In Part 1 of The Card Up Your Sleeve, I wrote about the inevitability of sprint finishes in most Category 3, 4, and 5 races. Regardless of your natural ability, field sprinting is a mandatory skill to acquire if you plan on moving up through the categories. I mentioned two scenarios: when to wait for the sprint if field sprinting is your talent, and how to approach a field sprint if it's not. Here in Part 2, I'll discuss the latter in detail, and outline some approaches useful for a rider in any category.
If your skills are time trialing or climbing, or you have a decent sprint but your brain's not wired for the high-speed human pinball that is the essence of field sprinting, you're not alone. Everyone has parents, for better or for worse. They unfortunately had the most to do with how much fast- or slow-twitch muscle fiber you were born with, or what type of chemicals swirl around in your brain and allow you to risk life and limb in the last few laps with joy rather than fear. If that's not you, that's ok; field sprinting is a technique as much as it is a talent, and there are a number of successful approaches you can employ if you're a decided non-sprinter.
Attacking before the sprint
This one's a bit obvious, but that doesn't mean it's easy. The gambit in any non-sprinter's game has to include an ability to identify when to attack at the point after the field sprint becomes inevitable, but before the final lead outs are in full flight. Once the mood changes, start hunting. Stay close enough to the front to be able to launch a move, but not so far up that you're attacking from the front, where everyone can see and follow, and you don't get separation. Consider two things: how far out can you attack from and last, and how well can you time the attack? Whether it's fast or slow, your attack should come when there's a slight lull in the tempo, giving you a good jumping platform. Also, attacking before a corner so you get there first and carry some speed will often catch the field snoozing. (Attacking into the corner, or on the inside of another rider through the turn, is absolutely verboten. You should get clear because you're strong, not because you're a better risk taker.) If the tempo is slow, you might be able to go early, establish a gap, and try to hold it for the last few laps. If the tempo is fast, you're going to have to go later in the race, since it may be harder to hold your gap. As late as one lap to go is still not too late to make your move. Most importantly, if you make a late attack like this, make a 100% commitment to it. No turning around, no worrying about who followed your move or not. This is a do or die tactic, so play it out to the finish.
When in doubt, lead it out
If the opportunity to attack never presents itself, but you're still in decent position with one lap to go, don't be afraid to go early and start the sprint. Often, the winner of a field sprint is the rider who makes it to the last corner first. In a criterium, if you go early and the field is single file, you might make it through to the last turn in good position and ahead of all the popcorn popping behind you. You may not win, but you'll likely hold on for a top placing.
Improve your fitness and win without sprinting
Related to "when in doubt, lead it out," if you're stronger then the rest of the riders in your race, you can win the sprint without actually sprinting. This is more common in the lower categories, where a rider who is a non-sprinter is clearly ready to move up. If you're strong enough that everyone around you is going full gas for the sprint but you're still comfortable, you can win a sprint based only on your superior overall fitness. When you're not as physically taxed in the sprint, you can hold your position better, make quicker decisions, fix mistakes, and get yourself out of dangerous situations quickly. You behave like a sprinter, but for you it's more like a short interval.
Work for a teammate, hang on for a place.
If you have a rider on your team who has a chance to win, and you're strong enough to be up in the mix but not necessarily ready to battle to the death, you might take over the sprint with a lap or two to go. Your goal is to keep your teammate in position for the win by going fast enough to keep him or her ahead of the swarm. At the same time, if you go late enough and fast enough, going first and second into the last corner often means you'll hold on for a place as well, again, without ever actually having sprinted.
Improve your positioning ability and bike handling skills
There are many riders who aren't natural sprinters but who have a knack for positioning themselves well and relying on their fitness to get them through. Learning how to place yourself in the last 10 laps of a criterium, or the final miles of a road race, can again be the key to placing in the sprint without sprinting. When you think of the field as a wave and yourself as the surfer trying to find that sweet spot, you can stay ahead of the spray and keep yourself set up for the finish.
Change your mindset
This is probably the most difficult approach of all. Give yourself over to crashing, plain and simple. Recognize that the game gets played a particular way, and if you want to be in the game, you've play it that way. It's not as dangerous as you think up there once you relax and let go. I find that I have to "reset" my own approach when I go from a period of local racing to a national level criterium. Whereas I'm used to being able to go where I want to and hold my spot in a smaller race, in the big races I have riders taking wheels from me and making contact at every turn. Instead of getting upset or annoyed, it's helpful just to accept the situation and do what you need to get the job done, with no concern for the risks (without being intentionally reckless yourself). If crashing's in the back of your mind, you're always more likely to crash.
It always sounds easy on paper, but if you can implement some of these approaches, with practice you'll find your results in the field sprints will improve. Again, even if you don't have natural speed, focus on field sprinting as a skill you can acquire and become successful executing. As the races get harder, you'll need to field sprint less and less, but it will always be a situation you need to be prepared for.