What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox Race Anatomy: The Finale

The past three weeks we have broken down the different stages of a bike race, many of them hidden from the viewer at home as they often happen before the TV cameras go live. Today’s grand finale takes a look at the final knife fight for the line…

We have had fun so far breaking down the different aspects of a bike race, getting deep inside the peloton. In the first installment, we looked at the roll out and the initial break getting established. In stage 2, we looked at the break either sticking or else getting reabsorbed and another break shuffling up ahead. With stage 3, we saw the pack dynamics as the break comes close to getting caught and the finish line comes within sight.

Today, let’s finish with the end game and how the winners come to the fore…

Scene 11: Rolling
Song: Funky Music by Utah Saints

Although the viewer at home doesn’t know that there are 30 riders still in this race, hungry to steal the victory, our guys in the break certainly do and they are busting their butts. For the racers in the break, their frame of mind is a little different now than the tempo sections of the race earlier on. Although the pace is the same and the riders are tired, the suffering doesn’t seem quite as bad. Sure it hurts, but before the motivation was defensive, working hard to keep someone else from winning the race. Now, the motivation is offensive. The motivation is winning and everyone wants a piece.

Tour de France 2015 - stage 6

Scene 12: The Final Shuffle
Song: 20 Dollar by MIA

We’ve got a lead break of six racers barreling towards the end. Something like a mountain top finish or a stiff tailwind could throw off this formula, but as we enter the final moments, we’ll assume it’s a flat to rolling technical finish. A real classic.

Although there is no way of predicting the exact dynamics of this group, there are some constants. Rider A is a better sprinter than the others and would prefer the race to come down to a fast flat group finish. Rider B is a better time trialist than the others and would like to get away on his own. Rider C knows he won’t win in a sprint and wouldn’t be able to stay away solo so he has to be very crafty and look for a hole or a window to jump through when no one else is looking. The other three riders fall somewhere along this spectrum.

As a result, a whole new whirlwind of action begins. The sprinter does only what is absolutely necessary to keep the group together while staying out of the wind as much as possible. The time trial expert launches numerous attacks on the hardest sections of the road hoping his sheer power will force a separation. Everyone else maneuvers to use the movements of the other riders to their own advantage. Like in Judo, they must use the momentum of their opponents against them. Rarely does one wins by sheer strength at this level, even though to the untrained eye it might seem that way.

Since any of the above eventualities are possible at this point, we’ll go with the most interesting one which is that a series of highly calculated attacks and counter attacks spits out a few unlucky riders who took their shot at glory and were rebuked, leaving a group of three riding under the red flag together with nothing separating them from enduring glory but a long empty stretch of road.

Tour de France 2015 - stage 6

Scene 13: The Sprint
Song: Hang Me Up to Dry by The Cold War Kids

Some might think this would the most exciting part of the race and, I guess, in some ways it is. What we see are three talented riders, toe to toe, head to head, giving everything they have in their body and their soul to be the first one to cross a skinny white line taped on the road. The behind the scenes details of the struggle that played out over five brutal hours in the saddle, however, will actually determine the day’s winner. In some ways the race has already been decided.

Imagine if a bicycle race was scored like a round of golf. A point would be given for every gap that had to be made, every unsuccessful attack, every chase after a flat and every moment spent out in the wind. Then instead of a sprint, the rider with the lowest score would automatically be declared the winner. It sounds crazy and it certainly wouldn’t be as exciting to watch but, more often than not, the result would be the same.

Tour de France 2015 - stage 6

Scene 14: The Victory Lap
Song: In My Heart by Moby

Nothing in the world compares to winning. However, although every team wants to see their jersey on the podium, there are a lot of ways to measure success. If the team rode as well as they could, stuck to the team strategy and did their jobs, then it’s tough to feel bad about a good hard day’s work. Whether the victory lap is a roll around the Champs Elysees or a quiet crawl back to the team hotel, this is a chance for the teams and the individuals to reflect on what went right, what went wrong and what they could do better next time.

Tour de France 2015 - stage 6

So there it is, the basic script for a bike race at the elite levels. What can we take from it as amateurs and enthusiasts of the sport?

• Team work is truly the name of the game. Even if an individual rider may be incredibly fit and strong, it is rare that they are strong enough to overcome a committed team of riders. Sure, a team like Etixx-Quick-Step is full of superstar riders in their own right, but their teamwork is the reason why Lefevre’s squads have dominated the Ronde and Roubaix the past 15 years back to the Mapei days, all the way up to the Tour so far with Martin, Stybar, and Cavendish taking turns with the victory salute. This really shows the versatility of the squad, along with their ethos of winning as a team first rather than an individual. So do what it takes to build a strong team at any level of the sport.

• If you are a solo rider, then learning how to understand race dynamics can help you to tag along and be at the right place at the right time. Phillipe Gilbert in his FDJ years was a classic example of a strong rider on a relatively weak squad, winning classics from Het Volk through to Paris-Tours because he understood how to benefit from the racing script and the work of other teams. So far this Tour, Alexis Vuillermoz from AG2R’s win in Stage 8 comes closest to this script.

How will you use these four weeks of race anatomy to advantage in your racing?

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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