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Gaining a competitive advantage

So you have toed the start line in your target race, or any race for that matter, and you are wondering how the race will pan out.  Who will win and what will be the difference between them and the rest of the field?

In most races there are a number of riders that are capable of winning and there are several factors that influence which one of them eventually takes the victory.  Race smarts is a big factor but another, less heralded one is a pre-race competitive advantage.   But what does that mean?

There are a lot of things that can affect the result of a races.  Here is a list of things that might give someone a competitive advantage over their opponents

  • Knowledge of the course (including prevailing weather conditions),
  • Equipment selection,
  • Knowledge of the opposition and their strengths and weaknesses (including knowledge of previous results from races on the same course),
  • Nutrition and hydration,
  • Teamwork, and
  • Fitness

So lets look at these one at a time to see what they really mean.

Course Knowledge

This is one of the most basic, fundamental pieces of information that can affect the results in a race.  Simply knowing what the terrain is like, where the hills are, what the finish is like, where the technical sections are, etc. can be the difference between winning and not. 

When assessing a course you need to be thinking about a few key things:

  • Where will it be hard for you?
  • Where are the likely attack points? Are these on climbs and who are the likely attackers?
  • Are there any technical sections that require special attention, either because they will test your skills or the skills of others?  Can you use these sections (or the lead up to them) to your advantage?
  • Will there be any sections that have a more prominent cross or head wind?  What side of the pack do you need to be on to get the best draft?
  • What is the condition of the road?  Are there sections that are better or worse than others?
  • What is the lead up to the finish like?  Where would you need to start your sprint?
  • Have you ridden the course before?  Where there any pressure points that decided how the race unfolded?  Where did the winning rider make their final move?

Once you have developed a good understanding of the course then you’re well positioned to make the most of your race and you will have a significant advantage over your competition.


Equipment Selection

This is a subtle, but very important one.  When talking about equipment and bike racing the first two thoughts are usually 'weight' and 'aerodynamics' and in general this is correct, however the order is wrong and there are a few things missing.  It should be 'aerodynamics', then 'weight' followed by (in no particular order) 'rolling resistance' and 'bike setup'.

Aerodynamics is the most important as wind resistance is the single highest factor that a rider must overcome to go fast.  It has been shown that aerodynamics even trumps weight on climbs up to 6% in gradient.  Weight is obviously still important and the lighter you and your equipment are the less energy it takes to ride faster.   When considering aerodynamics you should be thinking about every little detail, including: helmet, shoes covers, tightness/fit of clothes, wheel choice (rim depth, spoke count, rim profile, etc), frame design and water bottles.  Now this might sound like you’re preparing for a time trial but the same rules apply to road races.  Each of these items has the ability to save (or cost) you precious energy and time.  

  • Helmet choice applies more to time trials but an overly large helmet is slower and slightly heavier.  There is also a trend for sprinters to adopt more aerodynamic helmets (usually with no vents) to get that extra 1% advantage in the sprint.
  • Lycra shoe covers can save noticeable time in a short time trial so just imagine how much they can save you in longer road events.
  • Clothing that is loose, baggy or acts like a parachute is obviously going to slow you down.
  • Wheels.  Quite simply - selecting the right wheels for the conditions and course is one of the single biggest advantages you can gain.  Aero section wheels might handle a little different in cross winds but they are still faster than a standard boxed rim.  Riding wheels like this in training (when its windy) can help you build confidence of riding them during windy races.   Wheel selection for time trials is even more important and you should consider wind speed and direction as well as the course profile and your anticipated speed when choosing the optimal wheels.
  • Frame and water bottles - applies more to time trials but the important thing is don’t have anything attached to the bike you don't absolutely need and if possible use smaller 'race' bottles rather than bigger ones that are not full.
  • Tyres – while tyres have a somewhat more obvious impact on rolling resistance the width and profile of the tyre also play an important part in the aerodynamics of the wheels.  Tyres that are too wide or narrow for the chosen rim will reduce the aerodynamic benefit of your wheels and slow you down.  The best option is a tyre that is the same width as the rim and one that also provides as smooth an interface (between the tyre and rim) as possible.

Moving on from aerodynamics its time to consider, weight.  Quite simply if its heavier it will generally make you slower.  There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but before touching further on that its also worth considering where the weight is.  Having a lighter rotating weight is more important than static weight, for example, two wheel-sets that weigh the same may have different weight rims and hubs.  The ones with the lighter rims will generally be the fastest (assuming the hubs are of good quality).  The one exception to this is aerodynamic wheels such as a tri-spoke or disc wheel.  These wheels have a very distinct purpose and their aerodynamic benefits far outweigh their weight (no pun intended) on everything but the hilliest of courses.

After considering the big two it's time to think about rolling resistance.  This is the resistance generated between your tyres and the road.  It varies with speed, weight, gradient, temperature and road surface.  Each tyre (make/model) has a different rolling resistance and choosing a tyre with lower rolling resistance has the potential to not only save you time but it will usually handle better as well.  For example, the Conti Podium tubular time trial tyre is a cheaper TT tyre that has a moderate rolling resistance while the Vittoria Corsa Evo or Krono is a top end tubular tyre with a very low rolling resistance.  It costs ($) roughly twice that of the Podium but by itself it will result in a speed that is roughly 1km/h faster than the Podium.  So in your stock standard 20km time trial that would save you roughly 1 minute - just on your tyre choice alone. 

In a road race, the lower rolling resistance translates to less effort to stay with the pack and higher peak speeds.  This means you have more energy for later in the race when you need it most, or it might just be the difference between hanging on to the group at the top of that key climb rather than getting shelled three quarters of the way up.

