Toolbox: Bike Race Anatomy
Tactics and strategy in bike racing comes down to predicting how a particular race event might play out, and then deploying the best plan to achieve your team’s objectives. Some riders will go through years of racing without ever truly understanding the anatomy of a bike race, so let’s use our magic divining rod and read some tea leaves to understand the black art of deciphering bike races.
The Many Moods of Racing
Bike racing is perhaps one of the most dynamic sports in existence. It’s a team sport, but unlike most team sports, there are no rounds, periods, time outs, penalty boxes, yellow cards or over time. Perhaps most unlike other team sports, there are more than two teams competing, sometimes as many as 20 (Imagine 20 teams competing on the field at the same time in a football game!). Also, compare it to most other types of racing. Most races are either endurance events, sprints or somewhere in between. Bike racing involves all three disciplines sometimes all on the same day. For instance, in the recent Tour of California, Levi had to blow the doors off of most of the field in a 4 minute effort but also be the strongest rider over the next 8 days. From a physiological stand point, that ability is staggering.
So you might think, that will all those infinite variables, every bike race would be as unique as a snowflake. However, I think most cyclists and bike racing fans would be surprised to learn how incredibly predictable and formulaic most bike races actually are. It’s actually amazing how the same set of circumstances pops up over and over at race after race.
I’ve raced in 6 countries and on 3 continents and the formula holds up, to the point where it can sometimes be too predictable and boring for the racers. Unlike what one might expect, it’s actually the fine details that usually decide the race. Not whether there will be an attack at mile 20, but who will attack at mile 20 and whether they might throw the pack for a loop by attacking at mile 19 or mile 21 instead.
Hollywood Screenwriting 101
It’s like a movie. Every feature has the same three act structures. Act 1 sets up the characters and the story and is about 30 minutes long. Near the end of Act 1, there is some sort of turning point that sends the characters hurtling into Act 2 which consists of a series of obstacles which they must overcome. Near the end of Act 2 just as it seems as if the characters have overcome the obstacles in his way, there is another turning point that tosses them into Act 3 and the eventual conclusion of their struggle. Let’s see how this 3 act structure relates to a bike race.
Before we get started, I need to mention that I tested this theory out in an indoor cycling class that I teach at Tri Fit studios in Santa Monica. I choreographed the entire race to music and took the class not just through the paces of a bike race but also tried to convey the emotions, tension and excitement that each stage of the race conjures up. So I’ve included the songs in my illustration here to give it some more life. Feel free to duplicate at home.
Track 1 – Staging
Song: Work it (ACDC Remix) by Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake
The race hasn’t begun yet but the riders are rolling around near the start line. At the bigger races, there is a decent crowd milling around trying to get a glimpse of some aspect of the bike racers persona that they might not see in the race or on TV. Sort of like seeing a movie star out of makeup doing her grocery shopping. This is one of my favorite parts of racing because the fans really stir up the excitement and the tension of what is about to happen. Plus it’s nice to know that someone actually cares about what the thing that you put your blood sweat and tears into besides your parents!
Track 2 – The Roll Out
Song: Handlebars by the Flobots
I call this the roll out because there is often a neutral roll out due to the fact that the race starts in a city center and the promoter wants to parade you through town due to safety reasons or simply so the fans can enjoy you go by. Even if the race isn’t actually neutralized, there is often an understanding that no one will attack from the gun. For one thing, with 4 or 5 hours of racing ahead, there just isn’t any reason to go that early. During this phase, the tension builds even more. At this slow pace, everyone is feeling like they could be the hero of the day so there is this feeling of a crossbow pulled all the way back, the energy stored and ready to let loose. Everyone is just waiting to see who will let their arrow loose first and where they will aim it.
Track 3 – The Early Attacks
Song: Use Somebody by Kings of Leon
Things start to pick up, probably sooner than they should. Going slow in a pack of 120 riders just isn’t fun. It’s dangerous for one thing and there are just too many variables. The teams with aspirations for the day want to force themselves into a position of control so that they can manage a tighter grip on how the events of the race unfold. To do this, they need to get a rider up the road. There’s no illusion that this rider will win the race, but with him up the road, it forces the other teams into an offensive position.
Sounds simple and it would be if bike racing was like any other team sport where there are only two players on the field in each position. However, you’ve got as many as 20 teams trying to send riders up the road and it’s rare that a break will go with more than four or 5 riders. So for the next 10 minutes or so the first real pain of the day is inflicted. A rider attacks, another rider follows and then a third rider tries to follow bringing the rest of the pack up with them shutting down the attempt. Almost immediately, the next attacker jumps and the cycle begins again.
This will continue repeatedly until somehow the pack gets shaken hard enough that it loses its grip on the attackers. I could write a whole other article on the art of the shake, but let’s just say it’s a series of complex circumstances including who the riders are that attack, what team they are on, the terrain of the road at the point of attack and probably what rider 17 had for breakfast that morning. In other words, it’s everything and it’s nothing.
