What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Bookshelf: How The Race Was Won

Peter Cossins’ excellent book, “How the Race Was Won,” subtitled “Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory,” covers new ground as it presents the story of tactics in bicycle racing, from an historical standpoint but also through interviews with those currently involved in the sport.

In the 1979 movie “Breaking Away,” much loved by cyclists, there is a scene in which the hero competes in a bike race where, after a moment’s viewing, we realize that except for the dastardly Cinzano pro team nobody in the race has a clue about tactics. Just like in the old days!

In the beginning, the bicycles were primitive, the training techniques questionable, and the courses brutal and the tactics—well, there were none. In the early editions of the Tour de France, everyone set off at high speed and showed up several hundred kilometers later at the finish spread out over hours, almost like the reverse of today’s racing where the mass sprint comes at the end. When, of course, it does not. Peter Cossins neatly summarizes what a bicycle race is in these words (which you may want to keep handy to explain racing to non-fans):

  • Fundamentally, road racing is a very simple sport. Once the riders are waved away, there are essentially just three different scenarios that can be acted out: a small group of riders escapes and end up deciding the day’s spoils between them; that small group is reeled in before the finish and the best sprinters in the bunch decide maters between them; or the breaks goes clear but is chased by the teams of the strongest riders, who then dispute the finish between them on a climb.

After the initial era of confusion in racing, the team system developed to take advantage of the principle that a group of riders working together will always be faster than single ones. Although derided by Tour de France founder, Henri Desgrange—who also thought freewheels were for sissies–the support riders (domestiques or gregari) have been the key to success for decades Fausto Coppi, whom Raphaël Geminiani consider to have invented cycling, brought in all sorts of innovation, including diet, training, technology, and staffing, but his team was also devoted fully to him and his winning. He used this power to control races and worked alliances with other teams to mutual advantage. His special tactic was to get into a position where he could go clear of the peloton at the right moment and ride alone to victory, winning in this solo fashion no fewer than 58 times.

The next jump in modern tactics was that provided by the amazing Eddy Merckx who, by nature, was always on the attack, even when leading a stage race. His team was built around him fully, with few opportunities for personal glory for the domestiques, but his contribution was “the course en tete,” a technique that saw him at the front pushing the pace and forcing the initiative. The premise was that you used as much energy chasing down breaks as going out on the attack so you may as well attack. Of course, this required an extraordinarily powerful leader and has seldom been attempted since.

It must have been hard being on Merckx’s team, or that of sprinting specialist Rik van Looy (379 road victories), as very little was left over for team members to try to win. A different approach was carried out by Peter Post’s TI-Raleigh squad, which had no set leader but went with the strongest rider on the day of the race. This was a very successful model as well, and also went to building an elevated team spirit, perhaps most similar to that found at Quick-Step today. In today’s peloton we see variations on these models at play, depending on the nature of the race and the skills of the team riders.

Following this examination of the nature of the team itself, author Cossins proceeds to break down the sport into the different disciplines required and their special tactics. For example, sprinting has gone from something quite individual to that massively powerful team train used by SAECO to deliver Mario Cipollini to victory to multiple trains and now into what he describes as a kind of chaos where riders are so fast overall it is difficult to establish a clear line for a train so sprinters need to adust their tactics, for instance by sitting on the wheel of a competing sprinter.

Interestingly, a different kind of train has been used in approaching climbs, most evident today in the tactics of Team Sky but previously used by Banesto and US Postal. The team workers grind away at a very high pace, preventing escapes, as they approach the foot of the final climb, at which point the team leader, who has the superior physiological capacity necessary, can attack on his own. If Sky can ride most of the day at 400 watts, the additional wattage above that which Chris Froome can produce at the end is key to winning.

