How not to lose a race.
A while ago I was talking to one of my riders about strategies for a key race and I decided that rather than advising on tactics for winning I would take a different tact and advise on 'what not to do'. This encompassed a range of things that would lead to them putting themselves out of contention in the race and therefore to be avoided at all costs. This rider had inevitably doing one of these things in several of their past races and only by focussing on these things were they able to break through their results plateau and get that elusive win.
While this approach worked a treat in this situation, it’s also one that you should look to use when first starting out or trying to learn more about race tactics. The reason for this is the ability to win a race usually on comes once you have mastered the ability to manage yourself during a race. I call this strategy, 'How not to lose a race'.
Consider this somewhat odd race goal - ‘get dropped and eventually DNF the race’. How would you go about achieving this goal?
Here are a number of things you could do:
- Attack early and multiple times in the race and waste all your energy before the critical last quarter of the event and therefore get dropped when the first serious move comes. Hey, at least you got in a good workout.
- Attack a large bunch while riding into a headwind
- Attack down a hill when the bunch is already doing 55kmh – you can always extend your lead by holding 60kmh down the hill and beyond! Go on try it – just for fun!
- Don't eat enough food or drink enough fluids, become dehydrated and fatigued resulting in loss of power late in the race. Unpleasant way to DNF but very effective.
- Sit at the back of the pack during a criterium that requires continual sharp accelerations. Sure fire way of blowing up.
- Sit behind riders that you know to be weaker and more likely to get dropped. (TIP: There is no better excuse for a DNF than blaming someone else for letting a gap open up - nice one!)
- Sit behind riders who have poor cornering skills, leading to you spending extra energy covering gaps or chasing back on after you exit the corners. (TIP: this is a great way to burn precious energy in crits or on courses with lots of corners. Prime choice if you want to DNF and you will get a great workout to boot)
- Poor equipment maintenance. Snapping a weak or worn chain midway through a race absolves you of all other excuses – after all if you didn’t have that mechanical you may have won.
- Don't check the course route and terrain before and event. If you don't know what's coming up you can waste all your energy before that difficult climb and get yourself dropped. Awesome way to DNF!
- Don't check the weather conditions before and event.
- Don't pay attention to your position in the group, especially about sitting out of the wind. If you want to get dropped just sit out in the wind at every opportunity you can, but make sure you shelter the stronger riders so they get it easy.
- Remember to take personal responsibility for chasing down every breakaway attempt that occurs, regardless of whether it has any chance of succeeding or not.
- Finally, get yourself in a breakaway with riders that are stronger than you are and remember that you are not allowed to miss a turn. Add in a few extra double-pulls just to show them you have what it takes and you're guaranteed a DNF, albeit with some bragging rights about being in what eventually become the race winning breakaway - nice!
So, if that's a list of strategies that can be used to lose a race, what are things you can do to 'not lose a race'? Well pretty much the reverse of everything listed above. Your ultimate goal may not be to win the race, it may just be to finish in the bunch or break into the top three for the first time, but there are a range of things you can do to maximise the chance of achieve your goal. Using the above list as a starting point these strategies include:
- Unless under team orders or another good reason, don't attack in the first half of the race. Everyone else is fresh and its easier for them to chase you down.
- If there is a headwind, sit in and save your energy as best you can.
- If there is a crosswind then go one better by having a riders blocking the wind from the front and beside you as it maximises the drafting benefits.
- Make sure you eat correctly and drink sufficient fluids to stay fuelled and well hydrated for the duration of the event. This requires some planning ahead but is very important.
- Get to know the other riders in the race, either from previous racing experiences or just watching them during your current race. Pick out the riders who look weaker or with poorer skills and avoid sitting behind or near them as much as possible. This is especially important in handicap races as sitting in front of or behind someone who cannot ride a proper pace line will cost you a lot more energy as you have to deal with their surges and bigger gaps.
- Be proactive coming into u-turns or other technical sections and get ahead of riders with poorer skills who could slow you down. Same goes for climbing. If you’re a good climber don't sit at the back and rely on your climbing prowess to move you up the pack, you just end up wasting energy riding past everyone else when you could be doing it easy or pushing the pace at the front (*see note below about key tactics).
- Always make sure your equipment is in good condition and choose equipment to suit the conditions of the race.
- Familiarise yourself with the the course route and terrain before and event. This may involve riding or driving over the course before the race or at minimum checking the route and race profile on the internet. Race marshals and lead cars don’t always get it right and you don’t want to end up off course.
