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Improving results through good race tactics?

One of the most intriguing aspects about bike racing is that the outcome is dependant on the personalities of the individual riders.

Timid riders usually sit back and race reactively, while confident (even over confident) riders will be more aggressive.  Patient riders are usually also confident and when it’s time to act they do so decisively.

Knowing what type of person someone is can help you determine what their race tactics will be and this can provide a valuable insight when developing your own race tactics.  However, you also need to consider what type of person you are so you can develop your own personal ‘race winning strategy’.

Understanding your own personality traits and motivations can help you develop more robust race strategies but at the most fundamental level you should first ask yourself a simple question, Do you prefer to chase or be chased?

Why is this relevant?  Well, riders who prefer to chase are seldom successful in a solo breakaway as they don’t have anyone in front of them to chase.  Rider’s who like to chase also hate to go off first in a time trial as they lack that external motivation to get the best out of their body.    Riders who like to be chased can achieve fantastic results in breakaways and they also don’t mind where they start in a time trial – although starting last can provide the same types of problems as the ‘chasers’.

During a bike race there are many situations where we tap into this, almost primal instinct – even on an unconscious level.  But knowing which type of rider you are will help you determine what your preferred race scenario is.

Developing your personal ‘race winning strategy’.

One of the most common issues I find when asking people about their race tactics is that they haven’t really thought about how they can actually win the race. Sure they might consider the terrain, weather and other riders abilities, but invariably the one thing that is missing is the most vital – knowing and understanding the scenario that gives the rider the best chance of winning a race, or their own personal ‘race winning strategy’.

As usual it’s time for an example.

Fast Phil is a sprinter with a devastating jump and phenomenal sprint endurance.  He can go from 300m out and no-one can touch him.  It’s probably a fair guess that Phil prefers to be chased as he likes to get out in front and hold off the opposition.

Phil’s personal race winning scenario is pretty simple.  Stay with the main pack, get a good lead out which drops him of somewhere from 200-300m from the line with clear ground in front.

Everyone else knows that if Phil gets in to this position that they are likely to be racing for second.

Now this is a pretty simplistic example but it drives all of Phil’s choices before and during the race.  He knows he can’t afford to waste any energy throughout the race and is not interested in getting in a breakaway or sitting out in the wind.  On a hilly course Phil will consider the length and gradient of each climb to determine whether he can make it over with the bunch.  He will conserve as much energy as possible and then dig as deep as he can to get over the climb and chase back on if necessary to ensure he is there at the finish.

Looking at a more complex scenario lets consider another example.

Samantha is a good climber but rarely, if ever attacks, rather preferring to wear down the opposition in long climbs.  She also has a pretty good finishing kick but her time trialling is quite poor and she regularly finishing towards the tail end of the field.  Deep down Samantha knows she prefers to chase other riders and feel’s uncomfortable knowing that other riders might be catching her.

What type of race winning scenario do you think would be perfect for Samantha?

Well the answer to that depends on the course.  If it’s a flat course then Samantha cannot rely on her climbing abilities as much and getting into a small breakaway group or waiting for the bunch kick might be her best options.  However, if the race has a significant climb in it then Samantha’s climbing abilities can be used to greater effect.

If I was to develop the ideal race winning scenario for Samantha it would involve a race on a hilly course, preferably a hill top finish.  Up until the final climb Samantha should sit in and save all of her energy.  By sitting back and being more observant Sam could assess which riders are moving forward or looking comfortable on any intermediate climbs and this will help her determine who the main contenders may be on the final climb.

Once on the final climb Samantha should set a solid pace from early on with the primary aim to split the group so that she is in a small, but select group of climbers at the front of the race.   At this point most trailing riders will be in the red and will be out of contention. From here Samantha can share the work with the others in the front group, perhaps picking the pace up at times to try and weaken the other riders.  The main aim for Samantha from this point is to try and whittle this group down to only a couple of riders, ideally just two.  Having this additional rider will help keep the motivation (i.e. not being chased) in check and Samantha can then use her strong finishing kick to take the victory.

What this scenario highlights is that sometimes the ideal race winning scenarios needs to be quite detailed and this can actually work against a rider.  For example, let assume Samantha’s tactics are quite well known (as she has used them many times before).  Other riders may choose to attack earlier in the race and then force Samantha to chase.  Not being the best time trialist this will likely prove difficult for Samantha without the assistance of team mates and even if she is able to successfully reel in the attack it will have drained her energy before the final climb – at which point the other riders can choose to just sit on her and not work at all, or to attack and force her to chase more, further draining her energy before the finish.  The more tactically savvy the other riders in the pack are, the harder it is for Samantha to ride the race exactly as she wants to.  This is where it’s important for Samantha to review her tactics.   Better yet, if Samantha were to improve her time trialling then she would open up a whole raft of other options, including attacking on climbs earlier in the race (maybe 5-10m from the finish) and then trying to hold off the main pack.

Avoiding Negative Racing – Learning how to win

If there is one thing that hinders learning about race tactics it’s negative racing.

Negative racing usually comes through in two ways:

  1. Everyone just sits in.  No one attacks and everyone waits until the end of the race, e.g. the final sprint, last climb, etc.
  2. Everyone chases everything.  

