What's Cool In Road Cycling

Pro Shop: Pre-Race Homework

Races are won on many different levels. It’s not just the winning move or the perfect team tactics on the last lap that contribute to a win. It involves preparation at all levels ranging from proper nutrition to an effective training plan. In this article we will specifically address pre-race tactical preparation. We ask our contributing top Masters racers, Dan Martin (VOS Racing) and Kevin Metcalfe (Team Specialized Racing) how they prepare and execute prior to a race to give them the best opportunity for a successful result.

Pez: When going into a race, what specific “homework” do you do to give yourself the best chance of a successful outcome?

Dan: I think one of the most overlooked and probably the most important part of racing is the mental race buildup. I witnessed many different techniques that people use to reduce the stress of racing rather than deal with it. We have all heard the following over and over:

• I’m just training through this race
• I haven’t really trained at all this last week
• I’m not feeling that well today
• I’m just going to see how the race goes
• I am using my training wheels

To me, these are all negative ways to deal with the pre-race stress of racing. Instead of mentally putting yourself into the battle; you are removing yourself. I see this type of thinking, and I have to ask myself “Why did he/she get up at 5am and drive for 2+ hrs to the race just to think like that?” The bottom line is people are not thinking in a positive way. These will be the same riders that attack at the start of the race, stop rotating in the crucial break, sit at the back of the pack leading into the climb, etc. They are just not planning for their best result.

The stress and nerves you feel before a race is critical. It’s there because you care about the race outcome; otherwise, we would not be racing. It is what gets you to the start line on time, what makes you double-check your tire pressure and skewers. Without it you would never get out of bed. Instead of trying to calm it down, try to make it worse. Think about the upcoming race and the stressful situations that might be presented to you. What if you are dropped on the climb, what if you flat in the final few kilometers – how do you deal with each of these?

My experience has shown me that I will always do things with better judgment the second time around, so I make the first time mental. The second time is the real deal! That is much better than the reverse. The funny thing is that after I go through all these mental drills, I actually feel relaxed and focused.

Kevin: It’s nice to know the course. Generally, even if you’ve never done a particular race before it’s okay because you’ll do a number of laps. In that case you end up doing your recon in the early stages of the race. The downside to that is that maybe you’ll get bad advice or guess poorly on your gearing and end up under or over geared at a crucial part of the race. In those cases I might choose to go with a wider range cassette than I might otherwise use. You can always not go into the 27 if you don’t need it. But if you do need it and you’ve only got a 23, well it won’t be fun!

Another thing to consider is the prevailing winds. If you are racing in the central valley in Nor-Cal you know that there is a decent chance of a wind from the north. Just by looking at a map you can discern where there might be cross winds and where you need to be alert and up front.

To mentally prepare for a race I like to think about what parts of the course fit my strengths. Where would be a good place for me to be on the attack? Where would be a place I need to be more defensive? That can depend on your fitness level at the time also. For example I am good on the flats, but if I am not fit a crosswind section that I may normally attack on may become a defensive place for me.

Consider whom I’m racing against. What are my main competitors’ strengths on this particular course? What can I do to take away his advantage on those sections? The obvious example would be a race that is kind of hard, but the course by itself won’t shatter the field. If there are
guys who are known to be really good sprinters I need to make sure that the race is really hard to try to either get away from them or at least tire them out before the sprint. Or a race that finishes on a big hill. If you’ve got a good climber in the race you can’t let him get to the final climb fresh or he’ll kill you. You need to make him work for it and attack him. Make him or his team work hard so that he’s not as fresh for that final climb.

Think about my equipment. First of all, a clean bike is a happy bike. I NEVER go to a race with a dirty bike if I can help it. A clean bike is a fast bike, and in the process of cleaning a bike you might find a potential problem, like a frayed brake or derailleur cable. You might find a cut in a tire, or any number of other problems. There is nothing worse than driving 100 miles to a race (especially with gas at $4.50 a gallon) only to have a mechanical on the first lap that you could have avoided.

And let’s face it, a dirty bike says “I don’t care enough about this race to clean my bike.” I can generally check that person off of my list of serious competitors. Sure, if Levi showed up with a dirty bike he’d slaughter us all. But Levi would never do that, it’s not professional.

Let’s summarize:

Rehearsing mentally – The mental preparation that both Dan and Kevin refer to is so important. Most importantly, they think about what parts of the course will give them problems and how they will deal with them prior to the race. For example, if you know you will hit a windy, crosswind section after a particular turn, use your energy to make sure you are in the right position before that turn. On the flipside, know what areas of the course that will favor your strengths and make sure you are in the right position to capitalize on them.

The course – Take time to familiarize yourself with the course; it’s road surface, hills, descents, and specific markers. For example you might find a marker that clues you in to when a hill is approaching or how far away the finish line is. If possible, it’s always best to see the course on your bike and try to measure distances in “race” time. If that is not an option, still try to drive the course or on a lapped circuit try to pay attention as you ride the first part of the race. Also, if you have not seen the course, but the finish line and start line are the same place, if possible, try to ride the course backwards for a while to gain a sense of what the final kilometers will be like.

Weather – Weather will always play a significant role in bike racing. Check out weather forecasts days before the event. Try to learn about wind directions in the area and how the course relates to those wind directions. For example, by knowing specific corners and how they relate to the wind, you can set yourself up to be in a better position after the turn.

Competition – Do your best to find out who is your race and identify their numbers. Try to find out who is riding well the past few weeks by checking race results. Check how many riders for their team and which team will be the strongest. A lot of races have online registration these days that list who is registered. Of course, others may register that day, but at least you can get a head start.

Previous years – How has the race been won in previous years and what were the weather conditions that particular year? Weather conditions are crucial, as they can completely alter how a race is won. Check out previous results and times from the promoter. Look for race reports, as they are everywhere on the Internet. If you are doing a race that has had previous races take place, like a time trial or criterium, talk to teammates or friends about what they experienced on the course. They may be able to give you a few tips that will help you save time during your race.

Equipment and Clothing – Work on what gearing you need before the race, know what clothing you might want to take also. Make sure your bike is in top shape and clean before you leave. Perhaps make a checklist of items that you always review on Thursday before the weekend. When you arrive at a race, the only things you should be concerned about is registration and proper warm up, not fine tuning your bike 5’ before the start!

The big picture here is that successful bike racers don’t go into a race unprepared with an attitude of “let’s see what happens.” It’s a thinking person’s sport. They do their homework up front and spend a lot of time doing the things that are not necessarily related to the physical training aspect of riding a bike. It’s that combination of the riders who are strong and very smart that win the bike races!

Ride strong, ride safe.


About Bruce
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.

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