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Why winning a bike race is like baking a cake

The Art Of Planning And Strategy

Winning a bike racing and baking a cake, what could they possibly have in common you say.  Well they both require ingredients and a recipe (strategy) to ensure success.

When baking a cake you need all of the ingredients specific for that type of cake, for example if you are making a chocolate cake you will most certainly need chocolate or cocoa, and you will also need to follow the instructions in the recipe - failing to do so will inevitably lead to an over/under cooked cake or one that is just plain terrible.

In bike racing the ingredients are specific to the type of race and course, for example on hilly races you need to be able to climb well and in flat races anaerobic abilities become more important.  However just as with baking a cake it's not a simple as having all the right ingredients. It is just as important to use them correctly and this is where your recipe (aka race strategy) comes into play.  You can still win a race without a strategy but you will increase your chances of winning if you have one and execute it properly.

So without further ado, the key ingredients for winning a bike race are:

  • Race specific fitness
  • Mental attitude and self belief
  • Decisiveness
  • Awareness and concentration
  • Nutrition and hydration
  • Race Goals and Strategy

Race Specific Fitness

In many ways this is the most obvious of the ingredients but it's surprising how many people get it wrong when preparing for an event. 

Lets start with hilly races.   Most people who train for these types of races think it just means doing lots of hill climbing reps.  There is no doubt that this will put you in the ballpark, however in reality if you want to maximise your performance and chance of winning it means each rep needs to be specific (in duration and intensity) to what is expected in the race.  This will also depend on a number of factors, including whether you decide to push the pace or whether it is responding to the pace set by others.

As a coach it is my job to ensure training programs are written to take this into account, however it is also important that as a rider you understand your own capabilities over various terrain and durations.  At the elite level riders often undergo power profile testing to develop a picture of what their power and power to weight ratio's are.  They can then determine where they need to focus their attention given the specific races being targeted.  It is also possible to analyse previous races and think about the areas/terrain that you struggled on then think about the duration of the effort and you will have a pretty good idea of where you need to focus your attention.

Quite simply:

  • If you have problems responding to accelerations or don't create enough of a gap when you launch an attack then you need to work on your anaerobic alactic system, which is 6-15 second sprinting
  • If you have a problem with handling repeated accelerations or brief high intensity periods then odds are you need to improve your anaerobic capacity and lactate tolerance.  This is done by doing max intensity intervals of 30-120 seconds.
  • If you struggle with short climbs in the 1-2km range then a combination of anaerobic and Vo2 max work is required along with some threshold intervals
  • If you have issues with longer climbs or prolonged periods at a high speed then it means you need to increase your power at threshold.
  • If you can handle all of these things in a short race but not towards the end of a long race then you need to improve your aerobic endurance and fat metabolism.

It is worth noting that even though power to weight ratio is more important on climbs it does still impact the amount of energy required on the flats, therefore keeping your weight within an ideal range should always be a goal when striving for optimal performance.

Once you have the necessary fitness and skills to meet the demands of the race you are entering then its time to look at the next ingredient.

Mental Attitude and Self Belief

Riders who are not confident or don't have faith in their abilities are often beaten by weaker riders who are simply more prepared to push the limits.   This can be quite evident on climbs where weaker riders are usually barely hanging on and often thankful that the stronger climbs 'took it easy' on the climb.  The reason for this is stronger climbers can fear blowing up if they go too hard or that when they hit the top of the climb they still have to TT it to the finish.  However, in many cases these fears are unfounded and having more confidence in ones own abilities usually leads to better results.  To continue with the climbing example, lets use the 3-sisters climb in Canberra as an example.

