Bike Racing: The Game

By the time you read this the Northern Hemisphere racing season will be in its waning months. Chances are that you’d still like to earn a few more upgrade points or attract attention from a bigger team and that you wouldn’t mind riding a more strongly in the remaining races than in those just past. There’s still time this season to make some improvements in your physical condition. For instance if you’ve been racing tired, you can make substantial gains by learning to recover rather than hammer mid-week. If you’ve not been eating or drinking enough during long races, correcting those problems can make the difference between making the final selection and missing it. If you’ve just in the last month started racing for the year or haven’t been getting a weekly dose of high-intensity activity when not racing, your race legs will be coming soon. However, if you’ve been racing regularly and are already good at recovering between races, you’ll be making small improvements at most in your physical abilities the rest of this season. If you were going to make a breakthrough based on improved fitness and training, you’d have done it by now. Large gains in fitness of the sort that make the difference between hanging on and placing or between placing in one category and placing in the next category come over many months. Other than correcting major errors, there’s nothing you can do with your training to get you enough more strength or power to make a big difference in your performance in the next few months.

If you are not already the strong man or woman in the peloton, I still have good news for you: Power and fitness are not the only determinants of race outcome. If they were, we would pay entry fees and then just compare test results before picking up our prizes. In many cases, power and fitness are not even the most important factors. There is some minimum level of fitness required to get to the end of a race and so have a shot at the prizes, but beyond that more aerobic power is not necessarily required to get top-ten or even podium finishes. I have seen riders win races in which essentially all the other riders could beat them in time trials. I have seen riders win crits in sprint finishes against others who often hit higher top speeds in sprinting. I have seen riders go from routinely finishing at the back of the pack to routinely finishing on the podium in the same category with no change in their power numbers. I personally always had a poor power-to-weight ratio and yet managed to win a hilly stage race despite the fact that I could not climb with or even near the leaders and was dropped five times during the main road stage. I know of several riders who routinely finish criteriums in the front half of the field, never having exceeded 80% of maximum heart rate, but never getting on the podium either.

How can a rider who lacks aerobic power win races? How can a rider with a “slow” sprint win a mass dash for the line? How can a rider change his placings dramatically without any change in power? How can an overweight rider win a hilly stage race? How can a rider who doesn’t even have to breath hard or stand up on the pedals to finish a crit not win prizes? The answer in two words: strategies and tactics.

Your strategy is your plan by which you hope to achieve a goal, such as to win a race or help your team win a race. A strategy might include everything from training and peaking for an event to choosing a place to start your lead out and sprint. Tactics are the elements of a strategy. Strategies and tactics are what allow you to beat physically stronger riders.

There are a few fundamental rules that almost all successful strategies will follow: 1) Don’t waste effort. 2) Make opponents waste effort. 3) Make use of strengths and those of all the teammates 4) Minimize the impact of weaknesses. 5) Take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses. 6) Minimize opponents’ strengths. 7) Take advantage of the course. 8) Be realistic about your own abilities and the likely behavior of other racers.

If you are able to develop a strategy that adheres to the rules above, you can be one of the stronger riders at the end of a race even if you were not one of them at the beginning. That’s why we at Wenzel Coaching say that a bike race is as much or more a game than a physiology project.

Following the rules of strategy: Some examples:

The rider who could win races even though he couldn’t time-trial his way out of a wet paper bag was a brilliant wheel-sucker. He had trained himself to ride closer to the edge of the pavement than anyone else in his field. When riders were groveling for draft in the gutter, he was still able to get some protection because he was willing to ride closer to the edge. He was able to ride closer on a wheel or up in an armpit than was necessarily safe, but he had no choice. Because he lacked aerobic power, he had to ride that close or be dropped. By the end of a race spent sucking wheel so close that he almost had tread marks on his teeth, he was actually stronger than many of the riders who were “lucky” enough to be able to waste a little strength to avoid the discomfort of close drafting earlier on. All that practice with very close drafting also got him comfortable shooting very small gaps, allowing him to win races that one might otherwise say he should not have won. His strategy was to leverage his strength and minimize his weakness by doing no work at all. That and the fact that he didn’t mind being hated made him a successful bike racer.

One rider who was able to win crit sprints despite not having the fastest sprint on club rides took advantage of the fact that it is the average speed over the closing meters rather than momentary top speed that wins a race. By passing the front of the pack with a definitive difference in speed just before the final corner, this rider got enough of a gap on several occasions that riders who sprinted faster but started later were unable to catch him before the line, or at least that only a few did so. Of course this strategy only works in fields that slow down before the final corner (see rule 8 above).

Like the talentless rider in the first example, one rider who went from bringing up the rear to bringing home the prizes with no change in power at threshold did it by learning to follow rule 1, waste no effort, but in his case it was a question of learning not to surge rather than learning to draft brilliantly. Covering a distance at constant speed leaves more strength in your legs than covering the same distance in the same time with hard accelerations interspersed with rest periods. To take advantage of this, adopt the rule that you will never accelerate all out other than to avoid being dropped. Except at the end of a race, so long as there are plenty or riders behind you, it is better to let a few riders pass you than to sprint to maintain a position. Let yourself slide back a bit on hills, coming out of crit corners or other times that riders around you are going all out, and then take the positions back when the others are recovering. Each time the riders around you sprint and you don’t, you gain a little strength relative to them. If your original strengths are similar, by the end of a race you’ll be moving up with relative ease.

The non-climber (me) who won the stage race based on placing in the hilly road stage did it by applying rules 2-7. Knowing that I couldn’t climb but that I could suffer, each of the five times that I was dropped on a hill and regained the pack on the descent, I attacked immediately but at a very sustainable effort. The leaders of the pack foolishly sprinted hard to bring me back each time, slowly neutralizing their strength advantage. Finally by the time of my sixth attack, after I had been caught and dropped five times on hills, the rest of the field had decided that I was a suicidal idiot with no chance of staying away, so they didn’t chase and only two riders joined me. The thing is, this final attack took place just as the course entered its final eight-mile descent to the finish. On this stretch my proclivity for pizza and enchiladas was an advantage as my breakaway partners and I gained nearly a two-minute advantage, overcoming my poor placing in the hill-climb time trial and a mid-pack finish in the crit.

Many riders I work with have developed the fitness to finish races without having to go into the red zone much if at all even without superb drafting skills, but that does that by itself does not make them win races. It has to be combined with a willingness to expend all that saved up effort in the final minutes of the race and also with a tactic that plays to their strengths. In some cases the rider needs to overcome a fear of commitment and learn to make last lap breakaways. In others the rider needs to develop the patience and aggressiveness for wheel-to-wheel field sprinting or some other talent.

What about you?

If you can already finish with the pack, you may have the fitness to get top-ten or podium placings, if only you can ride efficiently and develop strategies that play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Unlike fitness, which takes months or years to develop, new strategies can be learned and applied quickly. If you are looking to improve your placings this season, keep working on your physiology project of course, but also give some thought to what you are good at and what you are not so good at tactically and in terms of different kinds of terrain. Do what you can to correct your weaknesses long term, but also try to improve your game. Think out strategies that allows you to do well in your upcoming races by taking advantage of your current abilities.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching have been combining science with racing and coaching experience to help riders of all levels to reach their potential since 1993. They provide periodized training plans to help clients peak when they need to. Training plans with included consultation time start are priced to be affordable for most budgets. For more information, check out or call 503-233-4346.