Road Trip!!! It’s Stage Racing Time!
It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Cycling fans are focused on the 21-day Tour de France while bike racers are heading to their own shorter stage races for sustained doses of suffering, and nearly guaranteed good times. Stage races can be the pinnacles of racing experience. In a stage race, one gets several shots at the podium in one race plus the fun of a multi-day road trip with teammates. One gets to meet and race with riders from around the country or even around the world. One doesn’t have to think about work or home responsibilities at all for a few days. In a stage race everyone gets to live a bit of the professional life. Sounds like heaven, right?
Stage racing is only heavenly if one is well prepared. If one doesn’t have the right fitness, equipment, eating plan and support, a stage race can be one long (or short and embarrassing), stretch of unpleasant suffering. A stage race looks a bit like a series of one-day races and time trials, but that’s not the best way to approach it. Training for stage racing requires far more volume than does training for the individual stage distances. Preparation for stage racing requires more attention to detail than that for one-day races. Recovery routines go from being almost an afterthought in one-day races to being an essential part of competition in stage racing. Stage racing strategy must be specific: Winning strategies for one-day races leave one finishing well below one’s ability in a stage race. Winning a stage race is a far greater high than is winning a one-day event.
Training for Stage Races
When training for one-day races, the expectation is that if one doesn’t finish exhausted and one doesn’t win, one hasn’t tried hard enough. One trains to be able to finish one-day races going hard, but there’s nothing wrong with being tired afterwards and needing a few days’ easy riding for recovery. When one uses up most of one’s reserves in an event, one needs several days to restore glycogen and water, rebalance electrolytes and repair damaged muscles before one can turn in another top performance. That’s not acceptable in a stage race.
The successful stage racer must finish each stage having used a small enough fraction of reserves that it is possible to recover well overnight. No one completely recovers between two stages the same day, but coming close improves outcome. That’s why stage race winners generally get stronger and stronger compared to their competitors as the race progresses. The weaker riders kill themselves in each stage trying to hang on, and start the next day that much more tired than the stronger ones. Riders who miss a key break can come back to win, but riders who blow up completely on any given stage are generally done for the whole stage race. (That’s what made Floyd Landis’s comeback ride in the 2006 Tour so unbelievable.) The rider who uses up least during the first stage and recovers quickest after it, rather than the one who starts strongest, does better in the second and later stages. That affects stage-racing strategy and also affects training requirements.
Rather than training to be able to barely finish individual stages, the stage racer must train to be able to finish most of them with relative ease. That generally means training volumes that would be appropriate for the next higher category of one-day racer. Top Pro Tour Riders train upwards of 30 hours per week, at least part of the year. Male category 3 racers in the US who are serious about longer-than-weekend stage racing should be training 18-plus hours per week in the months leading up to the stage race(s).
Preparation for Stage Racing
Preparation for successful stage racing requires having a team manager, or thinking like one if one rides unsupported. The rider who recovers best between stages gets gradually stronger compared to the others. That means that every detail that can be taken care of by someone else or before the start of the first stage yields an advantage later in the race. There are a lot of details: More sets of clothing means not having to do laundry. If one has to do laundry, being able to do it without sitting in a pay laundry means more relaxing time. Buying all on-bike and recovery food before the first stage, or having a manager who will take care of that each day means not having to scramble between stages. Not having those things when one needs them can ruin one’s chances in the later stages of a race, and having to run out to find them between stages uses up what is otherwise valuable recovery time. When one rider is shopping for dinner while his competitor sleeps, knowing that dinner is taken care of, the shopper is falling behind. Racers with a support staff have a bigger advantage in a stage race than in a one-day event.
A one-day racer can buy spare tubes or tires or replace a wrecked wheel in the week between races. The stage racer needs to bring along spare parts including tires and tubes, spare wheels and possibly cassettes, depending on the terrain. Many stage races happen in places that don’t have serious bike shops. If there is one, it’s likely to be out of key items or even closed so that the employees can watch or ride the race. I remember the bike shop in one mountainous stage race town running out of large cassettes and small chain-rings each year as the flat-land racers arrived to preride the courses and realized they might really want an “easier” gear. (The local super-market ran out of bananas most days of the race, too.)
The stage racer must consider how he or she would get repairs during the race. The racer who doesn’t have a team mechanic and doesn’t know how to adjust derailleurs and brakes, change cassettes and true a wheel may be S.O.L., as bikes often suddenly need attention between stages. Riders who might stage race and not have the benefit of mechanical support should get instruction in basic mechanics and bring parts and tools.
The stage racer needs to prepare for all the stages before the first start just as the one-day rider would prepare for his or her race before the start. Where are the start lines? What time are the starts? What equipment and food will be needed for warm up and during the stage. What clothing will be needed after? Organization and preparation, knowing where to be and how to get there, having one’s stuff lined up, can make the difference between an overall win and a week of frustrated cursing.
