Tactical Toolbox: The Attack

An attack is an acceleration initiated with the goal of getting a tactically significant gap. A well planned attack is often the tactical turning point of a race, but many attacks are ineffective: Some don’t result in a gap. Some don’t serve a tactical purpose. The majority of attacks, even well planned ones, simply burn a match and decrease the attacking riders’ chances in the race. Passive riding and failure to attack also decreases chances, just in a less obvious way.

Why Attack?

One can attack in an attempt to break away. For a rider with a poor sprint, the breakaway is often the only path to glory. The success of breakaway attacks depends on rider strength, distance remaining, pack speed, wind, terrain, strategies of other riders or teams, and the availability of teammates. Attacking when any of these factors is not favorable will result in failure. For instance, an attack when the pack speed is higher than an attacker can sustain riding alone is a path to failure, but for the non-sprinter, waiting for the final sprint is a surer path to the same destination.

As a domestique, one can attack to wear down the pack or force other teams to work. This sort of attack is only effective if the star of the attacker’s team is well enough protected to get a free ride after the attack. If one is without teammates, a hard attack to soften the field or draw out the stronger riders would be pure foolishness. It would violate the first rule of tactical bike racing: Force other riders to do more work than you. A solo rider can attack to make others use more energy, but only when the pack is moving slowly enough that the attacker can get a gap without significant effort.

A potential race winner can attack to neutralize opponents’ strengths or to minimize the impact of weaknesses. For example, a non-climber who waits for the ascents must battle the climbers on the terrain where they excel. If the same rider attacks in the flats or descents, the skinny climbers are forced to respond on the terrain where they are at a disadvantage. The attack may allow the non-climber to get a gap before the climb, or just make the climbers work harder than the attacker to cover the distance to he climb.
Joining a break without bringing the field along is called bridging. Bridging is distinct from chasing, which is getting to the break with others in tow. Chasing with a large group is often a tactical error since one works hard to join a group of less tired individuals. Crossing to a break with a small group or alone is generally a better choice. It requires an attack to get free of the larger chasing group.

One can even attack to look stupid. I’ve used this tactic to win a race. By attacking at times when one can do so without expending significant energy, one can attack and be caught repeatedly. Sometimes when the same rider has gone off and been caught enough times, the pack becomes complacent. As soon as the pack starts to think, “That idiot, doesn’t he know he’s just going to get caught again?” and stops getting excited about chasing, the repeatedly attacking “idiot” rider can get away.

Later in a race after a pack has shattered, one can attack to take the initiative in a small group. If you attack first, the other riders must ride hard to close the gap. If you have not attacked and they do, you have to close it. If you can’t or don’t want to close a gap, being in front of the gap rather than behind it is the better plan.

In certain tactical situations simply being the first to attack makes all the difference. In a small group with one strong sprinter, if one of the non-sprinters can get a gap, leaving the other riders and the sprinter to chase, the other riders know (or should know) that closing the gap will simply result in the sprinter winning. They have no incentive to chase. The sprinter doesn’t want to close the gap either since by definition a sprinter wants to be towed to the finish line. While the others work out who is going to chase, the initial attacker can get a winning gap.

In a team situation, one can attack in order to set up a safe island or a counter attack. By attacking and riding off the front a short distance, even knowing that one can’t survive to finish solo, one can be a launching pad for a teammate who comes out to ride in one’s draft for a while before going off alone.

The time it takes the pack to respond can determine the fate of an attack. Counter attacking or attacking just as another break attempt is brought back to the field increases the likely reaction time. The lead riders have been going hard and are less ready to go again. Counter-attacks can be effective enough that it sometimes makes sense for a weaker teammate to attack just to set up for a counter by a stronger teammate.

One can also attack to show off, to test the legs, to find out what it feels like, to see and how big a gap one can get and so on. These are not usually winning strategies. Unless you are a sponsored professional looking towards next year’s contract and the cameras are rolling, they are amateur mistakes.

Making the Attack Stick: Getting a Gap

The key to effective attacking is getting a large enough gap quickly enough that other riders cannot draft the attacker. Two things make for a quick gap: the difference in speed between the attacker and the lead riders as the attacker passes the front, and the response time. A larger speed difference or a longer lag before the pack responds both create a larger gap. Position before the attack is fundamental: Attacks from the very front of the pack usually fail. The entire pack is on the attacker’s wheel and watching the acceleration. Unless the attacker is incredibly strong, the pack will still be there after the acceleration. Coming from a few rows back allows one to get up more speed before passing, adds an element of surprise and increases the chances that the lead rider will choose not to respond to the attack.

Attacking up the wind-protected side allows nearly effortless development of a large speed differential. The protected side is usually crowded, so executing this sort of attack often requires patience. One must wait for an open line on the protected side. When the opportunity comes, one must respond before the line closes, or go back to waiting again.

