What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: The Practice Race

Practice? Remember when you were young(er) and you went to practice? In team sports like basketball or football, you go to practices and spend upward of 70-80% of your time focused on improving your skills. Now you train, right? What’s the difference?


One of my observations through my years of coaching is that cyclists approach the sport in a unique way as we balance skills and fitness. Think about it. In team sports like basketball or football, you go to practices and spend upward of 70-80% of your time focused on improving your skills, with the rest of the time spent on building fitness. This is even more evident in the skill sports like golf, where skill practice can claim as much as 90% of the focus.

Now think about your cycling training. How much time do you spend on improving skills? Sure, you could say racing a lot is skill building in itself, but that’s like saying Peyton Manning is a great quarterback because he plays in a lot of football games.

So how does a competitive cyclist practice? Well, I’ve been to very few towns that don’t offer Tuesday night racing, Wednesday night worlds, or Thursday night throw-down. The problem is that we tend to use these training faces as ways to improve our fitness instead of using them as “practice.” If you really want to improve your racing, you need to start practicing and stop focusing on training/winning in these events. Yes, you read that right: practice at the practice race and accept not trying to win it.

Once you’ve accept that mindset, here are two skills to practice in those training races.

Staying Up Front
The Problem: Too many racers do not learn how to ride at the front of the peloton and thus spend a lot of energy and effort being in the wrong spot in the peloton.

The Drill: One of the things everyone new to racing (or looking to improve in racing) needs to learn is how to stay at the front of the peloton. This is both a skill and an art, and it can only be learned in “practice.”

The drill is simple: focus on staying within the first ten to twelve riders in the peloton. Don’t stress breaks and attacks; just totally focus on staying up front in that top-ten range. The best advice here is to pay close attention to position, as it is typically your focus that defeats you and drops you back. Don’t try to win the race; this drill is too much work for that, but it’s a skill that will serve you well once built.

Tour de France 2015 - stage 15
You can’t be at the front all day

Comments: I’m not saying you should always race at the front of the peloton, but you need the skill to be there when you need to be there.

70/80/90 Attack
The Problem: Too many riders execute attacks too hard and quickly find themselves alone, only to be caught in two or three minutes and then struggle to hold the group.

The Drill: This drill is focused on helping you make early, mid, and late race breaks (not necessarily the winning move). It was designed for riders training with power but translates well to perceived exertion. The goal is to learn to make moves that take a few riders with you (or drop the ones struggling) without burning up your matchbook and leaving you alone off the front. It’s simple to understand. They are laid out in specific target numbers and effort goals, you don’t need to be this exact but try to be close. Here are the steps:

1. Attack. Have a place early in the training race where you plan to attack. When you get to your spot, hit it and attack! Punch it hard for 10 seconds, then settle into it and drive it at 70% of your max 1-minute power. To get away at this power, you need to select a good spot to execute.

2. Establish. Once you’ve hit it hard for the first 30 seconds as above, now settle in for 3 minutes at 80% of your max 5-minute power. Use this pace to establish the break. Some (maybe all) will jump over to you. If you can, work with a few riders, but keep this pace; don’t get sucked into going harder.

3. Stick it. Now that you’re established, settle into a pace at 90% of your max 60-minute power till you get caught. Use other riders and try to get them established at this pace. This will move you down the road at a solid pace but not at a full break pace.

Comments: This is tough to do at times, but the point is to learn to attack and run the break. Try talking to those with you and focus on executing the drill. Don’t get too wrapped up in exact numbers; the idea is to just learn to feel the process of the break. As you practice this, you’ll slowly make each step stronger as you learn the pacing and in the end it will look more like an 80/90/100% drill. Repeat this drill multiple times in a race.

Staying up front and the 70/80/90 attack are both crucial in cycling. Learning how to execute them will lead to knowing when to execute them.

Tour de France 2015 - stage 14
Knowing when to attack

About Tim Cusick
Tim Cusick is a USA Cycling Coach and the President and Co-Owner of Peaks Coaching Group. Tim has been coaching for over 10 years, focusing on training and racing with power data. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] , and check out Tim and the entire Peaks Coaching Group for more information on coaching services, camps, and products.

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