I’ve done a few gates in my time, more than a few. But really, when I think back to the time when I started racing as a 13 year old punk in 1980 through to when I moved from the small northern NSW town I grew up in, to Palm Beach on the Gold Coast (when the folks moved in 1988), “gate night” wasn’t really a thing. I can’t remember practicing gates in those early years, only rocking up on race days and smashing out a thousand gates in practice. But then, with close proximity, Wednesday night gate night at Nerang with old sparring partners Paul Addams and Anthony “Howie” Waye were a thing! From 1988 to 1994 we would be there hammering out gates like our life depended on it and we banged bars like every gate was a pro final! Even to this day, the legacy of Nerang endures as a training and racing arena.
I took a break from BMX from 1996 to 2009 (got a job, mortgage, blah, blah, blah) and when I jumped back in, wow, had the landscape changed. Gate nights were a thing every night of the week just about! And this became the norm for the next 6 or so years for me until I bumped into Sean Dwight and had a conversation about the world of BMX racing, coaching and development. Discussing training intensities, volume and techniques. We kept in touch and he told me he had a product that replicated a gate start. The BMX Sprintblock.
A little sceptical at first that a "piece of ABS plastic could replace a gate, having a open and inquisitive mind combined with a 50+ year old back that didn’t particularly enjoy banging out 20 or 30 gates a night, the Sprintblock had me converted after receiving one and incorporating it into my training before heading to the USABMX Grands in 2018. I knew from previous trips that even in 51x, a short first straight and the ultra tough competition against guys who have a lifetime of USA racing meant that I better have my gate and hill sorted! That year I landed on the podium and I was convinced this training tool was intergral to that performance.
So, what’s the secret to a killer gate and the fastest hill time? Let’s break it down.
First up, let’s get our terminology right. When you see that time on the scoring app at racing, it’s not your “reaction” time. It’s your hill time. How fast you got from the gate to the bottom of the hill where the first timing loop is located. “Reaction” time is how fast you responded from the first horn/beep/light on the gate and it’s nearly impossible to measure without slow motion cameras and timing overlays. But one thing hasn’t really changed since the dawn of BMX, if you’re first to the bottom of the hill, you've got a pretty good chance of winning that race. Providing that you’ve got some top end and hunger.
If you’ve been around even for a little while, getting to the bottom of the hill first isn’t just a matter of horsepower. Getting out of the gate (getting the pop in old school language) quickly and smoothly requires the combination of skill, power and anxiety management. We could film this (and probably will in the coming weeks), but read on to get my insight in the process of beating your competition to the bottom of the hill, from a club race, to a national final.
This information in this article is exactly what I articulate it to the riders I coach as they move into the finals at national level. Not to go too far down the rabbit hole, my personal racing and coaching philosophy is to make even your “worst” gate as good as the competition’s best one. Has been since I was a kid. That’s pretty egotistical, but BMX racing is a sprint sport and you better have a good sense of ego to be a sprinter. Be it extrovertly demonstrated, or quietly destructive on the track.
Think of your gate like a golf swing. It has to be consistent time after time, and frustratingly, sometimes they go wayward. Consistency and repeatability are keys to a fast hill time. Combined with that other obvious trait, having the horsepower to lay down once you’re out of the gate! What you’re essentially trying to do is eliminate all the movements and processes that can lead to missing (mistiming) the gate to ensure that you’re solid every time. From those times you’re on the gate for training, to that national final.
So is the answer doing more gates? Well, no. This is where the Sprintblock comes into the equation as a training tool. Up until its release, all BMX sprinting was geared towards developing more power and speed. And a rider would normally use a stand of some kind to balance on, or roll to a stop and then fire off the sprint effort. The Sprintblock’s sliding top replicates the movement a well developed rider’s gate does. The initial movement of the front foot on the pedal should produce the opposite effect of firing your bike backwards. Sam Willoughby’s movement was measured up to 20cm by Australian researcher Josie Grigg.
This is where things get complicated, fast forward a bit, and the research Josie was doing demonstrated that one of the keys to a good gate is how smoothly a rider transfers to the second pedal out of the gate. But there’s a whole lot going on between that first beep/light and the second pedal. In fact, Josie’s PhD is based solely upon the first three crank strokes! Think about that for a moment, thousands upon thousands of words and countless hours of analysis to produce a PhD on the gate and those first three crank strokes. What hope do us mere mortals have of mastering the perfect gate.
