“Bicycle racing is a sport of patience. Racing is licking your opponent’s place clean before starting on your own.” - Tim Krabbe, The Rider
I remember years ago during my first road racing season sitting in the pack having no clue what was going on. When is a good time to attack? Why aren’t these riders rolling through?Why are these guys chasing? There’s a lot to understanding the psychology of the peloton and the game being played which can only be learned through experience. Race lots and you’ll start to get the hang of it.
Road racing doesn’t follow the typical format of most other sports. There are no quarters, periods or rounds but races often follow the same sequence of events. It might seem like a thousand different scenarios could exist with so many variables, but when you’ve been racing for a long time you’ll begin to understand its basic anatomy.
The structure of an amateur road race goes something like this:
The race rolls off for a few kilometers under a neutral pace. The moment the lead vehicle pulls off everyone begins flexing their muscle and a flurry of attacks begin. Nothing will get away at this point. Everyone is fresh, excited, and the thought of rolling around in the peloton for the next 3-4hrs isn’t very appealing.
At about the fifth or sixth attack a break away group of half a dozen riders will get away (note that in Masters racing almost everything gets chased down!). The pace of the peloton will settle down, everyone will relax and the breakaway will work together in harmony. Even in amateur road racing where “teams” are not allowed to be riding for one another, make no mistake, alliances have been formed regardless of the jerseys riders are wearing. The riders whose interests are represented up the road in the break will be sitting in the middle of the pack and not be compelled to do any work.
The race will settle in and you’ll be rolling in the pack with your heartrate at 120bpm. The odd rider will try to jump across to the break. He usually gets caught in no-man’s land and comes back to the bunch after hanging out there for 30 kilometers.
At 20 kilometers remaining the break will be within sight. Time is being brought back but none of the contenders want to show their cards too early and stick their noses into the wind. Eager or inexperienced riders will go to the front and begin chasing and the break will eventually be reeled in. The cream will rise to the top and then the real contenders will emerge. Someone attacks and gets a gap. Another rider jumps across. Then another, and another. All of a sudden a strong breakaway group has formed and everyone in the peloton is sitting there looking at each other while the strongest riders simply ride away. A few people chase but in the end it becomes futile. The race is up the road.
Of course this isn’t the only scenario that can be played out, but after you race enough times it will begin to sound familiar. The beautiful thing about road racing is that it is unpredictable and no matter how well you can read a race, if you don’t have the legs to go when it matters, there’s nothing you can do about it. However, even if you’re the strongest rider in the field, you probably won’t win unless you understand how the game is played.
Here are a few suggestions. Within this I’ve quoted many truisms from Tim Krabbe’s book , The Rider.
“Every time I take a pull up front, I feel it: I’m strong today. So what if I attack right here? Then my chances would be reduced. Correct.” - Tim Krabbe, The Rider
Bike races often come down to only three, four or five massive explosive efforts throughout the entire distance. Closing that gap, making the break, holding the wheel up that climb, responding to that attack or nailing that bunch sprint. That’s it. Those critical moments are going to require the effort of your life though. Don’t waste your energy on the things that don’t matter.
Save your energy for the last third of the race. The majority of the time the winning move will come during this period. You’ll see many people try to get away at the beginning of the race. That’s fine, let them go.
“After one kilometer, a minuscule rider with a lack rag-mop attacks: Despuech. Baloney. This race lasts 140 kilometers. Despuech is crazy. He is only showing us that he doesn’t stand a chance in hell. He knows it too, but still it’s a fact: he has to choose between finishing at the back after shining, or finishing at the back after not having shone at all.” Tim Krabbe - The Rider:
It’s not all for nothing though. Riders in the break will force the rest of the peloton into an defensive position. There are always riders willing to go out in an early break for various reasons.
