Bike Racing 102: Tactics to Win With
Each competitor starts a race with unique physiological abilities. Some people are better at sprinting or at climbing, while others ride better in the wind. Some are just plain stronger and better at everything, while others aren’t outstanding at anything in particular. All racers have a certain amount of energy they can expend before fatiguing. They can use that energy slowly by riding a steady pace or use it quickly in a few explosive accelerations. Those matches can be used to improve chances of a satisfying final result, or can be wasted, giving up any initial physiological advantage.
Let’s define “strong” to mean, having the ability to respond as necessary in a given situation. The rider with the ability to match or exceed the group pace, to move up in the field or to outsprint his or her rivals is “strong.” Obviously, only riders who arrive at the decisive moments of races ready to do what needs to be done at those moments have a realistic chance of winning or placing.
The initial energy available and lab numbers don’t determine the strength of a rider mid-race. Rather, a rider’s abilities compared to the competition determine who will succeed or fail moment by moment. The relative strengths of individual riders change as each expends or conserves energy. A hard attack or pull fatigues a rider for some time. If the race is easy for this rider after the hard effort, he or she may recover in a few minutes. If the rider finds no opportunity for recovery, he or she may be toast for many minutes or even for the rest of the race.
Current strength equals initial ability minus anything already used up. The rider who started out strongest is useless immediately after a hard effort. In that moment, an initially weaker rival may be stronger and better able to respond to a new attack or more effectively compete in a sprint.
Tactics are the tricks by which one changes the equation or tilts the playing field one way or another. By conserving energy or forcing opponents to expend theirs, a rider or team that starts out weaker becomes relatively strong later, or a stronger rider or team can take absolute control.
Any move a rider makes that results in using less energy compared to rivals, whether by decreasing one’s own enrgy expenditure or causing others to work harder to get to the same point, gains him or her an advantage.
Drafting levels the playing field. A weak rider who drafts extremely well can be the strong rider at the end of a race. Never stay out in the wind. Elite riders will use a hip to threaten another rider’s handlebars, forcing him or her to surrender a space in the pace-line. Novices should look for larger gaps to move into. Either way, you will need to create or move into a space to get out of the wind. As you do so, allow the riders around you enough time to safely respond. Repeat after me: “I will not sit in the wind any longer than absolutely necessary.”
Each field has a “sweet spot,” which is usually about six to ten riders back in the field. This is far enough back to provide plenty of draft but not require taking a pull. At moderate speeds, fields often have a few single-file riders at the front. Behind these riders, the field widens to two or more abreast. Here, where the field widens, is the ideal spot for drafting. You will have to work to stay in that spot since lots of riders want to be there. At any given time, decide if the work of staying in the sweet spot exceeds the effort of riding elsewhere in the pack. When the entire field is lined out at warp-speed, all riders behind the immediate leaders do roughly the same work.
Twisting the Knife
Several racing situations provide opportunities to force other riders to do extra work. Accelerating, sprinting, pulling and going hard use much more energy than going steady in the draft at the same average speed. You can take advantage of these opportunities or be destroyed by them at tight corners. The first few riders through a corner can take it at their natural pace, slowing a little as they enter and gently accelerating onto the next straight. Farther back in the pack, riders come into the turn and slow down while the leaders accelerate. Riders in the rear can’t begin accelerating until after the apex. When exiting tighter corners, riders farther back must sprint hard to stay in contact. Being in the front around such corners and accelerating out of turns can make life miserable for the folks farther back. It isn’t necessary to go hard or lead through the corner, so as long as you are close to the front and the lead riders slightly accelerate. That speed increase kills the riders at the back.
In tight corners, ride near the front. In a short crit course with turns close together moving up between them can be impossible, especially if the corners are tight enough to force significant deceleration. On such a course, starting in the back will mean riding there for several laps and doing much more work than riders who managed to start farther forward. Riding at the back can be so hard that half the field or more is out of contention for the win by the time they have completed just a few laps.
On a flat course with wide open corners, the pace changes less, so riding farther back doesn’t put you in the express lane to Loserville.
The top of a hill is similar to a corner. Descending riders accelerate while the ones still climbing have to sprint to stay in contact. Make life miserable for the tail gunners by pushing over the top and continuing to accelerate down the other side. Leading up a hill may put the hurt on opponents, but accelerating over the top twists the knife.
The rider who eases up after leading to the top of the hill and who feels proud of the fact that he just out-climbed the competition demonstrates ignorance. If the following riders aren’t forced to work hard to stay in contact, the leader has wasted the energy invested in getting to the top fist. Always push over the top.
Be near the front on rollers. A course with closely spaced rollers is comparable to a short crit course with tight corners. Each crest or corner ridden in the front makes one stronger compared to competitors. Riding this terrain at the back makes one relatively weaker. A series of rollers ridden at the back can pop a rider who started the race strong.
Gain Positions Wherever Possible
Avoiding repeated sprints provides an energy advantage. Moderating your effort in certain situations will cost a few positions. If you can get them back with moderate effort by taking advantage of corners, hills, slow moments and gaps, there’s nothing wrong with giving them up, other than in the final moments of the race. Avoid all-out efforts mid-race in order to conserve energy for when it’s really needed at the finale.
