Toolbox: Flexible Race Strategy
One of the big buzzwords in psychology in recent years is the concept of “resilience,” the ability to be flexible and adjust to new situations on the sports field or in the game of life itself. That same resilience and flexibility applies to race strategy and both team and individual tactics within a race.
The 2009 race season came to an end this Saturday for my team and me at the Sisquoc Road Race near Solvang, CA. With temperatures well into the 100s and the air tinged with smoke from the nearby forest fires, our team captain Tommy Nelson delivered one last blow to the SoCal peloton with hard fought win over former national champion Chris Walker. Not bad considering only 10 of the original 75 starters even crossed the finish line. However, the victory was somewhat bitter sweet because it was in fact his teammate, Rudy Napolitano who we had intended to set up for the win. Rudy, sitting just a few points out of the lead of the season long SoCal Cup could have clinched it with a first or second place finish.
It just goes to show that even at the Pro/1 level, race strategy needs to be flexible. However, you can’t improvise if you don’t have a plan to begin with. This season, I tested the waters as rider/director of my own Liquid Fitness/Adageo Energy racing team. Unlike the past where I rode mostly for club programs, this was a more serious team with a sizeable budget and a grueling race schedule. If you think trying to race and direct simultaneously would be prohibitively exhausting, you obviously haven’t met my guys. With most of them coming from pro teams such as Rock Racing and Sierra Nevada, very little managing was necessary. These guys know what to do in almost any situation. While a basic plan was always in place, they knew how to improvise better than Robin Williams at the Laugh Factory.
But in order to improvise on a game plan, you have to have a plan in the first place and even then you have to always make sure you are on the same page as your teammates. While this stuff is deeply ingrained for most Pro and Cat 1 riders, here are a few techniques that you and your teammates can think about before your next event.
This technique is one which I developed soon after I became a Cat 2. I was at the Milk Ras in Ireland, feeling strong and pushing a hard pace at the front (of the groupetto). Man, I feel great! I could do this all day! Then I turned around and saw the entire “laughing” group comfortably sitting on my wheel discussing the massages they were going to get when they got to the hotel. My inner dialogue reared its head: Why are you in the wind? What are you doing? Is there a reason you’re doing all the work or are you just up here showboating?
That singular conversation turned out to be the makings of what is now a longstanding habit in which I indulge during every race. Throughout the course of a race, I question every move I make, every option I have and every plan I formulate. I do this so that I am always aware of what I am doing and why I am doing it. Are you chasing someone down? No. Are you setting tempo for a teammate? No. Are you trying to impress a girl on the sidelines (a perfectly legitimate reason by the way)? No? Then get the heck out of the wind!
That’s me at the front of the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix. Getting your team’s name called out by Dave Towle at a major National Calendar race in front of sponsors and fans, IS a perfectly good excuse for riding in the wind!
This doesn’t just apply to silly things like pulling the pack into a head wind for no reason. Over the course of a six hour race I might ask myself a thousand questions. Am I drinking enough? Am I eating enough? Am I too far to the front? Am I too far to the back? Why am I on the left side of the road? Why am I on the right side of the road? Why am I in the big chain ring? Why am I in the little chain ring? Where are my teammates? Do they know where I am? Constantly asking myself questions like this keeps me on track and prevents me from wasting energy that won’t eventually help me achieve my goal for that particular race.
So, on race day, my advice is simple. At any point during the race, ask yourself, Is there a good reason for me to be doing what I am doing or riding where I’m riding? If you can’t find a damn good reason to justify sitting in the wind or dangling on the back or fiddling with your handlebar tape, then you better make a quick adjustment. Racing is all about conserving energy so if you can’t find an excellent reason for doing anything but burying yourself in the pack and making yourself disappear from the wind, then you better not do it.
I recently paid a compliment to one of my cat 4 racers at a local crit. I could barely see you the whole time and then you were suddenly up in the break. It means that they were somewhere in the middle, protected from the wind, never doing an ounce more work than they had to so that when the decisive move of the day came, they were rested and ready.
I’ve noticed that Cat 4 and Cat 5 racers have a tendency to try to copy what the see the big teams doing on TV without really understanding why they are doing it. They see teams like Astana or Columbia spending hours at a time leading the pack, and try to emulate that themselves. The big difference is that the only time a pro team will be at the front controlling a race is if at least one of a number of criteria are met:
• They have a teammate high up in the G.C.
• They have a teammate up in the break.
• They want to deliver their climber to the base of the climb at the front of the group.
• They’ve made a financial arrangement with another team to work.
• And lastly, they have a ridiculously fast sprinter with a strong lead out squad who they know will take the sprint.
Note that none of those requirements are usually met in a local four corner cat 5 industrial park crit, so showboating at or off the front is usually a waste of effort. Let other un-informed riders do that work for you!
Learning From Mistakes… Or Not
Race tactics can be taught to a certain extent but tactical expertise can only truly be obtained by learning from one’s own mistakes. For instance, one time within minutes of giving the Why Ask Why speech to our Cat 4 team, I found them sitting on the front of the pack, giving the entire field a free ride into a howling ocean head wind. Of course they would have learned better the errors of their ways if they hadn’t ended up winning the race, but you see my point.
Planning the Plan
Now that you understand what not to do, let’s get into the meat of how you win a bike race. On any given day, there are an infinite number of strategies and approaches to reach the same desired outcome. Some strategies might work well on a course one year, but not the next because there happens to be a slight cross wind. Some strategies work when it’s dry but not when it’s raining. What works great on a flat course with lots of turns could fail miserably on a similarly flat course with less turns. Since there isn’t enough space here to even make a dent in all of those infinite eventualities, we’ll just deal with the true cornerstone of bike racing, the breakaway.
