for example, I was doing all I could to basically just stay as hidden and low and tucked away as possible, just to save my energy. Normally, I enjoy being aggressive and making something happen, making the race hard myself as opposed to having other people make it hard. If I were to go goof around off the front just like chasing moves or trying to attack? That would extremely piss off the team.

That aggressive racing is the style of rider that I've always been, but that's all sort of reversed now. The pressure is on me to stay cool and calm as long as possible during the race, so that I'm as fresh as possible for the end of it. It's like at the Tour de France, and no one's gonna let the yellow jersey just mess around in a breakaway.

So it’s different, but I am content not doing those more standard things that I would historically do, being very aggressive and attacking and all that stuff. And I'm happy with what I'm able to do right now. It's just a weird sensation, not being up there with my teammates, helping to cover moves and trying to get into breakaways. I'm just needed to be as fresh and fast as possible for the end of the race, versus covering moves in the middle.

Motorpacing and rethinking watts

At least two to three times a week, I do motorpace sessions behind my girlfriend. They're not terribly difficult things to organize, because I just do it in the neighborhood as opposed to ages ago, when I was training for stage races and I would be motorpacing for hours at a time behind my dad. It's way easier now. I’ve got a good straight, flat road, and I can just find the scooter and then practice my sprint.

There's not a ton of structure to it outside of just do X amount of practice sprints per session, each consisting of about a 10- to 15-second sprint. I pretty much just do a drag race up the road, turn around, and come back. Real simple. I'm sure my competitors have much more dialed programs than that, but I'm plenty content just to race around the neighborhood. It feels easier that way.

One thing that I really picked up on this season is how short my sprint efforts in training used to be, if that makes sense. A year or two ago, when I thought I was practicing my sprints, it was probably for no more than four seconds. And now that I know that I have to be capable of sprinting longer, it's – I mean, going to 12 seconds at top effort and making that repeatable is definitely a tall order.

A lead out versus an actual spring is quite similar, it's just the matter of when you start your effort. So, as a lead out, rider would have been doing a very comparable effort to what I'm doing now in a sprint. That effort is just 60 to about 90 seconds sooner. It's really not that different. If you're to do a very full-gas, uninterrupted lead out, you could probably average around 700 watts for under a minute. For that last minute of a race, if you're sprinting, then you’re probably averaging out something similar, maybe a little bit less, but with a higher peak.

You might be going hard, but you’re on wheels, so that would bring your overall average down, but then your max power would be closer to 1,400 or 1,500 watts. And for that duration, it's a 12- to 15-second burst, it's crazy how long that time feels when you're sprinting full gas for that long on a training ride – like holy shit, this feels like an hour.

Balancing training with life

My dad has Alzheimer's and he lives with me now, so I am somewhat limited to the amount of time that I go out training. That’s why I do the shorter motorpacing sessions in the neighborhood, and it’s also led me to train indoors more often this season – and in a pretty unique fashion.

I ride my bike on a treadmill. I can quite easily spend a couple hours on that. I'll just set up an old race to watch on YouTube, and then I’ll do my efforts and intervals on the treadmill. If I'm doing that for two hours, that means I'm home for two hours, and I obviously don't need to be concerned about what my dad's up to.

When my girlfriend comes over, yeah, we can dip around the neighborhood for 20 minutes with the moto and get some sprints in, and it's no biggie. But I think if I were training for stage races in the current sort of setting that I'm in now, where I'd be gone for four or five hours a day – that just wouldn't really be viable with my dad being home alone.

Smarter indoor training

Yep, when I’m riding indoors, I watch old races on TV rather than use a training app like Zwift. I think of it as that much more practice to know what I could potentially see in the future at those same races.

For instance, I've watched the rate in Intelligentia, which I'll be  riding next Saturday, probably three times already, just how the rate unfolded and what to expect and what I should try and prep. Same for a Littleton, which is the one rate that I might want some hands on experience for, because, historically, Littleton has had downpours more years than it hasn't. I think that some training in the rain might be beneficial prior to the race, but I also know the corners intimately because I’ve watched plenty of replays.

If there’s a race that I'm in some capacity earmarking, then I will definitely watch them or at least check out the course online. There's rarely a time that I would go to a race and I haven't at least tried to see the course through YouTube or go to Google Maps street view just to virtually walk the circuit for a criterium, and see what the what that street view would show me. You can gather so much information just doing the street-view walking version – seeing where the potholes in the roads are and finding those little humps in the road that the map just won't show you.

Tips for new racers

For new crit racers, first and foremost, let's just say hypothetically you were fortunate enough to live close to a velodrome. I think that by training and racing in a velodrome, you could become so much more confident in yourself and your skills in a criterium. The training that your subconscious gets when everything's coming at you so much faster on the track translates into a road race like it's slow motion. It helps you feel less nervous in a criterium, like riding in a group isn't as bad as you're internally fearing that it is. I think you can make a lot of leads and balance just by getting on the track, and don’t let that scare you initially because I'm sure it will. It’s a great amount of stimulus and training in what is essentially a situation you can still crash in, but when you crash on a track, you typically slide versus hitting concrete and flipping over barriers and so on.

This last winter was kind of a return to track cycling for me. Pre-2020, I was shooting for the Olympics on the track racing team pursuit and then obviously COVID happened, and that saw that dream go up in flames. So this last winter, I decided I wanted to get back to track, and I jumped into the deep end by learning the Madison. My first ever Madison competition was the national championship; after that, I got super hooked and then spent pretty much all winter traveling back and forth to the velodrome in Detroit. 

That specific velodrome has super friendly races, and they offer things like free housing and transportation while you’re there. For spectators, we are just part of the show, because they charge for tickets, and they've got a liquor license and everything. So, inside the velodrome, people will buy tickets, drinks, and just watch racing. They probably have no idea about anything related to bikes – they're just there for the entertainment.

The other tip that I’d give is something I typically do once or twice prior to every season. I go to a parking lot – and this is probably right up there with training on a treadmill, pretty weird – but I'll go to a parking lot and practice doing figure eights to a point where I can actually hit my pedal on the ground while I'm pedaling through a turn, just to remind my body what it feels like to hit a pedal, which could happen when racing, when we're cornering that fast. 

Maybe five times out of 10, crashes happen that way, with a pedal strike while cornering, because people panic and they're not used to what to do from there. When I can practice that so many times before the season, then it's just second nature to not freak out. That’s one thing I’d definitely suggest for anyone who wants to feel a bit more confident for criterium racing.

Looking ahead

After the first part of this season, I know that I'm way more confident in myself as a sprinter than I used to be, and that's just because I had ever been in this scenario of needing to be fresh for a sprint before. I was always needing to be fresh or good for a lead out.

I’m already thinking ahead to next year. I definitely would like to carry this momentum knowing that I am capable of winning races in a sprint – and also, knowing in the past that I've won races by myself, solo. So, yeah, I do like the sprinting aspect. It's a lot of fun and just a weird sort of thrill if you will – a new aspect to my experience as a racer.

August 15, 2023 — First Endurance
Tags: inspiration

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