Race Your Strengths

Each rider is more suited to particular aspects of racing and less suited to others. Some riders have tremendous speed for a short distance, some can ride all day at a good clip and some can climb away from a group. Some like bumping in a field sprint while others need more personal space. Some love to suffer while others prefer to inflict suffering. If you know what you are good at and where you are weak, you can take advantage of your strengths in racing; you can accumulate top placings while reducing the frustration that comes from trying to race in ways that require talents that you lack. Knowing your special ability can guide your selection of tactics and will increase your ratio of top finishes to pack finishes, but don’t pigeonhole yourself too soon. Different aspects of talent will take different times to develop. A racer who seems to be a sprinter early in a career excel at something entirely different when he or she has matured as a racer and upgraded a few times. Many riders make the mistake of identifying themselves by what they want to be good at, as opposed to what they actually are good at. That leads to wasted opportunities as non-sprinters wait for the sprint, non-climbers wait for the climb and so on, with predictable results.

Knowing the characteristics of the various specialists will help you identify your own talents and choose tactics. The commonly recognized specialties are Sprinting, Pursuit, Rolling, Climbing and Brains. Every rider has some talent in all departments, but the lucky ones have one or a few areas of particular ability. Those who have great ability in several areas are All-Rounders. Each specialty has a body type, a muscle fiber type distribution and a temperament associated with it. Some people will have one or two but not all three and will be members of the largest identifiable group: Pack-Fodder. Each talent is associated with particularly effective tactics, and dooms other particular tactics. A coach can often identify your talent by looking at you and talking to you, but the surest way to determine this is by trying the tactics appropriate to each specialty and comparing the effects. If you ride like a Pursuiter or a Time Trialist/Roller, then sprint and get crushed , that doesn’t mean you are not a sprinter. If you ride like a Sprinter and get crushed repeatedly in the sprint, you’re probably not a Sprinter. Ditto for each of the other specialties. If you find that you have the temperament for one specialty but the body for another, you can work on bringing the two together through training or attitude adjustment.

The Specialties and the Tactics

The Sprinter

Sprinters are buffed, muscular riders well endowed with fast twitch fibers. Because they can push very hard on the pedals, they can accelerate rapidly and hold a very high top speed for a short while. Developed sprinters are heavier and have lower than average VO2-max. They don’t climb or time-trial well. Nor do they ride near the front without the protection of dedicated teammates or the unwitting cooperation of others.

Temperamentally, successful Sprinters don’t mind bumping. Sprinters have an often-deserved reputation for being high-strung and selfish, at least on the bike. They see other riders as wheels to follow or obstacles to get around, and they don’t care what goes on behind them once the sprint starts. Sprinters may or may not mind pain or danger; the sprint is over before they deal with much of either.

Successful Sprinters are willing to suck wheel so tightly they get tread-marks on their lips. Because true sprinters lack aerobic talent, they wheel-suck their way to the ends of races, saving all strength to express their talent for speed. Sprinters don’t pull in a breakaway or do "their share" in the pack because they can’t and because they don’t have to. If possible, Sprinters wait for the finish to expend any energy at all, and woe to the riders who let them get away with that. Sprinters know they will win if they arrive at the end with the leaders. It is the job of the others to try to get rid of them. Sprinters only win if the race comes down to a sprint, so riders who chase down break after break are actually working for the sprinters, whether on their own team or another. Riders who have the physiology but not the temperament, nerves or patience of sprinters are generally pack-fodder. The successful tactic for a true Sprinter is wheel sucking followed by sprinting. If you’ve been winning sprints, you may be a Sprinter. If you’ve not been winning sprints but you also have not sucked wheel from the beginning to the end of a race and then sprinted and failed, you don’t know that you are not.

The Pursuiter

Pursuiters lack the top speed of sprinters but can hold their top speed for several minutes. Pursuiters are well endowed with slow-twitch fibers but also love to work very hard for a few minutes. They can bridge to and infiltrate break-aways but not drive them long term. They love to keep working hard as they approach exhaustion. They don’t mind pain and may even get high on it because pain tells them they are winning. Pursuiters are muscular. They are not the lightest riders, but because they have tremendous sustained power they can do their thing on flats and gradual hills. Temperamentally, pursuiters are a bit like sprinters in that they are willing to sit and wait for the right moment to launch, but they don’t need to be willing to do nearly as much bumping as a sprinter. Pursuiters who joins a break and then work in it will eventually succumb to the more aerobically endowed riders and not be able to their moves in the final kilometers so they may try to sit on or take weak pulls. Pursuiters win by leaving the break or pack, usually with one or a few kilometers left in the race. The Pursuiter’s success depends on what happens in the pack. The Pursuiter’s top speed is only a bit faster than other riders’, so if the pack responds quickly, the Pursuiter’s move is neutralized. If the pack hesitates a few seconds, woe unto them.

