Toolbox: Field Observations
One of the things I enjoy most about coaching is being able to attend races and observe what is going on in terms of riders/teams/organizations. It’s great to just go and hang out, see old friends and generally enjoy the excitement of the race itself. Here are a few observations I picked up from watching riders at the last race I attended…
Location, Location, Location
Coaching bike racers is so different than other types of sports. I as often describe, it’s not like we get our 10-person team in the gym every day where we can bark out directions and do drills and most importantly watch competition from the sidelines. Most cycling coaches work with athletes of all different levels and from different teams; it’s more of a one-on-one consulting type of job.:
I actually prefer to find a quiet area on the course; sit on my own where I am able to observe what is going on. We are limited to watching in the best we can, every time the group comes around for another lap. If we are lucky, we pick the right spots and can see some good action on the course that can yield some constructive feedback for our athletes.
I am still pretty shocked at how little preparation goes into race day for a lot of riders. When you get to the start line, all the basic homework of studying the race course, checking out corners in detail, having a good pre-race checklist, etc. should already have been done. Even if you have attended this particular race in the past, characteristics change like wind directions, road conditions, and most importantly, your competition.
Take every race seriously, and do your pre-race homework! One of the best things you can do (crits are optimal) is to show up early; watch how other racers handle corners and especially positioning of riders on the last lap. For example, what particular position was the winner in the last corner or corners?
I was fortunate enough to pick a great viewing spot for this particular race, as I knew a lot of the action would happen at that point. And it did! I can tell you that it’s no coincidence that the riders who were successful not only possessed the fitness qualities they needed, but they also exercised sound tactical choices. I am not going to write about everything I saw, but the main point being that success in bike races happens because: a) you have the fitness level to compete in your group, b) you have a plan and execute proper tactics at the right time, and, c) you have a little luck on your side!
Finish the race or not?
One unfortunate, but fact-of-bike-racing-life discussion a coach seems to have with their athletes at some point is if they were dropped that day (single day race), does it make sense to stay in the race and finish or just drop out. It’s a difficult decision to drop out and a lot of athletes don’t really know how to make this decision. Of course, every athlete’s situation is different, but here is a basic guideline I try to base my advice on: Why were you dropped?
If you have had success in the past against this level of competition and you are really having a bad day for any of a multitude of reasons (e.g. lack of sleep, fatigue from life, stress, over-training), then I feel it’s best to just bail, not analyze it too much (unless it happens more often than not) and just live to fight another day. Perhaps that day is tomorrow at another race.
On the other hand, if you really feel good and just don’t have the level of fitness for perhaps this style of race, I think it’s good to hang in there and use the race for fitness. Try to recover, attach yourself to another group and benefit from the situation.
I am not sure many riders know how easily their voices carry from a pack of riders rolling down (or up) the road. A spectator can pretty much listen to a lot of what is going on as the riders approach and pass, especially in crits where downtown buildings create a pseudo amphitheater. Ok, I am not trying to be your elementary school teacher here and scold you, but please be careful as to how many of the f-bombs and yelling you do during a race and remember that there is something that seems to be lacking these days called “sportsmanship.”
We are really fortunate to get these courses in great cities and just as easily as we get them, we can lose them just a quickly. As a reminder, almost all racers ride for a sponsored club or team. Ask yourself the question: “What would my sponsor’s reaction be if they heard me cuss?” There are of course times when you need to apply a bit of strong language. Another way to look at it is when a fellow competitor is yelling and screaming or complaining, it’s a sure sign of weakness that he or she is hurting and the race is not going well for them. I would just thank them at that point for the information!
Dealing with riders who don’t work in a break
Very commonly, there will be a breakaway group during a race. Inevitably, there will be one or more riders in that break that do little or no work to contribute to the success of the break. It is common for the racers that are working hard to feel some resentment towards the “slackers.” But, similar to those riders that are screaming a lot, riders that aren’t doing their share of the work are giving you information.
Commonly, the slackers toasted themselves getting into the break and simply don’t have the juice to contribute. If a team is well organized, their lead racer may be back in the pack, so their breakaway rider shouldn’t be doing any work in a break that would help another team to win. When you face this situation, make an initial attempt to encourage riders to participate in the break. If they do not do so, don’t yell at them, but simply get on with your race. If you need to, figure out a way to drop the slackers, but don’t waste your mental energy getting upset.
It was great to see so many riders do multiple races. Master’s doing P,1,2 and a master’s race. Juniors doing their elite category and the Junior’s race. Other masters doing multiple age-graded races. We get that question frequently, should I do multiple races? Without a doubt, if you feel the fitness is there and the race is not a major goal, absolutely do multiple races, as it is a sure way to get fitter.
From a coach’s perspective, there is much to learn at races. I try to take an objective view of what I am seeing and help athletes improve their ability to be successful at the competitive side of the sport. Watching the races unfold and then talking to them about tactics is probably the biggest benefit. And it’s just a helluva lot of fun!
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 10 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing thru cycling training camps, cycling coaching and performance testing. To contact AthletiCamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com or follow them on Twitter.