Learning from the Tour de France: Rider Roles

tour de franceWhen we watch pro races on television, the roles of racers all look so well defined. Robbie McEwen is a SPRINTER and Fred Rodriguez the LEADOUT MAN that takes Robbie to the 200m mark. Michael Rasmussen a CLIMBER who will be PROTECTED by his teammates going into a climb, and Floyd Landis is the ALL-AROUNDER who is expected to excel in all facets of a particular race. He will have the full support of his team in whatever capacity necessary. Like these riders, nearly any developed rider can be put in a relatively specific category of racer type or “job” as mentioned above – and therefore fit into a relatively specific role on a team.

The key word here is developed. As riders develop as racers, their strengths and weaknesses become more pronounced. Eventually, the rider inclined toward climbing will finally give up on attempting to win major field sprints, and the field sprinter will give up on trying to stay with the first rate climbers. Sometimes a rider will break out of a specific type mold and take on new talents. Usually though, an understanding remains of how to best utilize a particular rider type strategically.

As racers progress through the lower categories, these roles are not always so easy to assign or even pinpoint. This is often due to the lack of development into one’s potential as well as the same of the competition. An example; a rider might be the best sprinter on the block, but as soon as he leaves the comfort of the neighborhood he will find out that climbing is it!

This lack of roles is one of the main divisions between professional and amateur racing strategy. In many cases of amateur racing, it may not even be wise to assign specific roles to riders – or more importantly, it’s not wise to ignore winning opportunities that don’t fit into a rider’s current role when that rider is still developing. This is particularly imperative in junior racing, where young riders need to be free to develop, and not shunted into specific supporting roles or categories.

A mistake often made by recreational racers is to base a plan on a pro-like strategy: that is, asking several teammates to sacrifice for the placing of a lead rider. Don’t ever forget that this philosophy works in pro racing ONLY because there is a pay-off of one kind or another. Without this “something-for-something” system, sacrificing results would be an uncontrollable mess, just as it often is on lower levels. In amateur racing a particular strategy may work using riders in assigned roles, but then individuals on the team will attempt to use the same roles again and again. Eventually, without the common bond of a paying sponsor, the riders sacrificing weekend after weekend begin to question why they continue to go to the races. Strategies based on team sacrifice never work in the long run when this return isn’t equal in the mind of the rider being asked to sacrifice. One will shortly be able to observe that these riders slowly, but surely don’t chase all out or don’t give it all in a lead out – always saving a bit for themselves. Or, they may become disappointed if the appointed leader doesn’t follow through, and then differences arise over the commitment to the cause.

Another difference in the roles of pro and amateur racers is that riders on a pro team are most often responding to roles and commands specifically demanded of them by a team director. The director is in return responsible for answering to a boss above him. When the strategy goes wrong, it’s as much or sometimes more the fault of the director as it is the riders. In pro racing this responsibility for a game plan takes away the tension amateur teams suffer when things go wrong, avoiding further breakdowns in faith of teammates.

Teaching individual and team strategies is an important task of a coach, but it is a misunderstood virtue to implement this at all times and in a system of fixed roles. Solid professional strategies for junior or other developmental categories should be left in the class room. Instead, developing riders should be taught how to win in any given situation will help them in their future endeavors as a bike racer.

Racers on lower category teams who are racing both just for fun and for upgrade points are usually better served practicing a strategy of “team courtesy” rather than “team sacrifice.” This means refraining from chasing down a teammate, countering each other’s attacks, or maybe working together near the end of a race to bring back a breakaway that doesn’t contain a teammate. But it doesn’t mean working for miles on end to bring back a breakaway for a sprinter who wins once in a while, or chasing down a breakaway with a team mate in it just because this team mate does not look like the sprint winner of the breakaway.

Pro racing strategies are always based on a mix between contracts, agreements, commercialism and of course racing. This often makes racing a somewhat negative experience. For anyone below the pro category racing can and still should be fun. Strategies do not have to be based on any of the above factors except the race itself, and if this is remembered, the chance of more riders being developed and more riders having fun with racing is exceptional. In return, this will likely result in more talent development, and in the end, more and better pro riders for the teams and the country.

In conclusion, don’t race like a pro unless you must. While it can be fascinating and satisfying to have executed a plan a la Rodriguez and McEwen, they wouldn’t have done so unless they were paid to, so why should you!