Double Reality Check – Identifying a tactical race plan that suits both your talents and the course

There are as many potentially successful strategies for winning bike races as there are courses and categories. However, only a few strategies are likely to be successful in any given race. Strategies that work beautifully on one course or with one category will be dismal failures on another course or with another category. For instance, sitting mid-field and waiting for the sprint works well in many flat criteriums, especially if one or more teams are keeping the field together for the sprinters. Sitting in at mid-field won’t work well in a category where the fields often break up. Going hard at the start to get a position near the front of a criterium is a strategy that often pays off, while going hard at the start of a time trial is a plan for competitive suicide.

To win a bike race, you have to have an idea how it can be won. In a criterium with a short sprint from the final corner to the line, winning requires being one of the first riders through that corner on the last lap or coming through with a lot more speed than the leaders. The greater the distance from the final corner to the line, the more time there is for passing and the farther back the eventual winner can be at the corner. Given a long bunch sprint from the final corner to the line, being first through the final corner almost guarantees being passed by a hoard of riders before the line. In a race with a headwind finish, moving up in the draft of other riders is relatively easy, but riding on the front is tough. Such a race can be won moving from wheel to wheel and saving the sprint for the last possible moment, allowing just enough time to come around and pass the final riders. In a race with an uphill finish that levels out just before the line, the first riders to the crest will speed up compared to the others who are still moving up-hill, and the followers will have virtually no chance of coming around unless they are moving much faster than the leaders before the crest. Any race mass-start race can be won in a solo breakaway if you can sustain it all the way to the line. This is not an exhaustive list, but is meant to encourage you to start thinking about possible strategies for particular races. If you don’t have much experience, a coach or more experienced rider can help you think through the possibilities.

One good — though not foolproof — way to identify winning strategies on a particular course is to observe the other categories that finish before yours. Because of differences in power and aggressiveness between different fields, strategies that work in one category may not work in another, however, so also consider how the race has been won in your category in the past. If you have not done the race before, talk to your coach or to people who have done it or at least watched it before. Very experienced riders often learn to predict outcomes from the course alone. Figuring out the possible strategies for a given course greatly enhances your chances of competitive success. Just racing, without first figuring our how you might achieve your goal is a case of “failure to plan is planning to fail.” Reality check number one is, “Do you have a plan for success?”

Do you have a plan for success?

Let’s say that you are attending a criterium which has been won in a bunch sprint year after year, and you don’t do well mixing it up elbow to elbow – that in fact you fear cornering and you generally get dropped or squeezed to the back in crits. What do you do then? Or, let’s say that you are attending a hard road race with a hilltop finish that has been won year after year by riders who rode away from decimated fields on the final climb, but you don’t climb well compared to your competition, and in fact often get dropped in road races. What should you do? One answer is to “race your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.” This means developing a strategy for which your talents are suited. If you’re not a climber, try breaking away on a flat portion of the course and holding a dwindling gap to the top of that final climb. If you’re not much of pack sprinter, break away before the final lap of the criterium. Both of these strategies assume that you are a pretty good time-trialist on either hilly or cornering courses. But what if you are not?

Reality check number two is, “Do your talents match the possibly successful strategies for a certain course?” As it’s getting along towards summer, you have probably done a few races and have a sense of what you are good at. Do your talents match this course? Consider the ways in which the race in question can be won. Based on what you know about yourself right now, are any of them possibilities for you? “Race your strengths” can also mean, “Enter races to which you are suited.”

Do your talents match the possibly successful strategies for a certain course?

Let’s say you have the talent to be a sprinter and win criteriums, but you live in a part of the country where you can attend a hilly road race every Saturday and a criterium every Sunday, and that you like to race a lot. What should you do? If racing a lot is more important than winning, go to the road races, but if winning is more important, skip the road races and save your juice for Sundays.

For each race you are considering attending, ask yourself how it could be won, and whether you have the skills and talent to execute the necessary tactics. If you don’t, either adjust your expectations or do not attend that race. Save your strength, emotional energy and your money for the races where you have a better chance. It takes a week or more to recover physically from a really hard race, so take advantage of skipping occasional races to recover more fully, train more effectively and race your best in every race you do attend. If you don’t think you currently have the talent, skills and strengths to be successful in any races, ask your coach to help you check your analysis, and recommit to gaining those skills and strengths.

Bike racing is a sport of hope. If you are not currently competitive on the climbs, lack the nerve for cornering, or have other weaknesses, there are ways to improve. Any weakness can be corrected, given good guidance, commitment and enough time. The time is key, however. Correction of a physiological or skill deficit can take weeks to years. It takes time to lose weight or for visualizations to become effective. You can improve in whatever way you wish, from season to season, but not often from week to week.

There’s a common expression, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” This is true in bike racing. Today is a great day to try a new strategy if the old ones haven’t been working. It’s a great day to kick a bad habit or adopt a good one. Note that the expression says the first day of the rest of YOUR life, not your life as someone with a different collection of strengths than you.

The hope of improvement keeps us coming back so that we have a chance to learn from our errors and overcome our weaknesses. Hope can also undermine us as racers. When hope blinds us to reality, it leads us to waste our physical and emotional energy so that we are drained when a race to which we are well suited comes around. So, have hope, train to overcome your weaknesses, and do your reality checks. Do you have a plan for success? Do you have the strengths needed to carry it out?