What's Cool In Road Cycling

Tips to Tackle Your Early-Season Races

Tips for getting the most out of early season racing

The month of March brings the first events of the season for many in the Northern Hemisphere. What’s the best approach to tackling these early-season races?

mallorca
Early season racing in Mallorca

Riders can finally leave the trainer behind and brave the unpredictable early spring weather to rejoin the peloton. Fortunately, the weather wasn’t a problem here in Arizona as I directed the TaG U23 teams in two early season events. Everyone made valuable progress and we even put some early results on the board.

The TaG cycling team riders are all impressive young talents working towards a spot in the professional peloton but in early season racing, every racer deals with similar challenges. Doubts about how training will translate into race pace, concerns about strategy and the eternal question: will I even remember what I’m doing out there?


Blue skies and warmth for a first race of 2024. What’s not to like for TaG’s Campbell Parrish?

Even as I joined the pro ranks myself, I would still ask myself those same nervous questions every spring. Thankfully, through years of racing and coaching, I managed to come up with some answers.

Get On With It 

With all of the natural uncertainty of a new season, it can be easy to talk yourself out of the early race calendar. As a coach, it isn’t uncommon for athletes’ racing plans to waver and even be canceled at the last minute. And I get it. After so much uninterrupted, meticulous training athletes want to be in perfect shape for their race debut and even small hiccups in the final run up often lead to a DNS.

It’s an understandable reaction. We all work hard in our training and start dreaming of top results. Maybe we even start to “talk a big game” to our teammates or on group rides when the numbers are looking good in our intervals. We are going to start with a bang, but everything needs to be just right.

But of course that is all a lot to live up to. After a bad sleep, a subpar workout or just some negative self-talk, it’s easy to tell ourselves it’s better to skip this one to “be ready” for the following week’s race. In my experience though, that is almost always a mistake and can snowball quickly. Unless you are genuinely sick or injured, the best policy is to get on with it. You are probably a lot more “ready” than you think!

Some of my athlete’s best performances have come in early season events that they were apprehensive about starting. If you actually aren’t in the racing form you’d hoped for, pinning on the number and getting out there is an excellent remedy. You’ll find out where your form is lacking and, as you cling onto the peloton, you will sharpen the intangible race skills that stagnate over the winter.

More training will never do that for you. Even a rough first race outing is worth the effort, so try your best to put aside the ego and get back into the fray.

Strade Bianche 2024
Strade Bianche’24 had a little rain, but March in Tuscany…

Practice Your Winning Approach

A few of the phrases that I least like to hear around early season racing are “It’s just a training race for me,” “my target event is in June,” and “I already did 20 hrs this week so…”. All of which are usually followed by something like “so I’m just going to sit in and get the race miles”. An athlete may very well be aiming for events later in the season, but as a coach I never like the idea of giving up on a race before it even starts.

I think some of those cliches come from a time when European racers lined up to race 100 days or more in a season. In that circumstance it probably made sense to hold back in certain races and save your top performances for target events.

For the rest of us though, any time we take the start we should bring our A-game and do the absolute maximum with what we have on the day. “Training races” shouldn’t just be for gaining fitness, they are also a great chance to practice a winning approach to racing before the pressure is on later in the season.

A winning approach means giving yourself a chance physically and mentally. I almost always give my athletes a day or two of recovery before an early season race, even if we are in the middle of a bigger training block. I also recommend fueling like it is a peak event and putting plenty in the tank before and during the effort. You can’t practice your race craft if your legs are sore and empty before the first attack rolls off the front.

The Racing Brain

On the mental side, I encourage athletes to come up with a plan even if they don’t think they will be contenders on the day. What spots on the course will reward good positioning? Can you soften the blow of a big acceleration if you start a hill right at the front? Whose wheel do you want to be on in the critical sections or for the sprint? Is there a chance you can defy the odds with a well timed move? Coaches aren’t just for providing workouts, they should also be able to help you analyze even your B and C races and put together the best strategy to fit your current abilities.

While making a plan, I always think of racing as a game of poker. Even if you don’t have the best cards with your early season form, you can still play them well and you never know what everyone else is holding. If you go in with the “just a training race” attitude and fold your hand, you only practice folding. But if you fully engage every chance you get and learn to play the game, you will be ready to cash in when you show up with pocket-aces at your target event.

Valencia 2024
Brendan McNulty winning in sunny Valencia in early February

Hop in and Enjoy it

With early season nerves, it is easy to forget just how exhilarating and rewarding racing can be. Pro or novice, win or lose, that is what keeps us coming back and justifies the daily demands of training. So get out there early and often, feel the speed, ride hard and take your chances. It might just be your day!

 

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