Well we’ve kind of diverged a little, as I’m prone to do, though if you do race, you’ll have a pretty good insight into how good your gates are, or aren’t. I’m trying to provide context for those parents out there who may have never raced or been on a gate and wonder why little Johnny isn’t so hot down the hill, but seemingly fast as hell when it comes to riding away from homework. Let’s put aside all those other psychological reasons for that, and focus back on the gate.
Fast Hill Times - After all, that's the ultimate goal
A key ingredient to a fast hill time starts with (naturally) a fast reaction to the first beep/light. This is where a “random gate start” app becomes critical to use alongside the Sprintblock. So you can focus purely on reaction to a stimulus. The Srintblock’s sliding mechanism means that a rider is both reacting AND replicating the movement pattern created by the world’s best riders.
You can witness this movement on any World Cup coverage where the camera is focusing across the gate at the start. Just slow down the YouTube video to 0.25 speed and watch. We’ve captured a couple here and if you focus on the back wheel of the riders closest to the camera (Niek Kimmann is this case), you can see how much the rear wheel moves rearwards, and how much the rear pedal drops as a result. The images are a little dark, though you can easily identify the movement of the bike rearwards and in the image on the right you see Kimmann's back wheel nearly moves off the gate-start deck onto the flat!
Compare these to these images of my demonstration and you can see that the sliding top block mimics this movement as well. Dropping the rear pedal as the opposite pedal as force is applied to it. You just can't replicate this by using a static stand to balance on, and sprint off. This is the secret to the Sprintblock’s design and construction. A design that’s evolved as a result of years of experience from coaching a host of the world’s best racers by the Sprintblock’s developer, Sean Dwight. A quick note here. I'm using a timber base here as over the past couple of years of traveling everywhere with me, I've lost a segment from the kit. The segments allow you to adjust your pedal height.
You know the saying though, a tool is only as good as the craftsman, so what qualities and attributes produce a killer gate and hill time? We already know that being the fastest sprinter doesn’t make you a winner. What do you practice on the Sprintblock to make you better out of the gate?
Sprintblock Drills - using the tool to improve your gate and hill time
Note - I like to perform, and prescribe these following drills on flat pedals. There’s no scientific reason, other than this is what I’ve found works for me and the riders I coach. Though when I do hit a gate and hill at a track, I’ll use clips. In other sprint drills that I do on a track, I’ll also use clips, but these following drills are off track.
Let's break down the BMX start's components, then rebuild them
Balance and relaxation: Sounds simple, but I see not only new riders struggling to balance on a gate, but intermediate and advanced riders too. So straight up balance practice helps reduce the anxiety of lining up on the gate. Anxiety of starting the race is, I believe, one of the major contributors to poor performance. The simple act of going to “gate night” for a new rider is a noisy, intimidating environment, and mainly a counterproductive exercise. By having a rider practice balance and relaxation away from this environment will lead to a rider having more confidence.
Reaction time: By using a gate start app, a rider can practice reactive movement away from the noisy environment of gate night at the local track. Sure, we don’t discourage you from going still, but let’s take the stress out of focusing on smashing out gates and bring it right back to that initial reaction to the stimulus of the gate or light. Yes, there are definitely times when a rider needs to test themselves under “race” conditions and replicate banging elbows out of the gate, but work on this critical response time in a controlled environment then take it to the gate and more higher pressure situations. Gate nights are obviously part of the social aspect of BMX racing, but more often than not, I see riders just banging out gate after gate without really understanding what they are actually doing them for. If you’re training, have a goal.
Initial Movement: Imagine for a moment that you’ve never done a gate start in your life, and no one has explained to you the process. It looks like you’re just pedaling out of the gate doesn’t it? We all know that there’s a little more to it than that. Sitting in on a coach’s roundtable session with Connor Fields an he summed it up succinctly, as a rider you’re literally throwing yourself out of the gate. That’s exactly it. But you’re trying to do this by applying all the force your muscles can produce, firing in a distinct combination that produces a smooth, linear movement. Any disruption to the way your muscles are “recruited” can result in a poor gate. You “miss” the gate or you pop the wheel straight up instead of moving forward. At a certain level, this can be the difference to winning, and last place in the final.