Unless you are in danger of pulling, work every corner and hill bottom to gain positions. Achieve this by taking advantage of the flow of the field, not by sprinting. Any position gained through pack flow tactics allows you to save energy by not sprinting later.
If a side-to-side gap opens between the riders in front of you, move into it quickly before it closes. Positioning yourself near the side of the field allows for an out in case the peloton slows. Then you can go around a chunk of pack, or if a train of riders comes by you can jump on and be towed towards the front.
Popping to the outside as you enter a corner can mean not having to slow down with the peloton. They brake and you pass. Then you rejoin the group having moved up a few places. When the pack accelerates hard, you can accelerate more gently, give up a few places and end up where you would have been anyway, but having expended less energy that the riders around you. Only use this tactic if an open line to the outside exists.
When riding near the back of a large field, allow a small gap to open when approaching a corner. While the riders in front slow and then sprint because they are caught in traffic, you catch up pedaling moderately while they brake, and match speed as they sprint out of the corner without having to sprint.
Fields often slow and swing unnecessarily wide before corners, which allows an aggressive rider (you!) to roll up the inside. When doing this, check to see how wide the pack goes at the apex. If an open lane exists all the way through the turn, and you’ve practiced cornering, you can speed past the field on the inside. Open lanes are seldom available though, and you should expect riders to shut the door at the last moment. Generally, you’ll need to match speed with the group just before you enter the turn and assert your way back into the line.
Anticipate Cross Winds
Save energy by exiting each corner on the protected side of the pack. When setting up for each turn, think about which side you want to be on for the next straight. Take advantage of how a corner mixes the field to achieve ideal positioning. In a windy crit, this strategy alone can be the difference between contesting the sprint or coming in at the back.
Hitting a Hill
Get to the side of the field before the grade increases. Packs slow and mushroom out as they hit steep hills. This creates an ideal opportunity to move up depending on earlier positioning. Being on the outside of the pack, allows you to swing wide and maintain speed much longer than most of the group. This gains many positions with little effort.
Attacking to Gain An Energy Advantage
Forcing opponents to respond to an attack by using more effort than you used to establish the gap results in an energy advantage. You can sometimes achieve this by deliberately opening a gap in front of you. Only do that if you are sure that riders behind you will close the gap.
If you can roll away with a moderate effort when the pack is moving slowly, do it. Many times the peloton will sprint to catch up with you, handing you an energy advantage. Never bust a gut to get a gap or stay away for the sake of tiring opponents. Going flat out uses as much of your energy as anyone’s. If anything, it gives an advantage to people who are drafting in the field.
As your break gets caught, keep up a bit of effort. If the field is rolling up on you rapidly, you’re going to be in the part of it soon. You’re going to be tired when they arrive. Keep up your moderate effort (zone 2, well below lactate threshold). The pack will have to work to catch you, and the will not be completely fresh and ready to drop you with a counterattack.
Tactics and overall race plans must be based on a realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses compared to the competition. What are you good at? Climbing? Sprinting? Time trialing? Cornering? Drafting? None of the above? How will you use your strength or make up for your weakness in this race? If the race comes down to a sprint, can you win it or get a top placing? If not, try to prevent a decisive sprint. If you have to contend with the entire field on the hill, will you be able to keep up? If not, work to make sure that you don’t have to. Break away before the hill, or plan to chase after. If you ride away from the field, can you stay away for the rest of the race? If so, do it. Can you stay away long enough to survive some obstacle that might otherwise get you dropped? Do that.
Don’t bet on miracles. Some races play out the same way year after year. They always come down to a sprint, or shatter and finish in small groups. Talk to more experienced teammates to learn the historical patterns of each particular course. There’s a first time for everything, but there’s also a good chance that the race will unfold the same way as before. Adjust your strategy accordingly. Unless you have no sprint, don’t waste energy getting into breaks in a race that has never seen a successful break. Unless climbing is your only ability, don’t try too hard to get away on the hill in a race where the climbers’ break is always caught by the peloton. If you really don’t have a skill for success in a particular race, spend the weekend training instead.
Starting the race stronger improves your ability to execute all the other tactics. A strong rider can benefit from corners, hills, wind and pack flow. Do your training. Get plenty of sleep. Eat and drink enough before and during races. The rider with the most talent will not win without taking good care of the body and preparing it well for each event.
Everyone needs to understand and be able to execute tactics. If you are truly weak, perfect tactics are unlikely to get you to the podium. However, when armed with the knowledge presented in this article, each rider can do better than they otherwise would. By conserving energy and forcing others to waste theirs, a racer can gradually improve relative to competitors during a race. Physical ability alone determines “strength” only in the first few minutes of a race, but tactical smarts can gradually level the playing field, or tilt it more dramatically as the race goes on. At the end of a hard race, the more tactical rider may actually be stronger than the rider who started out with the physical advantage. A physically strong rider, who is also a master of tactics, is unstoppable and ready for the next category.
Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching train their clients in the tactical aspects of bike racing as well as helping them to develop their physical abilities. Training programs working with Scott range from $129 to $350 per month. For more details or to inquire about working with him, please visit www.WenzelCoaching.com or call 503-233-4346.
This article first appeared in the May, 2015 edition of ROAD Magazine.