- Be aware of the weather, especially the wind speed and direction and analyse the course for any sections that are likely to be crosswinds or headwinds. Then look for crucial changes in road direction that lead into these sections so that you know when to focus more on your bunch position.
- Sit in as much as possible and only sit out in the wind, or on the front, if you have a very specific reason for doing so (*see note below about key tactics)
- Similar to the above, don't chase down any breakaway attempt without good reason (usually team orders). Instead, either try and bridge across (if you thinks its a dangerous move), share the workload with others or better yet, sit in and let other riders waste energy chasing. TIP: It is important to realise that there are several riders in every race who want to win and they will often be prepared to chase a breakaway. Tactics during a race can be like a game of chicken. It all comes down to who is the most patient and can hide their intentions the best. If you don't appear to be interested in chasing then others will feel they have no choice but to do the work themselves. However, it’s worth noting that this can backfire, especially when several riders continue to bluff and not chase. A breakaway can then gain a big margin and then defy all attempts at a catch later on.
- Finally, don't attempt to get in a breakaway unless you are confident that you will be able to contribute or at minimum just hang on. Instead, just aim to stay with the main pack until the finish. Once you can achieve this you can start to consider more aggressive tactics.
Race winning strategies
So, you have read all this and it makes sense and you are wondering how you might be able to use it to actually win a race. The first thing you need to understand is the dynamics of how races are won.
There are only three ways to win a race:
- The solo breakaway,
- Sprint win from small breakaway
- Win a large bunch sprint
When considering these options its clear that it’s so much easier to win a bike race if you come to the finish line by yourself or with only a small number of riders. Even the best sprinters can get boxed in with a large field and lead outs don’t always deliver their team’s sprinter into a winning position. This means part of your race strategy needs to be about getting you clear of the main bunch, either by attacking or by facilitating most of the riders getting dropped. Once you understand the underlying principles of how this works then your well on your way to improving your results and to winning a bike race. To demonstrate, lets use a few examples: the Corin Classic in Canberra and the NSW Masters Championships road race at Breadalbane/Goulburn.
The Corin Classic consists of approx 40km on the undulating terrain through Tidbinbilla and into the Tracking Station and then the 14km climb up Corin. The outcome of the race is predominantly determined by the climb up to Corin. For those not familiar with it, the climb is approx 14km long with a modest average gradient, but that’s somewhat deceiving as the full climb is really best described in three sections. The first sector is rolling hills, almost like a set of steps, with each step followed by either a slight dip or a flat section. The pace through here can be quite high and if you go too deep now you will pay later on. Sector two starts just before the turn to Woodmans Reserve and its marked by the first prolonged section of constant upward gradient. After this the climb continues in a ‘stepped’ fashion until you get up towards the KOM, where the slope eases slightly before a short, steep pinch up to the KOM. Sector two is the longest and most important as the winner usually makes their move somewhere through here. Sector three starts at the KOM and runs up to the finish. It’s mostly fast, flat to undulating terrain but the finish (about 500m past the rec centre) is on an uphill section that will test the timing of your sprint if you’re still in a small bunch.
Now, knowing all that about the climb it’s worth looking at the two most common tactics used in the race, the early breakaway and the ‘Corin attack’.
- The early breakaway normally goes away with the first few km of the race and four or five riders is a good size. Having one team represented in this group will help but the mix of riders is what’s important. It needs to have a mix of good climbers and time trialists. Invariably this group will establish a gap of a few minutes by the time they reach the base of the climb. The pack is usually happy to just sit back and make sure they stay within striking range as the good climbers know they can make up that time (and more) up the climb. The game here is whether one of the breakaway riders can climb fast enough to hold off the chasing mountain goats. If they can crest the KOM in the lead then they have an excellent chance of holding on for the win. Nb: This is one of the few races where an early break actually has a good chance of winning, primarily because the bunch can be willing to let it go as they know there is still the long climb at the end.
- The ‘Corin attack’ usually happens regardless of whether there is a breakaway up the road or not. The main contenders usually sit tight through sector one but somewhere along the way someone will launch and from that point its essentially a small group or solo TT effort all the way to the top. If you get dropped there is usually no coming back. Riders in this final bunch need to quickly assess their best option for victory and then take action.
So, if that’s how the race normally pans out then what tactics would you use?
