What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox Race Anatomy: Late Innings

Many pro races, whether a Classic like the Ronde or most stages of Grand Tours, begin in a very predictable fashion of a long “suicide” break. Most of the time, these breaks never have a chance of making it to the finish. But sometimes, as Dirk Demol will tell you after winning Roubaix in 1988, such breaks can pay off big time.

In our previous articles on the anatomy of a bike race, we went through the initial stages of a road race, ending it with the imminent closing down of these early breaks. Let’s continue on with how the race can unfold from here…

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Scene 8: Act II
Song: Disturbia by Rhianna

The mood of the race changes as we enter Act II. Things are a little more relaxed. There are less opponents to worry about and the odds have increased that one of the remaining riders in the lead group will take the day. One way or another, the selection has been made and it’s the team leaders who are now sizing each other up. They are looking to see who their biggest threats are and what they can do to shut them down.

Erik Saunders once said something like, “Winning a bike race is all about closing doors. Some riders you can close the door on once and they won’t be able to get back through. With other riders you may have to shut the door on them repeatedly until you finally keep them out. Then there are riders who will get through that damn door no matter how many times and how hard you close it on them.”

Once the dogs are finished sniffing at each other and the new pecking order has been established, the race resumes. You’re looking at a strong group and they are highly motivated. While no one wants to show their cards or burn any matches too early, simultaneously there are 100 riders still rolling behind them and a break of five riders still up the road. The challenge group gets moving and hopefully falls into a nice pace with everyone doing their share of the work.

Scene 9: The Catch
Song: Doomsday Clock by The Smashing Pumpkins

It doesn’t take too long for this group to get up to speed and, when they do, they are really moving. The finish line is still far enough away that no one is afraid to stick their nose in the wind. Chances are one or two teams will have multiple riders in this group. In some cases, these teams will be expected to do a little extra work because of the advantage they have. In other cases (such as when a GC rider is on one of these teams) the captain will do his work and also a portion of the work of his team leader in order to keep him rested. In this group there are also teammates of the riders in the break. These riders are completely excused from doing any work. Even though their teammates in the break are now visible up the road and will be caught at any moment, they will not face the wind even once until the catch is made.

With the break in shouting distance, you might expect the group to get hungry and ramp up the speed. In fact, the opposite is true. With 20 or so miles to go before the finish, catching the break only leads to more uncertainty and more chances for an opportunist to pull one over on the teams. The status quo must be maintained for as long as possible, especially now that there is no question that the break will eventually be caught. The pace begins to even out, but it’s been a long day and the break is getting tired. Slowly, painfully, agonizingly, the break is caught.

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Scene 10: The Counter
Song: Not Time Soon by Gnarls Barkley

Remember what I said about the status quo? With the break swallowed up, the race is blown to bits and it’s now anybody’s game. Just like in the beginning of the race, the attacks begin; however, now there is much more at stake. One of the guys who gets away in this final group is going to come across the finish line with his hands in the air.

One rider attacks and gets a good gap. Everyone looks around at each other. Another rider jumps and bridges across. Now there are two strong riders five seconds up the road. The pack looks around at each other to see who will take the bait. Suddenly a third rider gives it a go. This time the pack responds and the third potential breakaway rider unwittingly brings the entire group across to the break.

Without even a pause, the next attack goes. The two riders who just got caught struggle to make it back into the fold. The rider who chased goes off the back. This drama unfolds several more times. Finally something sticks. There’s no way to predict the exact composite of the group. Aside from the luck, skill and fitness it takes to get to this point, it will most likely be several strong riders who know each other, who have proven themselves in the past and are branded as racers who will work all the way down to the wire to make sure a break succeeds.

If those criteria are not met, one or more of the riders in the break will simply sit up and drift to the back. With that dead weight dragged behind, the break will surely crumble with a kilometer. But if the right chemistry is achieved they are gone, baby, gone.

Something they never show on TV is the group of 30 who miss the break. Since they’re not on the screen, it is easy to assume they’ve jumped into their team cars where donuts and coffee are waiting for them. But these guys never stop working. Often, they bust their butts in a futile chase for 40 kilometers and finish less than a minute behind the winners. Alas, the television station has already taken us to commercial and we never get to see that halfhearted sprint for the remaining top 10 places.

The Final Stages
Next week, we will conclude this series with how the finale is set up and shapes up. Can you guess how the climax all works out? Stay tuned!

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About Josh
Josh Horowitz is the host of Broken Bones Garage, a daily webcast featuring segments on training, sports psychology, nutrition and gritty stories from his days racing in the pro peloton.

You can follow him here on facebook or check out the Broken Bones Youtube channel for the latest episodes.

As a coach, Josh has trained national champions, world champions and Tour de France stage winners along with hundreds of amateur racers and recreational riders. His innovative articles on training, strategy, nutrition and sports psychology have appeared in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Bicycling Magazine and The Huffington Post.

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