Above all, don’t just sit in a race as cannon fodder and then spend the post-race bull session rationalizing why you didn’t do a thing! It’s all right and perfect strategy to keep your powder dry for that decisive move, but that’s different from taking the race passively and just hoping something will happen.
Quick, who doesn’t love Jens Voigt? We love him because he is not afraid to take the bull by the horns with his super-aggressive racing style. Similarly, there’s nothing more fun than showing up to a race with five or six teammates and just putting the hurt on all day long. By simply riding aggressively you force the other teams into a defensive position, which not only limits their choice of tactics, but plays an important role in the mental balance of the competition.
However, many times I’ve seen a team get TOO carried away having fun with their attacks. Suddenly, their opponent pulls a judo type move, using their aggressive riding against them.
Life of a Pawn
Of a team of six, you must have three riders at the front at all times as pawns. They take turns attacking and following the obligatory counter attacks. This must be carefully coordinated so that The Pawn who just chased an attack can recover while the other two Pawns are on top of any moves that might go in the interim. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the tired Pawns should never drop more than 2 or 3 riders back in the peloton after an effort because s/he will shortly be needed back at the front.
You can practice this in training by doing one minute max effort intervals off the front of a group ride. When they catch you, even though you are spent, don’t let yourself fall more than two or three riders back in the group while you recover.
When you are trying to break away, never attack from the very front. If you do, you’ll be accelerating directly into a headwind and everyone will see you shift gears, stand up and then jump. What you want to do is accelerate up the side so that by the time you are seen by the riders in the front, you’re already going four to five mph faster than them. Then, if they want to follow, they will have to bridge the gap you’ve opened up.
Especially if your aim is a solo move, never attack directly off the front where you’re in plain sight of everyone. Always try to catch them sleeping by launching from a bit further back.
The first attack rarely works. After each attack gets caught, the next rider (of the three) needs to be ready to either launch another attack or follow the counter attack. The worst mistake you can make is to launch a dozen great attacks and then miss the one that turns out to be the winning breakaway. Therefore, even if you are tired, you must remain vigilant in case one of your fellow Pawns misses an important move. For instance, if you’ve just followed three attacks in a row and the rider directly in front of you suddenly stands up and throws it into gear, don’t look around for your teammates wondering if someone is going to follow this guy. You’re in position. He’s your man.
So Now What?
If you get into a break with a weaker rider, you don’t necessarily want to do too much work. What’s the point of wasting precious energy on a doomed attempt? The only reason to stick with a break like this is to give your teammates a chance to sit up and rest. As long as they’ve got a rider up the road, the most they will have to do is to ride in the slip stream of a chase.
However, this does not mean the rest of the team should sit up and admire their shiny shaved legs. You still need to have several guys at the front to follow riders attempting to bridge across. Every time someone jumps you should have someone right on their wheel.
When an opponent attacks, attempting to bridge across to the break, several things may happen. First, if the attacking rider sees you sucking their wheel, they will often just give up the chase, knowing that they will have to do all the work themselves (because you have a teammate in the break). They know you won’t help them bridge so why should they give you a free ride? However, if you are lucky, they will continue their pursuit and you can rest in his draft all the way up to the break where you can then help you teammate.
Speaking of free rides, sometimes this next point seems too obvious to even mention, but time and again, I see newer riders doing it. You should almost never take a pull when you are bridging up to a teammate, or while you are in the pack with a teammate up the road. You have the advantage in those situations. Why would you help an opponent or the pack, catch your own teammate? All you have to do is suck wheels and let yourself get pulled up to the break.
However, there are exceptions to every rule. Your teammate is in the break with a much stronger rider and you are concerned that he might get dropped. In those cases, when you follow an attempt to bridge, let the chaser open the gap on their own and once you feel that you are comfortably out of the grasps of the bunch, you may decide to help the chase. Of course you would never do this if a potential race winner is in the chase group with you. In that case, you might be better off leaving it up to your weaker teammate to get the job done. All of this should be discussed well before the start of the race so there are no bad feelings afterwards.
Josh’s parents were right worrying about the crowd he hangs out with. In this case, hanging out with a sprint missile like Ivan Dominguez and towing him around in a break can lead to very bad things, not least of which is vapour burns as he rockets by you at the finish
Never work yourself out of a break. I’ve often seen a sense of pride or excitement overcome a rider. Lost in the moment, he takes just one too many pulls, blows up and goes back to the pack. Trust me, when your teammates think they’ve got the race locked up and suddenly in the distance, they see a familiar jersey floating back towards them, they will not be happy. If you’re tired and you have to sit in for a couple turns, do it. Getting yelled at by your breakaway partners is not nearly as bad as letting down the team. Of course, the ideal situation is to get your strongest guy into a break with their strongest guy so this never even becomes a concern.
Tommy’s Big Day
As Tommy crossed the finish line, with most of our team long gone from the race, watching from the side lines, it was a victory of brilliant strategy and circumstance as much as it was a feat of strength and mental toughness. Tommy had the distinct advantage of being able to tell the other two breakaway riders that he was in fact working for Rudy the way one might work for a teammate high up in the G.C. Therefore, he was excused from doing his full share of the work. The three or four matches he saved over the course of the four hour race could very well have been the difference between winning and losing. So no matter how strong you feel on any given day, never show your cards, always bide your time and make sure that every move you make, every pedal you turn is going to take you one step closer to the top step on the podium.
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.