Unlike the true sprinter who needs the protection of teammates, or the unwitting support of other riders to be successful, the Pursuiter has the aerobic talent to get to the ends of races on his own so can be more of a loaner. If you succeed in kilometer moves, you probably have the Pursuiter’s talent. If you don’t succeed but you haven’t both saved everything for that move and then committed 100% effort to it, you haven’t really tested yet.

Roller/Time Trialist

The Time Trialist is well endowed with slow-twitch muscle and has a high absolute VO2-max. His or her muscles are long and well defined but not large. Any fast twitch muscle carried has been trained to maximize aerobic capacity rather than short-term force. If the Roller finishes with a group any of whom is fresh, he or she loses the sprint. What the Roller can do is drive a break so hard that other riders who make the mistake of trying to trade pulls will be toasted before the finish and so unable to match an attack. Sprinters will simply blow and fade away. Rollers like to finish in small groups or alone.

Sprinters and Pursuiters need to have a rudimentary sense of how long they can maintain an effort. They use that sense to decide where and when to launch, but once they attack, they simply ride hard until they win or blow. The Roller by contrast has a highly refined sense of just how great an effort can be sustained for how long. The rider with the physiological talent of a Roller but not this sense often second guesses whether it is okay to attack or breaks away only to return quickly to the pack. The same rider with no change in fitness may ride away and stay away once the sense of pace is fully developed.

Temperamentally, Roller type riders don’t mind riding alone for hours at a time and don’t need competitors around to maintain motivation. To be successful, they need to be extremely efficient, so Rollers tend to be a bit obsessive about aerodynamic position, cadence, fuel and other things that each make a small difference to sustainable speed but combine to make the difference between staying away and being absorbed by the pack in the final miles.

True Rollers don’t have the acceleration to win a field sprint so the most likely successful tactic is the long breakaway. The aerobic talent of the Roller leads to rapid recovery from hard efforts, so the Roller’s tactical arsenal includes repeated attacks. Except in cases of extreme aerobic talent, or sandbagging, a group of riders working together can catch even a very strong single rider, so Rollers often win by getting away in small, efficient groups. In order for such a break to work, it has to go early so that chasers are not excited enough to work hard immediately. To test whether you have the talent of a Roller, you must attack repeatedly, with an emphasis on attacking when other riders are already suffering.

The Climber

Like the Roller, the Climber succeeds by attacking when others are suffering. The Climber is generously endowed with slow-twitch muscle and a high VO2-max, especially relative to body weight. The Climber is about 15-20 pounds lighter than the most successful sprinters of similar height and 10 pounds lighter than the average for racers of the same height. This light weight gives Climbers a high power-to-mass ratio for fast climbing on longer hills, but a low power-to-frontal area ratio, so in general climbers are not the best time-trialists and are not great fighting a headwind. Riders who love to climb but are not light enough to be climbers are Rollers if they have the physiology and temperament for it, or Pack Fodder if they don’t.

Temperamentally, climbers are cruel but driven. Unlike sprinters who just want to go faster than others and don’t really care what the others are doing so long as they don’t get in the way, climbers love to ride others off their wheels on a steep incline. Climbers like to make others suffer until they blow, but they can’t savor the moment. Unless the race ends right at the hill-top, the climber has to ride away alone once the field is dropped and has to keep riding alone to the finish since the climber will lose the sprint if anyone else manages to finish near him. Lacking the correct temperament to be a winning climber, the wanna’be Climber who likes to wait at the top of the hill to see what damage he has done is Pack Fodder.

Climbers who want to win need to be good descenders as well. You don’t get the big prize for getting to the top of the hill first, but for maintaining your gap to the line.

The winning tactic for climbers is simple: Climb away from the field and don’t look back. If you can’t climb away from the field, you are not a climber no matter how much you love riding up-hill.

The Brain

The Brain can have any body type, but definitely has an active mind. He or she knows where the other riders are in the field, which teams have riders up the road and which teammates are strong in what ways. This rider doesn’t cross the line first unless he is also physically talented, but a team with a Brain who is strong enough to keep up has a much better chance of tactical success than does a bunch of riders in the same jersey with no leader.

Now What?

The timid rider who tries to sprint, the Sprinter who tries the long breakaway, the Climber who tries a kilometer move on the flat and the Pursuiter who waits for the climb will all be disappointed. There are many aspects to racing successfully, but one of them is committing to a tactic for which you have the physical talent and the temperament. Riding the tactics suited to another type of racer takes away your strength or opportunity to do what you actually are good at.

Try the various tactics as a way of identifying your own talent, but once you identify it, use it to win. If you try tactics suited to a variety of talents, and in races in which they could possibly be successful, you will probably identify an area or two of strength for yourself. If not, it is time to train more, train more efficiently or to put your racing license in the scrapbook. If you do have some success with a particular tactic, look for additional races where the same tactic could work. Just because you have found one way to win doesn’t mean that you should stop trying to develop other talents of course.