Racing without a fundamental understanding of tactics is like going to a joust without a lance. You’re going to get skewered. In the absence of tactics, the strongest riders would win all bike races. Strategy and tactics are the tricks that allow an athlete or team to beat others with equal or better fitness and speed.
Learning to make good use of these tricks requires deliberate study along with racing experience. Many riders race unproductively for years, never mastering tactics, while others learn quickly and accumulate results much sooner. Video of professional racing with commentary by a well informed announcer is an excellent source of tactical knowledge. A coach or a patient and experienced teammate with a penchant for teaching can help as well.
Whether watching or participating, understanding what you see in a race greatly enhances the experience. As with most technical topics, understanding cycling competition requires a specific vocabulary. With a trained eye and the right vocabulary, what appears to be a bunch of separate racers randomly moving up the road becomes an organized peloton of riders and teams, each working to gain an advantage over the others.
Knowing the technical definitions of tactical terms will help you use them correctly and understand professional racing videos or conversations with more experienced teammates. The following is a glossary of basic terms, combined with some instruction in executing the particular skills. (Words in italics are defined elsewhere in the glossary)
Our Bike Racing Glossary
Attack – Accelerate suddenly in an effort to get a gap, initiate a breakaway, test one’s opponents, tire them (usually a bad idea unless you are softening the field for the benefit of a teammate since the attacking rider generally uses more energy than the racers who jump on his or her wheel) or just force a response. There are many reasons to attack, some good and some bad. Attacking may be done gently or with a sprint-like effort depending on the situation. With some luck, one well-timed attack can lead to a win. Attacking takes energy though, so attacking repeatedly is the job of the domestiques, not the rider who expects to win. The most effective attacks usually start a few rows back, so the attacking rider moves faster than the leaders as he or she goes by. That builds a gap more quickly and discourages a response. Attacking from the front lets the entire field see what you are doing, so they quickly get on your wheel and prevent your getting a gap. (Check here for a full article on attacking: https://www.wenzelcoaching.com/blog/tactical-toolbox-the-attack/)
Block – Intentionally interfere with the smooth rotation of an echelon or paceline in order to slow the progress of the group. Blocking is usually accomplished by sitting a few riders back and refusing to pull through, even when you are yelled at. Blocking can also be achieved by allowing a gap to form or taking the lead and slowing down.
Leading slowly works as a method of blocking only in corners or other places where the course forces the group into single file. Anywhere else you attempt to block by riding slowly, riders will stream past you unless you pedal hard enough to be pulling rather than blocking.
If many riders are willing to ride hard on the front, a lone blocker can’t do much. On a narrow road a large team may actually be able to clog the front to slow the pack’s progress.
If someone in the front is not making a real effort to come through or keep the pace up, check to see if he has a teammate up the road or one chasing to rejoin the field.
Break away – Take off alone or in a small group, leaving the larger peloton behind . The group is also called a “breakaway” or “break.” Be careful with this term. If you say you are going to “try for a break”, that means you want to breakaway. Some novices say that they are going to try “to break”, which makes no sense.
Bridge – Cross a gap alone or in a small group, not bringing the field along. Do this when you want to be in the group ahead. Before you go, do reality checks: Is the group ahead strong enough to stay away? Are the stronger riders there? Does the group have blocking teammates in the main pack? Are others still chasing hard? Can you go without towing the entire pack? Will someone else tow you? Note that bridging and chasing are very different activities.
Chase – Pursue a breakaway — or the main field if you are off the back. Chasing while towing the pack wastes energy. You’ll be helping people fresher than you up to the break. The exception would be if your entire team missed a good break and you are all desperate to get back. Still it would be better to have several members of your team bridge while the rest block. If you are without a team and left behind by a break, attempt to bridge rather than chase
Climber – An often-misused term among novice racers. A climber is not someone who loves to climb or feels strong when climbing. A climber is a rider, usually very skinny, who climbs long grades faster than most of the competition.
Control a race – Use all available tactics to determine which breaks will be successful and thwart others to determine the winner.
Counter attack (or just Counter) – Attack as another breakaway gets caught or just after it gets caught, while the rest of the pack is tired and unenthusiastic. This improves the chance of getting a gap and forming a break and is an example of the importance of timing.
Cover – Join a break to insure that your team will be represented. Do this if your team has a strong sprinter in the main field. A rider who is covering a break generally doesn’t pull. If the other riders in the break work hard, a covering rider will be fresh and in position to win an eventual sprint. If they don’t work, the break gets caught by the field and the covering rider’s sprinter returns to contention.
Designated Rider – The rider whose job it is to say, “thanks for the help” to the domestiques after he or she wins. Sometimes thought of as the “team leader,” he or she doesn’t necessarily tell the teammates what to do.
Often the one who has the most energy left at the end of the race wins, even if he or she was not the strongest on the start line. Riders who participate fully in the attacks, breaks and counters all race long become fatigued and get beaten by physically inferior riders who have used their energy more efficiently. Therefore, successful teams designate a certain rider or riders to be protected in hopes of having at least one fresh member for the finish
Domestique – A “selfless” member of the team who races to support the designated rider(s) but does not try to win him or herself. The domestique’s job is to use up all available energy before the end of the race to improve the outcome for the designated rider and, thereby, the team. Sometimes a domestique’s job is to cover breaks early in a race so the designated rider can relax. When this job is done, the domestique need not finish the race. A domestique may fetch bottles and food for the designated rider, may give up a wheel if the designated rider has a flat, may pace the designated rider up a hill or provide a draft for him in a windy stretch. Other times the domestique provides a lead out for the team sprinter. The domestique will finish the race behind the leader. Domestiques must be strong enough to keep up until they complete their job. They must be willing to suffer so someone else can win.