As its name suggests the 3-sisters is a three tier climb of approx 2.5km.  The gradient of each part of the climb eases as you go up, i.e. the first sister is the steepest and the last is the easiest, however most riders perceive the third sister as the hardest.  The reason for this is simply that by the time most riders reach this part of the climb they have almost exhausted their anaerobic stores and are nearing their Vo2 max.  A really good, savvy climber uses this knowledge to their advantage by pushing the pace early on the climb.  This helps push the other riders into the red zone early on.  They consolidate their pace on the second sister, by which stage the field is usually strung out a bit, with some riders already losing contact. Then on the third sister they will ramp the pace up again.  Riders still in contact at this point are either good climbers themselves or they are digging extra deep.  The savvy climber will pick up the pace on this section to try and push these riders 'over the edge' so that when they reach the top they need to recover before they can chase.  The result here is that the confident climber crests the top of the 3 Sisters with a gap but they are ultimately fresher than the chasing riders and can start pushing towards the finish as soon as they pass the KOM where the other riders will find it harder to chase.  Given that a tail wind is quite common when riding back from this point a solo rider or small group (two is often enough) can be extremely difficult to catch.   Where this tactic fails is when there is a large enough group of riders who crest the hill at the same time and without being pushed too far into the red zone.  This can happen if the pace wasn't high enough (the climbers hold back a bit and don't push as hard as they can) in the early stages or where there are simply a group of riders who all have a similar climbing ability.  Oddly enough this is also where most good climbers, who lack confidence and self belief, go wrong.   They tell themselves that its no use pushing the pace or attacking as they will just get caught by the group.  There is no denying that this is a possibility however if you take a look at the options it’s far better to try your luck on the climb than waiting until the end where you will need to sprint against the group.  

Another area where it is vital to have confidence is in bunch positioning.  When riding in large groups many riders get worried that someone will 'have a go' at them for cutting them off or stealing a wheel (or about 100 other things).  What is most important is to simply realise that every rider has a right to be in the race and that there is nothing wrong with holding a position, stealing a wheel, putting it in the gutter, attacking or sitting up on the front, etc.   These are all parts of bike racing and a confident rider will do what they need to to ensure they are in the right position at the right time to give them the best chance of winning.

So how do you get confidence?   Some people believe that you can only get confidence through success, or even repeated success.  While this is certainly a part of developing more confidence there is much more to it than simply succeeding.  First and foremost, having the right mental attitude and approach will give you the best possible start.  This usually begins by converting negative ‘self talk’ or thoughts into positive thinking.  For example a rider rolls up to a criterium and it starts raining when they are on the start line.  They may say to themselves, 'I hate racing in the rain.  It's hard to see and its more dangerous.'.  However, while these things might be true an alternate, more productive thought would have been, 'While I don't like racing in the wet, most of the others won't either.  They will probably be extra cautious so if I am prepared to ride at the front where it is clearer I will have less chance of crashing and I will be able to increase my chances of a better result'.  Another example is when the pace is intense, such as when climbing short power climbs.  The rider lacking confidence is usually thinking, 'I hope they don't push the pace on the climb.', whereas the confident rider might think, 'I know I can climb this hill as fast as needed when I go at my own pace at the bottom', or 'If I am prepared to really push the pace on this climb I can string the field out and create a small break over the top and give me a good chance at winning.'

Developing confidence and self belief can also be done by examining and providing honest assessments of performances during a race.  This is often done by a coach but it can be just as, if not more, important for the rider to do it themselves.  The easiest way to do this is to think back over a race and list down three things that you think you did well and three things you need to improve on.  The key here is to be very specific when identifying the items, for example, instead of saying 'I rode good position in the bunch' be more specific, like 'I maintained good position in the top 6 places and out of the wind for the majority of the race'.  This identifies the aspects which make it a positive aspect, i.e. top 6 and out of the wind.  When looking at areas requiring improvement you need to be sure to remain positive, so rather than saying, 'descended really poorly', opt for something like, 'need to improve the lines I take through corners when descending and only brake when necessary'.

Now there are a whole raft of self talk and self assessment activities that riders can do to help improve their confidence but all up the most important thing is that you do something, almost anything is better than nothing, just so long as it focuses on positive outcomes.

So why is confidence and self belief important if you want to win a bike race?  Because it leads to…

Decisiveness

Being decisive is about being prepared and not being afraid of failure or criticism.  Prepared to initiate your tactics or respond to movements by others and confident enough to either ignore unwarranted criticism or take it on board for assessment later on.  Decisiveness is also a key ingredient in good bunch positioning.  Small gaps open and close in the peloton all of the time and its the decisive riders that notice them and use them to maintain their position.

Being decisive also allows a rider to take advantage of unexpected opportunities throughout a race.  For example, if your race plan involves attacking you will rarely have the luxury of just picking your spot.  Attacking at a predetermined spot can work on a climb but on the flats then you may just be wasting your energy.  Instead just be prepared to attack in the sections you have in mind (e.g. last 20km) and then position yourself to take advantage of opportunities that might arise, like the lead rider sitting up and moving to the right and everyone else follows them.  That’s a perfect time to attack down the left as you will quickly open up a gap and it will be hard for riders to follow you.

