Benjamin Sharp has been a professional and Olympic coach for more than a decade, leading the men’s and women’s track teams at various Games as well as personally coaching a variety of elite athletes, from Tokyo gold medalist Jennifer Valente to four-time Paralympic medalist Joe Berenyi to recent world-record-setter Ashton Lambie. I asked him what kind of power and drag numbers it took for Lambie to set the 4km world record of 3:59.93, and he was frank.
“To be 100-percent honest, since no one has ever done it before, I don’t know,” Sharp said with a laugh. “But really, really high power, and a really, really low CdA.”
Lambie told Sharp that he likely averaged 480-500 watts for the four-minute effort — never mind the massive, high-torque acceleration it took to get up to over 60kph from a dead stop on his 64×15 fixed gear bike.
“The equation is to divide your power by your CdA. It’s almost like a watts-per-kilo [equation],” Sharp said.
Watts, most cyclists know, are a unit of power measurement, where the formula is torque x RPM. CdA is short for the coefficient of aerodynamic drag, which is a measurement of a rider’s body size, shape, and surface texture. The smaller the CdA, the ‘slipperier’ a rider is, and the faster they go. Much like a climber trying to minimize their body (and bike) weight to increase their w/kg power, a rider can negatively affect their power output by getting into a hyper-aero position. The trick — whether for setting world records or local time trialing — is to find the sweet spot where speed is maximized.
I have asked Lambie to write about his work in this area for an upcoming Project Sub-4 column. We’ll see if he reveals his secrets there.
After a four-year partnership, Sharp has not formally coached Lambie since the American men failed to qualify for the team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics, and Lambie set off on an individual pursuit of his own. Lambie now works with Chris Dellasega of Athletic Strength Institute, and the pair have taken an interesting approach of training like middle-distance runners, as the individual pursuit is not a sprint, nor is it a long endurance effort — it is somewhere in between. Dellasega is the USA Cycling’s strength coach for the men’s track program.
“Chris is training Ashton like a 1,500m runner, with a lot of lactate tolerance work,” Sharp said. “He really benefitted from a new stimulus. I was bummed that his Olympic road ended and our formal role ended, but I think he made a good decision.”
Sharp began coaching Lambie after the rider called him out of the blue in 2017.
“At that point Ashton had maybe done one nationals,” Sharp said. “There was some energy being put behind the USA endurance program with the hope of building a team for Paris 2024. Ashton was in that mix. He needed someone who had some knowledge of the inner workings of team pursuit as well as coaching.”
Sharp had coached the women’s team pursuit team to silver at the 2012 Olympics, among other things.
“I just tried to prepare him as best I could for the track seasons while keeping him interested and having fun, which for him is doing things like gravel and racing across Kansas.”
Sharp said that when Lambie trained with the U.S. men for the team pursuit, he was a reluctant leader, despite being the strongest guy on the squad.
“With the team pursuit I tried to educate him on his role,” Sharp said. “When you’re in a road team and you’re going to stage races, the captain of the team may not be the best performer. The one calling the shots may not be the one winning the races. Whereas in track, a hierarchy develops around strength. With great power comes responsibility, right?”
Lambie later had the opportunity to join the Huub-Wattbike, a unique track program that operates much like a road trade team.
“They did multi-week camps in the U.K., and he got to learn and practice a lot,” Sharp said. “I told him that would be a setback for his U.S. teammates, who he was making better by having them quite literally chase him around.”
Sharp said Lambie sometimes didn’t understand how good he was, in relation to others.
“He had a hard time understanding why his teammates couldn’t go faster. He’s that talented,” Sharp said. “That is the curse of the innately talented; he doesn’t fully appreciate the limits of those who aren’t. Out of the gate, he can ride a 4:26 pursuit with no training, and he doesn’t understand why others can’t do that.”
Sharp said one thing both he and Lambie appreciate about the individual pursuit is all the different factors that go into a fast time, and the different strategies you could employ towards the same goal.
“For time splits, we can do calculations beforehand based on conditions, or reverse engineer things based on known factors like power output over four minutes,” Sharp said.
Humidity, temperature, and air pressure are all major factors that could sway IP times by as much as five to eight seconds, Sharp said.
“Track geometry also plays a part. Despite the fact that you’re riding in an oval, there’s an on and off to the power. You might be trying to push hard in the straights and float in the corners, or the reverse,” he said.
Then, of course, there is the equipment.
“He has the goofy helmet, which for a lot of people is very fast,” Sharp said. “He’s been very meticulous in his equipment selection, and tinkering with the minutiae of his position.”
Readers can look forward to the next Project Sub-4 column for more from Lambie on his world-record ride.
Also looking forward, what does one do after setting a world record?
“I think you go to the world championships this fall,” Sharp said. “And you try to win a world title.”