To enjoy a stage race, one has to be strong in the later stages, so recovery between stages and avoiding depletion in any one stage are essential. Recovery begins during each stage. Eating and drinking as much as one can absorb on the bike keeps one strong for that stage but also provides a head start on recovery for the next one. The rider who doesn’t arrange a feed for a long road stage and doesn’t have a way to carry needed food and drink might as well not come to the race. (At amateur races one can find someone to provide a feed. Not doing so is plain laziness). Sure the rider can eat and drink after the stage, but the unorganized racer will be at a disadvantage for the rest of the race because it takes about three days to replenish glycogen after a complete bonk, and as long or longer to correct electrolyte balance after bad dehydration. There’s no way to recover from bonk or dehydration in one stage and come back strong for the next one.
After each stage, successful riders take advantage of the “glycogen window”. There is a period of 30 minutes to a few hours during which the body will absorb carbohydrates and replenish glycogen supplies much more quickly than it will later. That means that consuming carbohydrate and water in the first minutes after a stage will improve next day performance more than eating later. Be prepared with dry clothes and food immediately after the stage. (Studies have shown that chocolate milk and sugar-based “-ade” type drinks are more effective in supporting recovery than are more expensive carbohydrate-protein “recovery” drinks.) Riding for 20 minutes at a very easy pace after the stage maintains blood flow through the muscles to keep the glycogen window open longer and speed the flushing out of wastes. Eating and drinking during that 20-minute warm-down speeds recovery but one can only do it if one has brought appropriate supplies.
To assist with recovery, successful stage racers relax as much as possible after each stage. Napping, gentle massage, putting the legs up and staying off one’s feet are all good ways to spend the time between stages. Standing around shooting the breeze and checking results for hours are good ways to lose a race one could otherwise have won.
It is possible that no one will completely recover in time for the next stage after harder stages. The rider who gets the closest is in the best position the next day. That means that recovery becomes a competitive activity. Whoever does it best, does best in the race.
Stage Racing Strategy
Stage racing strategy is quite different from road race strategy if overall victory or placing is the goal. True stage races are scored on time. All the riders start together each day and different riders may win each stage, but the final finishing order or general classification (G.C.) is determined by the overall accumulated time, possibly with bonuses for placing well in each stage or at intermediate sprint points. One can win a stage race without winning a stage, so long as one finishes behind different riders each day. Putting too much energy into winning any one stage can mean losing one’s chance for the overall. The consistent rider wins. If one wins several stages but finishes well behind the leaders on another, one loses. One can win a stage race by keeping up with the leaders on all stages, and then winning one time trial, by keeping up with the leaders in most stages but breaking away on one or two stages, or simply by keeping up in all stages more consistently than anyone else. The racer who is always top ten in one day races but never wins can be a dominant stage racer.
Later in a stage race, some riders are up on G.C., within shooting range of the leaders and continue to be a danger. Others are so far down on G.C. after a crash or bad day or just due to lack of fitness that even a miraculous breakaway would not make up the difference. Such riders are no longer a threat. Those who hope to place well on G.C. must be aware of which riders continue to matter in the overall and who has become irrelevant. That allows them to focus their energy by ignoring breaks by irrelevant riders. Yet again, the rider who can keep track of lots of details, or who has a team manager radioing him with instructions, has an advantage.
Some riders don’t have what it takes to keep up with the leaders in most stages. Some may not be effective in the time trial or may not be able to climb and thus have little chance to win on GC if there are hilly stages. Such riders still need clear and realistic goals based on which to rate their success in the race, or not. Sometimes in a stage race the rider who is not built to win even one stage can win the overall despite their perceived disability. That’s a goal. Being realistic, they can ride in support of others on their teams, ride to survive (a serious accomplishment in some harder stage races), to finish in the top X% or to win particular stages to which they are better suited.
One day races favor the rider who can make some sort of audacious move at some point, whether that is driving the pack-shattering breakaway or unleashing the killer sprint from the field every time. Stage races are won by riders who join or have a teammate to cover the break every time anyone who matters is in it, whether or not they win from the break.
I could devote another entire article to strategy for stage races, but the main point here is that the key to stage racing success, including winning any stage other than the first is to be very aware that a stage race is not a series of one-day races. The training must be at a higher level. The preparation must be more detailed. The times between stages are parts of the race. The strategy is specific.
Go For It, Several Times
With appropriate preparation, stage racing is a simply awesome experience far beyond one-day racing. I recommend it to anyone who has been doing one-day races for a while and feels ready for something more. There are more opportunities to test oneself and learn about or improve one’s racing ability in a stage race than in any series of weekend races. A stage race is an excuse for a road trip with friends to see new roads in a new part of the country. For all but the most anti-social riders, stage racing is a great opportunity to hang out with hundreds of like-minded bike fanatics, catch up with friends who are not zooming home right after a race, eat way more pasta and Mexican food than is normally healthy, and blow off school, work or chores for a while.
Stage racing is different enough from one day racing that it can take a few tries to get the kinks worked out and figure out how to prepare properly. One should not expect competitive success in one’s first stage race any more than one should expect to win one’s first road race. After a few tries though, it will come together. Stage racing is a new level of challenge for the road racer, but one well worth stepping up to.
Once upon a time Scott Saifer, M.S. rode his share of stage races, even winning a hilly but not famous one despite being dropped six times in the key stage. He and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching can help any rider who want to prepare for road, criterium, TT or stage racing. We can also provide team or individual support for clubs or solo riders. For more details, visit us at www.WenzelCoaching.com or call 503-233-4346.