When considering the rolling resistance of a tyre is vital that you make sure the tyres are inflated to their optimal pressure.  Running latex inner tubes also helps reduce rolling resistance, however the light weight butyl racing inner tubes are pretty good too. 

Finally, you also need to consider your bike setup.  However, this should be far from the last thing you address, in fact it should be one of the first things you get right when you start riding.  Having the correct bike set up will not only help you be more efficient, but will also help you have better endurance, deliver more power to the pedals and reduce the likelihood of aches or injury.   (Nb: If you haven't been professionally setup on your bike then we recommend you get a bike fit done as soon as possible.  We offer professional and affordable fitting services and details of these can be found on the Bike Fitting page.)


Opposition/Other competitors

Know thy enemy.  Its a pretty old saying and it’s a good one for cycling.  Simply knowing who you are racing against and what their strengths and weaknesses are can give you a distinct competitive advantage.

Quite simply - knowing what your opponents strength are will help inform you of their likely race tactics and allow you to be prepared to respond or counter against this.  Let’s use a high profile example for this one, Cadel Evans.  The first Aussie to win the tour has formidable time trial power and climbs fast.  He is savvy, focused and determined but he is also vulnerable on climbs where the pace is erratic - or put more simply, he doesn't cope well with constant attacks or changes of pace. Instead he prefers to set his own pace, one that other riders can maintain for a while,but not always to the top.  Now, what Cadel knows is that he is one of the fastest climbers in the world and that while someone might get a gap on him with a short attack that doesn’t mean they are capable of holding that same pace to climb away from him.

Closer to home, take a moment to have a think about people you race against.  Which riders like to attack early in a race but are never there at the finish?  Who sits in and is a good sprinter but doesn’t climb so well?  Which riders are better on the short power climbs (like they have in the sprint classics) or the long climbs like Corin, Honeysuckle, Baw Baw or Hotham?  (Which one are you?)

Now put yourself in that person's shoes and think about what you would do on a particular course.  Would you attack or sit in?  Where would you push the pace or attack?  Where do they appear to suffer?  Also use previous races to build a picture of what each riders style is.  Once you have done this you will be better prepared to develop your own race tactics and anticipate their moves.  All of this will help you get better results.


Nutrition

This is a big one.  I have written previous posts on this topic (see here) so I won't go into the details of nutrition itself, rather consider this.  

Road races are more demanding energy wise than crits or time trials and there is a higher probability that fatigue (due to dehydration or poor nutrition) will play a role in the results.  This doesn’t mean that nutrition isn’t important for the shorter events – it is.  The difference is in what type of nutrition and hydration strategy is required to be at your best.

Shorter, more explosive events rely more on glycogen as fuel so ensuring you start your event fully loaded is important.   For longer, endurance events it’s still important to start with full energy levels but you also need to consider nutrition and hydration throughout the event.  This gets more important the longer the event, with events such as a 24hour Mountain Bike race, or Ironman Triathlon being races where you need to focus just as much on your nutrition practise as you physical training.

Teamwork

In local races, where teams are not as prevalent as the tours, national or international events, having a team of riders is a big competitive advantage.  But it’s one that is squandered when these riders don’t work effectively together.  For a team to be successful it requires riders to sacrifice their own desire for results in favour of the team.  Sure, its nice if a team can totally dominate a race but before that can happen you need to be able to get your riders working together to help get the best result for the team.

Club races can be a good place to practise riding as a team but it’s important not to overdo it.  You also need to pick your races as a team of 8 riders racing against a bunch of individuals can really detract from everyone’s enjoyment.

The key to good team work is communication and dedication.   Every rider needs to understand their role well before they hit the start line.  They also need to understand how they need to change the way they normally ride to support their team.  For example, a rider used to sitting in will need to change their tactics if their role is to chase down any attacks – which will be really hard to do if they are blocked in when the attack is made.  Dedication to the team and their teammates is also vital as it provides that extra % of determination that is required to do the job.  This is something that you see in the pro peloton all the time and most notably occurs in the lead out for a sprint.  When Mark Renshaw leads out Cavendish his sole purpose is for Cav to win and his own placing is irrelevant.   Now look at your standard Wednesday night Crits. Pick any of the grades where you know their are teams and you will see the makings of a lead out several laps out from the finish but invariably it breaks down because the lead rider isn’t going fast enough.  Subconsciously they still want to finish and the lack of speed at the front of the bunch lets other riders stay in the hunt, or lets other, better organised teams crash the sprint party. 

Putting it into practise.

So, now you know a bit more about how you can gain a competitive advantage, how can you use it?  Well the first thing you can do is not give away your advantage by sharing too much information (like I have just done).  It's all well and good to help your friends, and others, with tips, but be careful who you share any info with and how you do it.  I know local races are not as serious as the pro level (although we often find ourselves racing for sheep stations that appear far more valuable than the greatest of tour victories) but just consider how these pro riders handle themselves.   Very few, if any post their power data anywhere.  They do their wind tunnel testing in secret and have their bike fitters and aero gurus sign agreements that prevent them from helping their opponents.  Their coaches don't share their training programs or secrets.  This is all about retaining their competitive advantage so that on race day they have the best chance of success.  Locally, think about the big races you want to do well at and by all means save your magic for that race, but consider what would happen if everyone else in the race was doing the same thing!

The second thing to do is to create a race plan, preferably a day or two before the race.  The process of developing a race plan will help you consider the course, who your main opponents might be, what your tactics will be, what you will need to eat/drink on race day, etc.  

The third thing you can do is review your races and consider what other riders did, what parts of the course where hard, etc.  This will help build your knowledge base of riders and courses for use at future races.

Jason Mahoney Thursday 22 August 2013 at 7:19 pm | | Tips

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