Know Your Competition
The statement above does not come without its exceptions. If the strongest five guys of the race decide to attack at the beginning of a 100km race and you know they have people working for them, then there’s a good chance you should make an early move with this group. I’ve been in dozens of races where I’ve been in early moves that have stayed away. You just need to go with the right group. This has more to do with the combination of riders rather than the strength of them (which often goes hand in hand). A chasing peloton will almost always be faster than a small bunch of riders. It’s not a matter of how much time you can get on the peloton; it’s how much time they allow you to get. Getting the peloton organised is the issue, and understanding who is working together is key.
Know the Gap
Pay attention to gap of the breakaway in the race. If you can see the break, watch for when they pass a landmark and time the gap from when the last rider passes it until the front of the peloton hits it. Is it increasing or decreasing? Always know the race situation so you can judge your strategy.
“Every once in a while someone along the road lets us know how far behind we are. A man shouts: ‘Faster!’ He probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
“Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
You know those times where someone attacks and everyone else in the peloton sits there looking at each other while more riders hop across and to the break and it just rolls away? Do you ever think, “that’s the move, but I’ve completely missed it”?
There is an art to attacking and the reaction of the peloton will differ depending on how you attack. Often the best time to attack is after a series of moves when the riders chasing are tired or psychologically worn out. You need to attack hard in these situations in order to get away and you have to commit to it.
The “soft attack” works brilliantly if you want to slip off the front and not stir a reaction from the bunch. The peloton will often let you ride away as they won’t see you as a threat. Don’t do this for nothing though. Make sure you do this at a critical time of the race where your move is going to stick or create a good situation for a teammate.
Know The Wind
Study at the course map before the race and know the direction the wind is blowing from. Crosswinds can split the bunch into multiple echelons and completely turn the race upside down. If the race is approaching a corner and you have a strong headwind or tailwind, get to the front of the bunch before the turn because this means the crosswinds are coming. As difficult as it may seem, it’s much easier to be rolling in the front echelon with a crosswind rather than being stretched out single-file in the gutter trying to catch a non-existant draft and closing gaps. Of course everyone will want to be in this front echelon, but fortunately many people haven’t studied the course or get caught sleeping.
If there is not a crosswind capable of blowing the bunch apart, it’s still important to know the wind direction so you can hide in the bunch. Always try to move up in the bunch by catching a draft from a rider(s) coming up beside you. The more you can keep your nose out of the wind, the more energy you’ll save for the finish. You only have so many matches you can burn. Use them wisely.
Know Your Strengths, and More-so, Your Competitor’s
“As the better sprinter, he is the favorite, and the favorite has to accept that he’s the one open to blackmail.” - Tim Krabbe, The Rider
Are you weak on the climbs? Then position yourself at the front of the bunch just as the climb is starting and slowly drift back in the peloton so that you use as little energy as possible.
Are you a poor bunch sprinter? Then it’s best that you try to win from a small bunch.
Are you a good time trialist? Then try create a situation where you can win alone.
Study the Finish
Most road races at the amateur level finish where they started. Whenever I do a road race I’ll ride backwards along the finishing straight for about 5km as part of my warm up. I’ll look at the terrain to see if there are climbs, descents, corners, etc while memorising every detail and keeping the distance in mind. It’s obvious that races are only won at the finish and after all your hard work you don’t want to go down the toilet because you didn’t know that you had to be first around that final corner or up that steep climb.
Judging the Finishing Distance
The notion of starting your sprint at 200m to go is actually quite arbitrary. It’s a good gauge in races where the finishes are flat and fast. It’s too premature to begin sprinting if the finish is on a climb or into a block headwind. It’s not far enough if the finish is on a descent where you’ll get up to 70km/hr. Judge your finishing sprint based on the amount of time you know your body can do for a maximum effort for. On a flat finish, 200m means a 20-30 second all-out sprint effort. On a climb, this might mean starting your sprint at 100m remaining.
“Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization. When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what’s your first reaction? To help him to his feet. I road racing, you kick him to death. – Tim Krabbe, The Rider