Track 4: Tempo
Song: Diamond by Seba (Snatch Soundtrack)
A group is up the road and things settle down a little That early tension has loosened up, the pack is just a little thinner and the pace is a little faster (making things safer) due to the fact that the teams who are not represented in the break want to keep the gap from getting too big. The teams with a break up the road are very happy at this point. From a strategic point of view, they are now almost completely absolved from doing any work at the front whatsoever until their rider is brought back in. There are exceptions to this rule, but even if the team leader who has been determined to win the race is still back in the pack, his team still has the luxury of sitting in and letting the other teams works.
The teams without a rider in the break are not necessarily in a terrible position, especially if it is a long, challenging race. At this point, they need to ride tempo at the front to keep the gap from getting too big, but this does not mean that they are “chasing”. They might let the gap get to two minutes and then just hold it there.
If they bring it back too quickly it means a repeat of Track 3, which means more work and more chances to get caught out again. Better to sacrifice a few riders now by riding tempo and keep the team leaders safe, rather than having to constantly fend off attacks for the rest of the day. This is probably where self preservation and a natural instinct to avoid unnecessary pain plays into propping up the predictable pattern of a bike race.
Liquid Fitness/Adageo Energy defends their GC position in the Southern Nevada Stage Race this weekend by riding tempo at the front.
Track 5: More Tempo (and maybe a piss break)
Song: Human by The Killers
Remember when I said at the beginning that bike racing can often be somewhat boring for the pros? This is the part I was talking about. Although I condensed this section in my class to just one or two songs lasting about 7 and a half minutes, this in reality could consist of two or more hours of steady riding. Doing this day in and day out in a week long stage race definitely takes it toll.
It’s not so much the monotony, but the fact that through all of it you need to stay as alert as if it was the last 3 laps of a criterium. This part of the race is like playing in left field. It’s not what you do, it’s what you can’t do which is lose focus for even a moment and drop the ball when it finally comes to you. This part of the race can be so long and so monotonous, that assuming the break isn’t too threatening, the field may actually stop en mass to empty their bladders.
Track 6: The Turning of the Screws
Song: Piece of Me by Britney Spears
This is the first real turning point of the race. It’s when one of the teams decides to turn the screw. Surprisingly, this may not have anything to do with the break up the road and have everything to do with the teams with the strongest riders trying to decimate the pack, pop the sprinters and put their rider into position to win the race. If it’s a stage race, they may not even care about catching the break, but even if it’s a single day race, the assumption is that this section of the race will be so fast that either the break will be caught or they will get close enough to send a rider across.
The screws can be turned on a climb rudely placed right in the middle of the course, but it doesn’t have to be elevation. There is an element of bike racing that I can guarantee 99% of our readers have no conception of no matter how many hours of racing they have see on tv or how many amateur races or group rides they have done. When there is a strong crosswind coming from the left an echelon forms at the front. Depending on the actual width of the road, there is room for between 10 to 20 riders in that echelon. That leaves 100 riders lined up single file in THE GUTTER.
I’ve capitalized the gutter because it’s a place that any pro cyclist has become intimately acquainted with. The reason you choose to suck it up and ride in the gutter is that at 30 mph with a 30 mph crosswind there is almost no draft from riding directly behind someone. So every rider tries to get as far to the right of the rider in front of him as possible.
In Europe and especially Down Under, I’ve seen a second, third and even fourth echelons formed, but to this day I’ve never seen it happen in the US. Regardless of the surface of the road and the nature of the shoulder, this gutter riding is always incredibly dangerous. It requires intense bike handling ability and plain old guts, but it is so difficult that you can barely see straight because so little blood is being squandered on your brain. It hurts and it is often the turning point of the race. Even if most of the pack is still intact after this, they may be mortally wounded and will eventually bleed out over the final hour of the race.
Track 7: The Reshuffle
Song: I Don’t Care Anymore by Phil Collins
So here’s the situation on the road. The break of 5 is still up the road by about 3 minutes. The pack has been whittled down to about 40 or 50 riders. All the major players are still in it. The rest of the pack is safely behind. At this point, there is chance for another little break. Ideally the dropped riders behind have done their job by placing their team leader and a faithful lieutenant into the lead group so they are not worried about chasing.
The riders in the main pack are also content knowing that they have narrowed down most of the variables that needed to be determined in order for their team to win the race. They are also content in knowing that the break has now been up the road for 75 miles and no matter how strong those guys are, no matter how well they are working together, they are getting very, very tired.
Turn the Record Over Next Month
Ok, I know you are white knuckled, sitting on the edge or your chairs waiting to find out what is going to happen, but let’s take a break here and wait till next month to find out what happens. Fill in the blanks yourself and see if you can figure out the end game of a bike race!
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com.