Transfer to the second pedal: We've all done this, popped the front wheel out of the gate and stalled, this then in turn destroys the smooth transition to the second pedal. The first "full" pedal out of the gate. Even if you miss the gate a little, if you have this transfer to the second pedal sorted, then you're still in with a shot to lay down the horsepower on the 2 - 3 - 4 crank strokes and blow by everyone else. Pop a wheel and stall though and you're likely to get chopped. We'll use the Sprintblock to even out this critical transfer by focusing on it during a drill.
Linier (straight line) pedaling technique: Nothing kills speed like side-to-side movent in sprinting, This goes for BMX sprinting as well. Too often I see riders just going gate after gate in the hope that they get better at them. I've been guilty of this in the past, but now I've watched and absorbed a lot of sprinting technical training from the athletic track world and seen the importance of strong and powerfull trunk (core) and its role in stabilizing the body under acceleration. Side-to-side movement can be easily detected in a rider as they accelerate by watching the tips of their handlebars. You want all of your hip and leg power going into the pedals, not pushing upwards through a weaken core and causing body swing. Equal and opposite reactions remember.
Drill - Reaction and Movement
Using a BMX gate start app, you can combine reaction time and movement by setting up in a safe and quiet area. I recommend using bluetooth headphones so you can remove any distractions and focus solely on reacting and “sweeping the bike” back under you as you stamp on the leading pedal. You’re only doing 3 pedal strokes and the key focuses are reaction, foot movement and bike sweep. Not out and out grunt. You need to be relaxed and smooth in order to transition to the second pedal (the first full power stroke out of the gate).
Focus 1 - Balance and very minimal pressure on your front foot. The very fact that you’re not training your gate starts on an actual gate means that you can’t “load” up the front foot as you’ll move off the Sprintblock. This teaches you how to balance on a gate without trying to push it down with the front wheel. Too often I see riders shaking on the gate as they apply loads of force on their front pedal. This tension kills reactive ability.
Focus 2 - A relaxed grip on the bars as you wait for the signal to go. And when the beep/light does go, try to resist the temptation to grip those bars as if you're about to swing an axe into a big tree. Again, a relaxed body will react faster to a stimulas and leave you less prone to flinch. This is definitely something to take to the gate, if nothing else, your gates at racing will improve if you can remain calmer on the gate.
Reps - you can do 10 / 20 of 30 of these as we aren’t draining the tank. Just tuning up the electrical system in the body. You can have all the power in the world, but this doesn’t mean you’ll have the best gate in the world if you react like a sloth.
Drill - Reaction / Movement / Acceleration
Using the start app, we’ll start bringing the elements together that produce a fast hill time. Six pedals max, now you can start laying down the horsepower. From the block, measure out six pedal strokes (remember, left and right are counted as one/two) and mark the spot. Warm up by going for a ride for 15 mins, throwing in sprints as you ride.
Focus 1 - Sweep the bars (and bike under you) and a smooth transfer from that initial first movement as you transfer to your second pedal. You want to prevent pulling up on the bars, which has the effect of popping the front wheel up and producing a stall before hitting the second pedal. One of the most common mistakes and a destroyer of a cadence of the first 3 pedal strokes.
Focus 2 - Once you're motoring, you want to produce straight line movement by using your core to prevent unwanted side to side movement. Watch any 100m track runners at a world elite level in slo-mo and you'll never see any twisting motion in their body (and arms) as they drive forward.
Reps - 8 to 12 with 3-4 mins rest between efforts. These are short, but you want to be fully recovered for these max efforts. Another common mistake I see at every gate night are riders not resting and just smashing out gates. Think of this like a 1 RM effort in the squat rack.
BMX Sprinting Focuses
We’ve covered a lot and really only got to the bottom of the hill. I hope that you now have an understanding of what goes into a winning hill time. Sure there’s another 300 metres or so to go, but it sure helps your winning percentages if you can get down that hill first. The biggest takeaways utilising the Sprintblock are to improve your reaction time, develop the ideal movement pattern that can be transferred to the gate, improve sprint performance by developing a smooth transfer between the first pedal (really your initial movement), and improve outright acceleration. With the overarching theme of reducing anxiety throughout the whole process as anxiety and tension affects your ability to react to the first beep/light as mentioned above.
Thanks for reading and we’ll be following up with articles on how to develop power and track endurance.
Click this link to pick up your very own Sprintblock and revolutionise your BMX race training