Awareness and Concentration

Cycling is a very dynamic sport.  The peloton is always in a constant state of flux and most riders have their own strategies that will ultimately play out as the race does.  Of all the ingredients, awareness is one of the hardest to get right but it’s also one of the most important.  For those of you familiar with cooking it’s like the eggs, it binds everything together.  Awareness is cycling is about being mentally relaxed so that you can concentrate on the things that matter the most. 

When first starting out racing, most riders either try and concentrate all the time and on everything or they don't concentrate on anything at all.  Trying to concentrate on too many things leads to mental fatigue and tiredness at the end of the race, while not concentrating at all leads to missed opportunities or worse still, crashes.

There is no doubt that there are a lot of things you need to concentrate or focus on in a bike race, the trick is to be selective about what and when you hone in.  The key is to pick a few things to focus on in each race and after a while it takes less mental effort to focus on these things, almost to the point you don't think about them at all, rather you automatically respond in the appropriate way.  Take cross winds as an example, novice riders don't always understand the best place to sit in a group when there is a crosswind and even intermediate riders may have to stop and think about where the wind is coming from, this is especially so in handicap races where riders get confused about which way to rotate the pace line (nb: the faster line is always coming through from the draft and riders recover in the wind) .  On the other an elite rider (or simply a rider who has more experience) is more likely to just know these things and furthermore they can also expand their thinking to know what side of the peloton is the best side to be on if they want to move forward, etc.

Expanding your awareness in races also enables you to take in more important aspects, such as tactics.  Once you have races with the same people a number of times you should really be able to provide an accurate assessment of their strengths, weaknesses and preferred tactics.  For example, in just about every grade there are riders who sit in the pack, tucked in out of the wind.  These are usually confident & savvy riders who are conserving their energy for later in the race.   At some stage they will move towards the front or get into a good position to launch their attack.  Riders worried about sitting on wheels and wind direction don't see these moves but a rider with good awareness and concentration sees the movement and recognises what it means.  They can then be prepared to respond to the move or in some cases take actions to prevent it.  One such example when the pace slows in the pack or you start a climb.  These are often times strong riders choose to attack.  If you are on or near the front you need to be aware of this and if you want to prevent it your best strategy is to make sure the pack is spread as widely across the lane/road as possible.  This leaves little to no room for riders to launch an attack (nb: some riders will always break the law and attack into the oncoming lane - not much you can do about that other than report them to the commissaires).  One way to achieve this is to simply ride wider on the road and try and take up as much space as possible, even riding out of the saddle and moving your bike from side to side a lot can be enough to deter riders from attacking from behind. 

So, how do you improve your awareness and concentration?  Well its takes time but the main thing is to take it one step at a time.  In each race you do, whether its a small club race or a main event, pick a small number of things you want to focus on and then after the race assess how you went and whether you misses anything.  It should only take a few races of concerted effort and you should start to notice a difference, at which point its time to select a couple of new things to focus on.  Constantly reviewing your races will also help you identify trends for the different riders and you can use that information in your next race. 

Nutrition and Hydration

This topic has mainly be covered in a previous post (Sports Nutrition for Cyclists - The Basics) however for the purposes of this article it is worth adding that in races that will challenge your energy stores and hydration levels it is vital that you have a nutrition and hydration strategy.

This can be as simply as identifying the amount of energy and fluids required during the race and then consuming it at regular intervals throughout the race.  A more complex strategy can involve breaking down the food and drinks into a specific order or timeframe, for example a rider may start a long race by eating solids and then switch to gels towards the end when the pace is higher and its harder to consume and digest the solids.

Race Goals and Strategy

Very seldom does someone win a big race without having set a race goal or following a strategy.   In some cases this can be as simple as 'sit in the bunch and then go for the sprint at the end', but in the end the key is to ensure you stick to your strategy like glue, that is unless you have a very good reason not to

The two important aspects of tactics are understanding how to respond to the tactics of others and understanding your own strengths and weaknesses.

Lets use an example to demonstrate.

Our rider - lets call them 'Alex', is a good climber and also quite a reasonable time trialler.  They are light weight but they have a poor sprint.   Course for their race is the Stromlo to Condor Creek (See map and profile) and back, 55km race distance.  Wind conditions for the race are 10-15km Westerly.  Temperature of 15 degrees.

