Light a Candle, or, Race the Race You’ve Entered

See if you can figure out the common factor in these five situations:

  • Riders are stretched out single file on a wide straight road as the leader weaves back and forth, pedaling furiously, occasionally looking over his shoulder, and frantically waving one elbow like a chicken wing. The field winds up the road like a psychedelic snake as each rider attempts to stay in the draft of the rider ahead. After the race, the swerving leader complains that no one would take a pull.
  • An echelon of eight sets the pace at the front in a heavy cross-wind on a flat stretch, while the rest of the riders grovel in the gutter, desperately trying to catch the minuscule available draft by riding the last hairy edge of the pavement. After the race one of the guttered riders, perhaps one who went off the road and flatted out, complains that the stupid riders in this district don’t know how to make a second echelon.
  • After a closely spaced series of attacks, even strong riders are suffering and small gaps are opening and closing all over the place as riders leapfrog each other and the gaps, moving up the peloton. Suddenly, one of the gaps halfway back is two bike lengths, three, four, five and boom… the race is over for the riders behind the gap. After the race a dropped rider complains that, “I was feeling strong but some incompetent looser who should not have been in the race anyway let a big gap open and ruined my chance to win the race.“
  • A break has formed with riders from each of the major teams. The other riders from those teams are well represented at the front of what could be the chase group. One solo rider is attacking and pulling like crazy trying to bring the field across. After the race the soloist complains that no one would help him close the gap.
  • Here comes the break, lead by a district or national time-trial champion or other hero. Along with the champ there are four guys who, had they gone to the championships, would have been four minutes or more back, and the champ is yelling at them, “Come on you guys! Pull through! Pull Through”, followed by expletives that I prefer not to repeat. After the race the hero complains at length to anyone who will listen that his break could have stayed away for the win, his win, if only those guys had worked.

I’m sure you can think of similar complaints that you’ve heard, and you may even have voiced some of them yourself. One common thread is that the complainer was unhappy about losing and blamed it on other people who did actually play a role, but there is another common thread as well: In each case the whiner is complaining about other riders riding exactly the way they always ride and probably always will. If the whiner is expecting something different to happen, he’s setting himself up for more disappointment. If she’s counting on something different as part of her race strategy, she’d better do something different to make it happen.

There’s an old expression, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” In other words, don’t expect things to be other than they are, and work with what you’ve got. Race the race you’ve entered.

What does this mean? It means people and races are predictable. If you pull the field faster than anyone else wants to ride, no one is going to pass you to take a pull or continue the leadout. If you want someone else to take over pulling, soft pedal for a few strokes. Don’t expect anyone to sprint to get in front of you.

No one wants to pull away from the gutter into the cross wind any more than you do. Why give up the tiny bit of draft if you’re not sure that other riders will join in the echelon, or if they’ll just use you to jump forward one position in the line, riding you until you blow. If you initiate a second echelon, you have to commit to moving gradually away from the gutter and riding in the wind for long enough to allow the echelon to form. If you race a category that really doesn’t understand the second echelon, and won’t follow you away from the gutter, you’ll just have to make sure that you are up front when the echelon forms.

When the race gets really hard, the field will eventually start to break up, and people in the back will be getting gapped off and dropped. Why does the race get hard? Because the riders who are strong enough are at the front attacking and fighting for position, knowing that’s what they have to do to make the selection. The only way to escape the ignominy of being dropped is to fight for your own position at the front, follow wheels right away and, if possible, be the one making that attacks rather than the one responding. Then you, too, will be in the front group when the split happens, if you can.

Predictability means that at least some riders, and most of the riders on strong teams, understand teamwork and won’t chase a break that includes a teammate. The only way for a solo rider who is not a time-trial champion to be in the winning break in a team-dominated race is to join the break as it forms.

Predictability in racing

You can predict that riders who know they can out-sprint anyone in the field won’t work with you in the break, and that riders who know they’ll blow and get dropped if they try to trade even pulls with you won’t trade pace with you, even if they are in a break with the potential to stay away. If you find yourself in a break with riders who won’t work with you, attack that break, or, failing that, let the break die. Return to the field and try for another break with a better combination.

Energy invested in being angry and frustrated with how others race or anything else in bike racing or life can be wasted or not. If you complain and leave it at that, the energy is wasted. If you let the anger lead you to study how to do better, then the energy is certainly not wasted. If you study how others behave in races, you can learn to predict it and use it to your advantage. Of course, if you can reach the same point without ever getting angry or complaining, you’ll be happier and your buddies will like hanging out with you more.

While individuals will change behavior and tactics from day to day, the best way to predict the behavior of the pack as a whole is probably to note what it has done before. Do riders in your category sit up with one lap to go in a criterium, allowing a huge surge to come around and swamp riders who have earned spots in the front? If they have before, they probably will today as well. Rather than fight to protect position in the front and then curse when you get boxed in and don’t have the strength to fight your way out again, why not take advantage of the way your category races by either sitting a bit more to the outside and being ready to join the surge, or talking a few buddies into setting up a lead-out to protect the position that you and they have earned?

Do teams that you’re not on generally control your races? Rather than complain about how tough that makes it for the solo rider, learn to take advantage of it. Either try to join any break that has a good selection from the strong teams, which should be possible if you are really strong enough to win the race, or, better yet, join a team yourself. If you are strong enough and smart enough to win races, the new team will make you a star right away. You may need to get on a real team even if you are already a member of a racing club, especially if your club tends not to show up for races in your category or not to ride as a team.

Whether we laugh about it or cry about it we simply can’t change the fact that sometimes other riders are simply more fit and more savvy or luckier than we are on a given day, and they are going to beat us. The question becomes whether we’d rather spend our lives laughing or crying. I advocate crying only if that’s what it takes to get you motivated to train better, learn more about you competition, or make your way onto a stronger team.