The ‘everyone sits in’ scenario – If you have watched or raced in bike races long enough you will have seen this one more times than you care to remember.   After a few early surges or attacks everyone just sit in with a steady, or sometimes super slow pace being set.  The entire race is almost farcical and is best described as a bunch out for a Sunday training ride with a speed sign sprint at the end.   Why does this happen?  Well the two main reasons are that the riders are not tactically aware and the second is fear.  No one is willing to risk their legs in an attack as they are afraid of getting caught and then getting dropped.   This usually stems from an experience with scenario #2

The ‘everyone chases everything’ scenario - It always amazes me how a full strength peloton will chase down a lone rider who attacks 2km into a long road race.  Even the strongest of time trialists would have trouble staying away solo for 50km+ with a full pack on the charge.   Why not let the rider get out in front, heck even a 1 or 2 minute lead (that’s maybe 500m to just over a 1km depending on terrain)?  This type of negative racing is even more confusing when the riders chasing have no chance of winning in a bunch sprint.  It’s like their sole motivation is actually preventing the other person from winning – and that can be the most destructive type of negative racing their is – preventing someone else from winning when you yourself don’t stand a chance.

If it’s not clear yet why negative racing is so destructive then consider this.  Learning about race tactics is about trying out different things and seeing which one works and in what scenario.   In negative racing the only person who benefits is the sprinter, or late breakaway specialist.  If your racing negatively then you are handing the race to these riders and doing yourself out of a better result.

If you want to learn more about race tactics and improve your results then the first thing you need to do is to be proactive and try out different tactics.    Starting from a novice rider and progressing through to an experienced (or elite) rider might involve going through the following steps:

  1. Learning how to ‘not get dropped’.  When you first start racing you will most likely lack sufficient fitness to finish with the bunch.  More training will help here but so will having better bunch skills.  Learning how to draft properly and sit in a bunch without wasting energy is a skills that all riders need if they want to succeed.  
  2. Learning to finish with the bunch.   You have progressed to a point where you’re not getting dropped so the next step is to try and finish with the main bunch.  Learning to read a race and having good positioning skills become even more important.  Fitness will still play a major role in determining whether you can achieve this gaol.
  3. Improving your bunch results.  Okay, so you have finished in the main bunch few times, so it’s time to aim for a better result.  Try aiming to finish in the top 5 of the bunch (regardless of any breakaway riders).  This will require an even greater emphasis on bunch skills, especially towards the closing stages.   What you learn now will set you up well for top finishes well in to the future.
  4. Getting off the front.   If you can finish with the bunch in every race you do then you seriously need to consider starting to attack and try and get into a breakaway.  Why?  Quite simply, unless you’re a sprinter then your chances of getting a top result are greatly improved if you can come to the finish line with a smaller group – which usually means solo or small group breakaway.   Try attacking at different points in the race, either by yourself or with others.  See which types of attacks work and which ones don’t in different situations.
  5. Hurting the bunch.  Sometimes you don’t want to attack but you still need to whittle the bunch size down.  In these situations you need to get on the front, put it in the gutter and just push the pace hard.  Force other riders into difficulty and perhaps rely on riders with poor fitness or skills to let gaps open up, which will then help you establish a small group off the front.  False flats, climbs and windy conditions all favour this type of tactic.
  6. Going for the glory.   Towards the end of a race, regardless of the bunch size, there is an opportunity for the determined rider to steal the victory by launching a late attack.  This has to be an all or nothing assault and what you’re relying on is the remaining riders to delay chasing.  Any rider who decides to chase in this scenario will be essentially forfeiting their chances at winning.  If no rider is willing to start chasing straight away then you can get just enough of a gap to be able to hold on.   It’s basically a game of chicken for riders in the pack.  How much do they want to win?  If they want it really bad then then will try and chase or bridge but in doing so they actually throw away their chances.  A smart rider in this situation will wait for someone else to chase but in doing so they are also risking that the lead you get will be too great.  Some of the greatest wins have come from this scenario but you will never know if you're not willing to risk it.   NB: Anything up to 10-20km out from the finish is fair game here but it works best with only 2-5km to the finish

Races that involve these tactics are exciting to watch, and more importantly they are fun and exciting to be a part of.   Racing like this is also the future of our sport.  No one wants to watch a pack of 50-200 cyclists riding around at 30kmh for 4 hours until the bunch sprint.  Sponsors need viewers to get the exposure they need and make their investment worthwhile.  This applies the same to small local teams, state level teams, national road series, pro continental and at world tour level.  If your aim is to ride successfully at any of these levels then you need to ensure you have a good grasp of race tactics and most importantly you must be willing to experiment and risk losing races by trying out different tactics. 

Race Tactics Masterclass Session

Developing your race experience and knowledge of race tactics takes a long time, some times years worth of racing.  However, if you want to take a shortcut, get along to our Race Tactics Masterclass session, which will include a large number of ‘mini races’ so you can learn and practise a range of tactics.

Mini-race simulations provide a great way to learn race tactics but it's also great fun, especially when done with your friends and team mates so get them along as well so you can practise together.

Jason Mahoney Sunday 06 October 2013 at 09:10 am | | Tips




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