Successful teams have systems for sharing prizes, glory or contracts for the following year. Otherwise domestiques won’t often perform their roles enthusiastically.
Echelon – Another terribly misunderstood cycling term. An echelon is what happens when each individual rider in a group, other than the current leader, puts him or herself in an optimal position for drafting. Because winds generally come from one side or the other, echelons are often diagonal lines stretched across the road. In the rare cases where the wind is coming from directly in front of or behind the group, an echelon looks like the classic rotating paceline.
The diagonal echelon is the fastest formation for a group of riders. Since the riders are actually closer together than they would be in a nose-to-tail paceline, they benefit more from the draft and can ride a few miles per hour faster. A diagonal echelon is also one of the more dangerous racing situations as riders sit elbow-to-hip or overlap wheels.
Gap – A space between one rider and the next large enough that the following rider loses some of the benefit of the draft. Weaker riders and riders who don’t draft well gap because they can’t help it.
Deliberate gapping can be a tactic as it forces following riders to accelerate around the gapped rider for fear of being left behind. Gapping near the front of a group means that the leaders of the group will not be relieved but will continue to pull for an extended time, potentially becoming fatigued or breaking away.
Lead Out – Pull very hard, giving a teammate the benefit of your effort, usually in the final meters of a race. A lead out is useless unless it gets close enough to the line for the sprinter to cover the remaining distance alone or on a competitor’s wheel. A lead out train of several strong riders can keep the sprinter on the front for a long time. Large, well-organized teams often put one more “sweep” rider behind the designated sprinter. The sweep’s job is to allow a gap between him or herself and the sprinter, making it harder for anyone else to come around for the win. Accidentally give a lead out to an opponent and you lose the race. Check behind you!
A good lead out rarely puts the sprinter off the front all alone. Rather it delivers the sprinter in amongst the other sprinters where they can do their thing.
Paceline – Riding nose to tail in a group. It is a great way to get used to riding close to other people.
Protect – The job of a domestique who assists a designated rider by riding just in front to provide a draft, or by chasing breaks, thus saving the designated rider from making the effort. You can protect a sprinter by keeping the pace high enough to discourage or neutralize breakaways. Due to their small size and limited raw power, climbers often need to be protected from the wind before the main climb.
Pull – Ride at the front of a group, giving the rest of the group the benefit of your effort. Pulling more often than not decreases your chances in the race, so think carefully about whether or not to do so. Only pull when it benefits you to have the group go faster.
You should pull in a breakaway, for example, if you want it to succeed and if you are strong enough to stay in it even with the fatigue you will accumulate by working. Pull if you are chasing for the benefit of teammates, or if you are keeping the pace high to prevent breaks so as to protect your sprinter. Except in very special cases, it doesn’t make sense to pull the entire field or to pull when you are riding without teammates. A slow race doesn’t hurt you.
Always ask yourself before pulling, “Am I increasing my (or my team’s) chances of winning by taking this pull?”
Shut down a break – Block the breakaway you are in to increase the chances that it will be caught. If you find yourself one of the weaker sprinters in a break you might benefit by having it get caught and then forming a new break in which you have a better shot at the win. You may want to help a stronger sprinter teammate to catch you, or you may want to get the other riders angry so they will attack the break, perhaps taking you but not the stronger sprinters up the road. Of course you don’t block a break even if you expect to come in last in that group if you’d be okay with that final placing.
Sprinter – A rider who is endowed with fast twitch muscle for phenomenal acceleration and top speed, and who is also courageous (or foolhardy) enough to ride flat out, elbow-to-elbow, jumping from wheel to wheel just to win a bike race. A fast but gutless racer should not be called a sprinter.
Suck wheel – Draft. Ride close behind or to the side another rider to reduce the wind resistance you must overcome. Sucking wheel allows riders to go several miles per hour faster than their individual sustainable speed. Successful racers suck wheel most of the time no matter their strength. Skill at wheel sucking can make up for large functional threshold power deficiencies. The closer you can draft without getting knocked down, the better.
Timing – The difference between a funny joke and a dud, and also the difference between a successful attack and a waste of energy, or between a winning sprint and a leadout for an opponent. The optimal moment to launch a break attempt or a sprint depends on the rider and is as much an art as a science. It takes much experience to figure out.
With these basic terms, you can describe the action in a professional race and figure out why the riders do what they do. You can also improve your own racing or critique that of your competitors. Knowing the terms is not enough. You must test and refine your understanding in actual racing situations.
Don’t expect local riders to execute brilliant tactics. First off, many of the tactics of bike racing make no sense outside of a situation where strong, well-organized teams of designated riders and domestiques are doing battle with each other. The majority of novice racers don’t have enough tactical knowledge to race effectively. That makes a little knowledge a very powerful thing. Tune in next month for a follow up article packed with examples of race-winning tactics that you can use this season.
Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching help their clients with training plans and training supervision to make them as stronger as possible, but also help them understand and execute tactics so they can beat stronger riders. To inquire about having Scott help you improve your racing, call 503-233-4346 or visit us on the web at www.WenzelCoaching.com.
This article first appeared in the April, 2015 issue of ROAD Magazine