Well if your not a good climber then you will need to either conserve as much energy as possible before the climb or get yourself into that early breakaway. If you are the good climber then you need to think about how you are going to attack the climb. Will be it an explosive effort to try and leave everyone in your wake? or will you look to apply the pressure in a more prolonged way. One mistake that good climbers make is by being too aggressive, they launch their attack and leave the group as if shot into orbit by a rocket. However, the pack will still be all together, which means there can still be enough firepower left to chase them down – especially where the climbers explosive attack was executed with too much effort – the result of which will be a build up of lactate and fatigue farther up the climb. Instead it’s often better to just ‘turn the screws’. This approach is quite simple and the only two requirements are to not accelerate too fast and to ensure you go hard enough for long enough. The idea for this tactics is to force everyone else to lift the pace to stay in contact and then have them gradually go in to the red zone and drift off the back. This is a point that is extremely difficult to recover from and it’s an extremely effective way of shrinking down the size of the front group. Which brings us back to the purpose of this example – winning a hill climb event isn’t always about solo climbing, it’s about being tactical about the use of your energy to make sure the final group (aka the final selection) is small enough for your liking. The you make the decision to either outsprint them at the finish, or to launch a solo attack later on. If you watch the Tour de France, every year you see the teams utilise these tactics on the main climbs. The domestiques do all the hard work early on to separate out the main contenders (and if possible to drop some of them) and then it’s up to the main players to duke it out over the top half of the climb.
Moving on to a flatter race, the NSW Masters Road Race Championships are currently being held near Goulburn. The course doesn’t favour the good climbers as much as there are only a few small ‘power’ climbs. This brings the ‘one day classic’ style rider or sprinter into contention a lot more as they tend to have higher anaerobic power to cope with the hills. Tactics on this course is all about what style of rider you are. A weak sprinter but good time trialist will need to look for the solo or small group breakaway and is best helped by windy conditions. They get on the front, put it in the gutter and just like the hill climber they ‘turn the screws’ until the group splinters. If this doesn’t work the first time they (or another rider with similar ambitions) might try again later on, hoping that they have the better fitness than everyone else. A good climber needs to be even more savvy, they need to sit in and conserve their energy on the flats and then really push the pace on the climbs as they try to wear everyone else out before the end. The best hope for the climber is that everyone will be too tired late in the race, so that when they launch their last attack over the last main climb that they will be able to stay away.
However, as mentioned up front, its the classic racer who rules here. Someone who can power over the climbs and has a good sprint is the one to watch out for. They will want to sit in as much as possible so look for them to be tucked away in the group. They will poke their nose out just before the climbs to make sure they have clear road to accelerate and so they don’t get caught behind the slower climbers. They will be attentive for any breakaways as some will fancy their chances from a small group, while the sprinters will want to keep it all together so they can blast their way past everyone in the finale. But this is also the key to their undoing. You see, by default these riders have to be reactive as they are essentially waiting for the end of the race. It also means they are the ones likely to do the chasing. Remember, a race is like a game of chicken, if you can make these riders do more work throughout the race then you can deaden their legs and take them out of the equation later on. You will rarely see a rider solo in for the win on this course and if they do it’s likely to be from a late attack and then from a main bunch that has either shrunk or become too fatigued to chase. Instead, this race usually comes down to a sprint. If the tactics have been good then it will likely be a small bunch but if the field is large (i.e. enough people to keep chasing) or there hasn’t been anyone willing to push the pace, then it will be a large bunch sprint. Again, this brings us back to the underlying principles of winning a bike race, if you can’t win a sprint then don’t just sit in and wait for it, attack! Do something to increase your chances of winning. Launch a solo attack late in the race, like two kilometers out from the finish. It’s so close to the end that the main contenders won’t want to chase you as they know they will be cooked for the finish. Take your chance and go for it and let them all play chicken about who is going to chase you. All you need is 10-20 seconds of hesitation and that’s enough for you to get your head down and motoring towards victory.
When developing your own race tactics you need to think not only about the actions that will help you win, but about those that will prevent you from winning. Good race strategy is about being patient, having good race craft and saving energy until the moment you want to strike. Successful race strategy also takes practise, so don’t be afraid to try a few different things in your local races to see what works and what doesn’t.
Finally, don’t get too concerned about the tactics of other riders. I have seen races where the sole purpose of a rider or an entire team has been to simply prevent another rider from winning a race. That’s pretty poor form in my book. If there is a rider who is better than you (or your team) then try and think more about how you can improve your own results. Once you improve enough to contend with them, then you can start to think about how you can beat them!