What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Making the Winning Break

There are many ways to win a bike race, but many times it requires a rider to get in the winning break. We all know a racer that always seems to find that elusive winning move. Time and again they end up in the one break that seems to succeed. Is it dumb luck or a calculating, competitive individual?

Bike racing season is getting close or already in full swing in some parts of the country (Bruce obviously does not live in eastern Canada and is forgetting his Midwest roots! – Toolbox Ed), so it’s good to tune up your tactics in addition to your physiology. Having a team that can haul in breakaways and lead things out for a sprinter is fine if you’re Ale-Jet and can hire a team of specialized leadout riders. But the other way to win is to take matters into your own hands and make or get into the winning break.

We’ve seen this to perfection this past week in California by hardman extraordinaire Jens Voigt of CSC, driving the day-long break on Stage 4, hopping onto the Leipheimer Express, then toasting all in the sprint. The recently retired Erik Dekker of Rabobank and his buddy Michael Boogerd are also masters of always being there, and Frank Schleck of CSC is padding his resume too (Amstel and Alpe d’Huez 2006). How do they do it? This month, I asked a couple of ‘professional’ masters in Northern California about making that winning move consistently (which they do):

First, a couple quick bios:

Kevin Metcalfe (AMD-Discovery Masters Cycling) is a software project manager for the Navy in the SF Bay area. He has raced for 22 years and has compiled an impressive list of wins including 3 time elite Northern California district TT champion, 8 time national masters track champion.

Dan Martin (Team Safeway) is a software engineer for Cisco and splits time between the SF Bay Area and El Dorado Hills, California. He made the 2000 Canadian Olympic rowing team and switched to cycling in 2002. Last year alone, Dan won 15 races including Nevada City and the Northern California District Road Championships.

Kevin: I try to ride near the front as much as possible. You can’t make the break if you’re not close enough to see it go!

Once I get into a break I take a look at who I’m with to get an indication whether the break will work and what my odds are if we stay away versus getting caught and trying again.

Sometimes getting into a break is an art. Sometimes a voice deep in my head screams at me to go. After 21 years of racing that voice has gotten pretty smart and when I listen to it, I usually do well.

For me, the best time to get into a break is when the race is really hard and you are hurting. If you’re hurting, so is everybody else! After a series of attacks there is sometimes a lull. That lull happens because everybody is hurting and they don’t want to go hard anymore. That is exactly why you should pick that time to go. Many times they will all be looking for somebody else to close the gap or chase you down, but nobody will do it themselves.

When I get into a break, I watch everything going on around me. If you get stuck behind somebody who is taking their pulls too hard, skip a pull and get behind somebody who is steadier. Its okay to skip a pull every once in a while if you need to eat or drink. Think about where the wind is coming from. The person behind is the one who can tell which direction to pull off on. If you think the rotation needs to change, tell the leader to pull off the opposite direction.

In general you probably don’t want to work substantially harder than the others in your break. Why make yourself weaker for the finish? But, if you do need to work harder, take longer pulls, not harder pulls. Harder pulls will just break everybody’s legs and you’ll end up going slower. In a small group (four or less) don’t do a rotating pace line. Use a single file line. Pull until you are done and go to the back. You won’t get any rest in a small rotating pace line.

As you get towards the end you need to know whether you can win this race in a sprint or not. If not, look to see who else is strong. You might want to attack just as the strongest guy finishes his pull. Or if the break is big enough maybe you’ll do it when he is near the back and kind of boxed in so that he can’t get right on your wheel.

Dan: The more you race with the same competition, the better chance you have of identifying the combinations of riders that may work. Sometimes I think it is easier to not go with the moves if the race is really aggressive. Let things play out and conserve energy. When a move starts looking like it is sticking then get attentive. Look around and see who missed the move and will be trying to get a rider up there, or bring it back. At this point you want to piggy-back on the strategies of the other teams. Now is the time to get in the bridge attempt and use the power you were conserving. As well as having the power to make or go with a move, you always have to be thinking about what are the motives of the pack. There is no way you can hold off a group of riders if they have reason to bring you back.

Let’s summarize and review some of the major points:

Do your homework – Know the course and the weather conditions (e.g. wind directions). Look back in history and see how the races have played out in the past or ask riders who have been there before. The more you and your team learn about the race and your competition in general, the more success you will ultimately have.

The race within the race – The key is putting yourself in a position to win. Riding near the front of an aggressive peloton is a race within the race. If you watch a pack from above (try this when they show the helicopter shots during the Tour), the general flow is that of rider movements up the sides to gain position. This causes the riders in the middle to be pushed back. You could be thinking you are sitting in an optimal position and then before you know it, be pushed back in the peloton to a point where you are close to the back!

Real-time analysis – ALWAYS be watching what is going on during a race and asking yourself questions. For example:
– Who looks strong?
– How long are splits staying off the front and how is the pack responding to them?
– What is the general mood and feel of the race?
Understanding what is going on around you at any given time will play a role in determining the timing of your attacks.

Making it Happen – Most riders wait for something to happen, thinking they don’t want to waste energy or make the wrong move. Successful riders don’t just leave their attacks to chance. They attack (or bridge) with authority and purpose, trying to discourage a field to chase them down. Successful attacks come as a surprise and when other riders least expect it. I like what Kevin said – if you are tired or hurting, then most likely your competition is also feeling the same way.

Break Anatomy – A break becoming the winning break requires a lot of smarts, strength and some luck. Most importantly, it requires a group of riders that are all committed to making it work, including you! Making it happen also requires trying (and failing) a lot! It requires getting into various moves and assessing the situation to determine if it is going to work or not. It requires asking yourself a few of many possible questions:
– What is the makeup of the riders in terms of teams? Do they form a group that benefits each other?
– What is the makeup of the riders in terms of success in past races? Can they even make it to the line? Are the riders of near or equal fitness, or is there a diverse level of strength? Knowing your competition will help you here.
– What are the rider’s strengths in the break and what are the course and weather factors influencing the rest of the race?
– Where in the race (time and course) is this move happening? Is it at a time where the field was tiring and the group thinning out significantly? Are there a lot of technical sections that benefit a small group versus a large one?

Tactics are what make bike racing so unique. It is such a dynamic sport that predicting the outcome is almost impossible because there are so many variables out of your control. We have listed just a few of the many possibilities about how making the winning break can occur. Hopefully, this will stimulate the all-important competitive side of you as an athlete to focus not just on your physical training program, but your tactical program also!

Ride safe! Ride smart!


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

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