Goal - Alex wants to finish in the top 3 in A grade, preferably winning.

Strategy - Use the strong climbing abilities to force the pace on the early climbs to help tire out the opponents and then try and establish a small breakaway group on the climb to the end of the bitumen.  Then consolidate the lead before launching the final attack on the 3-sisters.  If there is still a small group after this then launch a final attempt at a breakaway on the short rise with approx 5km to go.

Key aspects of the strategy - Alex should sit in for the duration of the trip out to the 3-sisters and then ensure they are near the front by the bottom of the descent.  On the ascent out of Uriarra, Alex will need to push the pace at the bottom and top of the climb, but not so much that they gap themselves off the front.  Basically they need to string out the group and just make people work hard.  Alex should also keep the pace on over the top of the KOM and for approx 1km up the false flat towards the Homestead.  This extra duration helps push people into O2 debt and off the back, whereas just hammering the climb and then slowing down often lets people recover and continue. 

Once onto the false flat then the strategy is almost repeated, with Alex sitting in for a while and then pushing the pace on the climb over towards Condor Creek.  Once over that climb the pace should be reasonably high through to the final climb up to the end of the bitumen.  Keeping the pace up in this section ensures dropped riders cannot regain contact but more importantly it doesn't provide much time to recover for riders who had to dig deep over the Condor Creek climb.  This means these riders will be more likely to drop off when heading up the next climb.  This is where Alex needs to be very careful.  An ‘all out attack’ might only serve to create a solo breakaway and with a long way to go in the wind this is not ideal.  Essentially the tactic should be to either get on the front and ramp the pace up trying to drop a few more riders or to launch a series of smaller attacks designed to create smaller gaps that encourage other riders to dig deep to bridge.  These can be as simple as a short 5 second acceleration designed to open up a 1 bike length gap.   With such a small gap it is usually inevitable the next rider cannot help but push themselves harder to close it down and in doing so they bring themselves closer to their red zone.    Hopefully by the turnaround point the group will have shrunk to a handful or riders, most of whom should be considered serious contenders for the win as they have demonstrated their superior climbing abilities.  

Once at the turnaround it should be a pretty straight forward return journey to the 3-sisters.   Alex will need to be alert for attacks on the climb out of Condor creek (especially if several riders from the same team are present) but if a small breakaway has been established it is in their best interests to work together to consolidate their lead.  Alex should use this section for some recovery and by the time the group reaches the 3-sisters Alex should have a pretty good idea whether it’s going to be possible to drop the other riders. If they are confident then they should attack at the start of the climb.  If other riders are able to follow the move then Alex should focus on the breathing and gears of the other riders.  If they suddenly hear one of the riders start to breath more rapidly (like gasping) or if they hear gear changes then it would be a good time to increase the speed a notch.  When a rider is near their limit it often only takes a tiny nudge to push them over and on the final climb a small gap over the top, between a fresh rider and one that is in oxygen debt, is all that is required to stay clear.

Concerns - The most obvious concerns for Alex are that another rider is a stronger climber or that they will have done too much work and won’t have the legs at the end.  This strategy is therefore obviously developed on the basis that Alex is confident in being able to carry out the plan. 

You will note that in this strategy very little attention has been given to the possible strategy of other riders.  The reason for this is that there are just too many other riders and tactics to worry about.  Ultimately the best you can do is to plan for one or two of the most obvious ones, such as someone else attacking, and then figure out whether your strategy covers it or whether you will need to react.  This is where it is important to remember that you are not the only rider in the race.  Even though you may want to win you shouldn't take it upon yourself to chase every move.  Some attacks are just riders wasting energy and are destined to fail.  These don't need to be chased and at best you can hope for someone else to waste their energy chasing it down.   It can also help to see which riders do the chasing as this can expose their own desire to win, a desire which you might be able to use against them towards the end of a race.  The key point is that once you have your strategy in place you are well placed to make decisions on whether and when you will act.

Summary

As you might appreciate this is a topic that could probably fill a whole book with and I have just scratched the surface on each of the points.  The main purpose of this article is to get you thinking about the different things that go into making up a successful result in cycling (or baking a cake!) and give you a starting point from which to move forward.

Jason

Jason Mahoney Sunday 11 August 2013 at 4:09 pm | | Tips

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