Time trialling, through the eyes of former Italian champion Marco Pinotti, calls upon the strength of an individual when riding alone but the interesting tactics come into play during the team time trial, where typically riders of different skills—time triallists, yes, but also climbers and sprinters—have to be mixed together to work cohesively. Calculations have to be made as to how many men can afford to be dropped rather than risk slowing down the team and this was in evidence at the recent UCI World Championships where Quick-Step played a perfect hand to win and taking its fourth gold in seven competitions.

Another aspect of racing that has seen changes is in the new importance of descending, in which virtuosi such as Vincenzo Nibalo and Romain Bardet are able to gain time on rivals through their daredevil skills. This was not seen as a major advantage in the past when there was a kind of relaxation after a climb, and many of today’s riders lack the skill to use downhills to their advantage. It is sobering to think of riding with gravity, even on closed roads, at over 130 km/h.

Although there is plenty more in the book, including the importance of being prepared and riding properly in the wind, and a chapter on whether the use of race radios and power meters has harmed racing, on of the most entertaining chapter is that about the barourdeurs, the breakaway artists who try and try and try and, occasionally, are rewarded with a beautiful victory. Interviewees include Jens Voigt, Jacky Durand, and Thomas de Gendt. The popular de Gendt is a particularly interesting rider who was once seen as a possible GC contender following his 2012 placing as 3rd in the Giro d’Italia but he is quick to point out that he does not see himself this way at all but as an escape artist. Winner of stages in all three Grand Tours, his palmares is replete with solo accomplishments and indicative of his versatility—for example, in this year’s Tour of Romandie he won a stage in a solo breakway, but also won the overall Points and Mountain jerseys at the end of the race.

Although much of the book is focused on stage racing and the complex tactics put into play over three weeks of competing, there is a chapter on the Classics, which are the closest thing to the old style of racing still in existence. Brute strength goes a long way in Paris-Roubaix but a lot of thinking is counter-intuitive, such as the technique for riding the cobbles. Even where to initiate a racing-winning attack is not certain, as Philippe Gilbert’s lone 50 km tour de force in the Tour of Flander in 2017 demonstrated.

Directeur sportifs are also on hand with their opinions, notably Team Sky’s Nicolas Portal, a one-time mountain bike racer, and the legendary Partrick Lefevere of Quick-Step. The role of the DS has also changed over time with the increased complexity of the sport (and its commercial demands). Portal, the same age as many of the Sky riders, has an approach much different from the old image of the ranting DS, screaming at his riders from the team car, and comes to his job with a very different background and mindset.

Women’s racing is different again as there are so few competitive teams and the pool of riders is so small it is necessary that the racers be much more rounded in their racing rather than specialists who can afford to concentrate on one or two events in the season. Tactics are different as well as if a small group of strong riders can force themselves to the front those left behind are unable to pull them back given the wide disparity in power in the women’s peloton.

The author concludes:

  • Simple but extremely complex at the same time, bike racing requires explanation more than gimmicks [such as on-board cameras and individual rider tracking and data] to expand its audience. I say this as a life-long fan who has spent a quarter of a century reporting and writing about the sport and its protagonists, and who is, I confess, often clueless as to precisely how a rider has won a race. That fog of unknowing has lifted as I’ve begun to watch bike racing in a quite different way, with less focus on what racers do and say off the bike and far more on how they’re performing on it, and I’ve relished every moment of it.

The reader will also relish this clearly-written and educational book. Walter Bagehot once said in another context “We must not let daylight in upon magic,” but sometimes the magic is that much greater.

“How the Race Was Won: Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory”
by Peter Cossins
278 pp., paperback, to be released November 12, 2018
VeloPress, Boulder, Colorado, 2018
ISBN 978-1-937715-81-1
Suggested retail price: US$18.95/C$24.51
For more information: https://www.velopress.com/books/how-the-race-was-won/
# Photos here are not from the book. #

• BUY “How the Race Was Won: Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory” at AMAZON.COM.

When not pining for a lead-out train or at least a good espresso, Leslie Reissner may be found with his Cipollini-like coiffure at www.tindonkey.com

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.