Pedaling flat out when initiating an attack is sometimes the best plan. Pedaling hard increases the speed difference, but also the recovery time before one can attack again or settle in at breakaway pace. If the pack is moving at a pace close to but just below the possible breakaway pace and one’s strategy depends on an attack, one will simply have to attack hard and hope for the best. If one can wait for a lull however, one can get the same speed difference with less effort. Rolling away easy also has the advantage that it doesn’t look as serious. Other riders may simply ignore a rider going slowly up the road until it is too late, while a faster attacker elicits a more excited response.

Where and When to Attack

Speed difference and pack hesitation determine the initial gap, but the choice of where and when to attack will often determine if an attack becomes a successful breakaway. Attacks have a greater chance of success if they are initiated when the pack is single file or just before it singles out. Cross winds, tops of hills, corners, cobblestones, dirt, gravel or chicanes improve the chances for an attack to stick. An attack soon after several other attacks is likely to catch the pack off guard, discouraged and not enthusiastic about responding. Any time the field is discouraged from responding is a good time to attack, especially if the discouraging factor will soon disappear. For instance, attacking at the top of a hill or in a cross wind that is about to turn into a tail wind gives one a chance to get a gap while others don’t want to respond, without committing to the extended misery of climbing hard or riding in a cross wind alone.

If one has team support, attacking when the team is ready to block is more effective than attacking when the team is scattered around the pack. A rider planning to attack must tell teammates so that they can prepare to block. Sometimes one can give a teammate a free attack without his or her having to jump, simply by having the teammate in the front few riders and allowing a gap to open between him or her and the rest of the pack. Suddenly the teammate is in a small group off the front.

And Then What?

Once one has attacked, one must gather information. Is there a gap? How many riders came along? Who are they? How big is the gap? How hard is the field chasing? This information is refined to get the answer to one question: might the attack stick? If the answer is no, one should not sit up and stop pedaling. One should keep one’s head down and ride at a comfortable pace. Two things may happen: Most likely is getting caught, but at least the field will have to work hard to catch. If one rides the comfortable pace, one will be fairly fresh when caught and can rejoin the race. The initial chase effort may also fall apart. In that case, one will want to have kept going. Sitting up completely uselessly gives back the gap one worked to make.

If one has a decent gap and the initial chase is weak or nonexistent, it’s time to make one more decision: can one go the remaining distance alone or with the riders who are already along? If one is riding for a team, one also has to ask if the effort will serve the team goals. If one is going to need more support, one must ride a comfortable pace and hope that someone will bridge up. The whole pack may come as well, in which case one will have to attack again or give up the attacking strategy.

Once one has all the riders one needs to go to the finish line, it’s time to go. Set up the rotating paceline. If alone, one puts one’s head down and pedals hard. On must remember though that it does no good to get a big gap if one ends up blown and getting caught, so the question is always how great an effort one can sustain to the end of the race. As the line gets closer, one can go harder. And of course, one must not get so excited about riding in the break that one forgets to eat and drink or watch for potholes.

Strategy in a multi-rider break becomes much more complicated. Some riders in the break may want it to succeed so they can place well. Others may be covering for teammates and want the break to fail. Sprinters may want it to succeed but not want to work. Sometimes it is to one’s own advantage to tow the sprinter if the sprinter’s team is blocking for the break. One must calculate whether one wants the break to succeed and whether it makes sense to work in the break. I once had a local talent rider who got in a break with several current and former district time-trial and road race champions. With all that horsepower, the break had a great chance of succeeding, and my rider wanted to be part of it, but it made no sense for him to work. If he worked, he was going to be dropped back to the field later on. If he sat in, there was a slim chance he might hang on.

Early on, each rider in a break has incentive to work to secure the gap. As the finish line approaches though, no one wants to be tired for the finish, so one must constantly calculate the distance to the finish and the gap back to the chasers as one decides whether to continue working or to try to force another rider to give one a leadout and for how far.

Think About It

Many, many decisions have to be made as one attacks and throughout the remainder of the race. At the time of the attack and during the hard riding that follows, excitement, intensity of the effort and lack of information can make good decision making difficult. One way around this problem is to have radio support from a manager who sees the whole situation and is not riding too hard to think. Another way is to think through the various scenarios before the race, while one is still calm. Where are the challenging spots on the course? Where are the most likely spots for attacks? Where will attacks have the best chance of turning into breaks? What will you do if you get off alone or with other particular riders? A rider who has thought these things out before the race has a decent chance to put energy where it will do the most good. One can avoid working when it won’t help towards personal or team goals. When it will help, one can work with confidence and commitment knowing why one is working. That plus a boatload of fitness can get you or a teammate on the podium.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching work with their client athletes to help them improve fitness and then make optimal tactical use of the fitness they have gained. To inquire about working with Scott or for more information about our programs and services, please visit www.WenzelCoacing.com or call 503-233-4346.

(This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine)