Attacking the Early Season

by Rich Cramer

Depending on where you live, the 2007 race season has started or soon will.  You may or may not be prepared to race, whether due to fitness, mental state or schedule.  If you find yourself on the side of fairly fit but unsure if you want to devote the time and energy to taking spring races seriously, consider this a golden opportunity. 

If you polled the racers at a June or July race, very likely a high percentage would reply that they are at a high level of fitness for themselves and taking the race seriously.  In March and April, a high percentage likely would answer much differently in regards to both conditioning and attitude.  The following type of comment can be often heard on the start line this time of year:

I’m just here for training
 I’m just going to sit in 
 I’ve only been on my bike twice since October.
 I don’t have any teammates here.
 If it gets any colder I’m out of here.
 I still need to lose some weight.
 I leave my fenders on until May.

Some of these comments usually turn out to be strategic “sandbagging” tactics by racers that are actually very ready to race. The bulk of these comments are made by racers informing whomever wins they didn’t beat them at their best while excusing their own poor performance.  Others may be rationalizing that expensive off-season race bike purchase by making an appearance at a couple early races, or getting in some quality training they were too lazy to do on their own.  In reality, there are quite a lot of fairly legitimate reasons that the bulk of the people on the start line this time of year are just there to fill the pack.

What this means to the racer who has put in their training time over the winter is that these races offer a great chance at success regardless of whether it is a priority race for you or not.  Chances of a high finish in a field of 50 where only 10 of them are really trying is much easier than in a field of 70 where 60 are going all-out.  Even if you have been diligent with your off-season training it’s unlikely you’re main goal is to win a spring classic but it can’t hurt to try.  Some early-season success adds confidence to any subsequent races reinforces the value of the training time you’ve already put in and motivates further workouts.  In addition, racing in March and April works well in a season plan that has a scheduled break somewhere in the summer months.

The next step is to figure out the best way to take advantage of your particular situation.  First, assess the type of training you’ve been doing.  It’s likely you’re not at full fitness peak, but have specific strengths and weaknesses, which may be different than when you are at your best form.  Have you been mixing in a few sprints during your base miles?  Have you done a fair amount of steady climbing?  Is your weight where you’d like it?  Have you just done a “lot of miles”?

Next examine your local race calendar and pick a race or two that fit your schedule and hopefully offer a course that favors your present strengths.  A race that “fits your schedule” should not only be one that you are physically able to attend but one that will not seriously disrupt your training plan.  While a March race is great to take this opportunity to go out and show off how hard you’ve been working it’s probably not your main goal for the season, so keep that in mind when picking which and how many early races to attend.  If you’ve scheduled well, race day will fall (or nearly) on what would otherwise be a hard training day.  In this case the days prior should provide a bit of rest leading up to a good effort, and no further schedule disruption should be necessary, even if you didn’t have the race in your training plan.

So when you get to the start line, what should you be thinking?  Race day strategy can differ a little bit in an early season situation than it might in a group of racers at top form. Primarily, a breakaway is far likelier to succeed this time of year, and should be easier to get into as well.  So from the gun, put yourself in a good pack position to join a break, if not start one yourself.  Early races have not yet settled into any patterns, and the “usual suspects” are not yet well identified.  This makes it not only easy to get yourself off the front because nobody knows “who you are”, but chases are poorly organized and not well-motivated.  Lousy weather can also play a factor in pack apathy, as many times racers not in the lead group will “just want to be done”.  It’s no wetter and colder off the front and the incentive of a good finish will certainly keep you feeling better than listening to a whining pack.  Not to mention that the more constant speed of a breakaway is more conducive to moderating your body temperature and following one wheel is drier than following five.  And if the race does come down to a large group finish, better to be sprinting against five that really care than thirty!