Cycling Tactics: “All the Horsepower in the World Will not Help You”

7 01 2011

Part 1

A motocross friend of mine once said, “All the horsepower in the world will not help you unless you know how to use it.” In our cycling context this is roughly translated as knowing when to use your wattage capacity, and when not to use it. Basically, correctly applying your tactical sense will allow you to perform above your current physical limitations.

If road racing was just about who was the strongest; it would be all settled, but it is not just about the best DNA and the perfect training program. You must use your brain in this sport, and this is where the scales even-up. Prehn talks about Thinking, Planning, and Acting in his text and it struck me that this was very similar to Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop decision cycle, that is to say Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, circa 1950’s. The faster one can turn this loop, the faster one can take advantage of his opponent. Colonel Boyd revolutionized air combat maneuvering lessons with this process. Also similar in pattern is the Shewhart Circle from the business process improvement world (early 1950’s). It’s pattern is Plan-Do-Study-Act. Businesses have saved immense amounts of money applying this method.

What does all this have to do with racing? A lot. It means you must see what’s happening around you and act accordingly. To ignore it means that you will not cross the finish line first, or it means you miss the winning breakaway, or just as bad…you squander the precious energy resources at your disposal. You have to manage your energy otherwise you be left behind!

This post is the first of a series where I’ll write about my interpretation of racing tactics. For this post, all my discussion and graphics is based on “Racing Tactics for Cyclists” by Thomas Prehn and chapters eight and nine of  “Cycle Racing: How to Train, Race, and Win Gold” by William Fotheringham.

Tactical Tools

You’re racing with and against others. So it makes sense to understand what is happening, Prehn calls it, “reading a race.” Those guys just sitting in the pack may be doing this instead:

  • …watching, surveying, and evaluating everything
  • …watching the course
  • …watching the reactions of the pack to each attack and block
  • …keeping a tally of who’s off the front, who is blocking, and how well they’re blocking
  • …watching for signs from key racers and keeping tabs on the pulse of the pack as a whole

Just like the decision patterns above, you’ve got to observe and anticipate what may happen. This is a learned skill…the more you race, the better you get. But you’re not just doing it when you’re in the race, you’re doing your homework before the race. Look at the course itself. What characteristics will affect the race outcome? How was the race won the season before? Are there climbs? How long is the course? Are there points where the pack may have difficulties negotiating the road, i.e. a narrow road? Look for opportunities where you and/or your team may capitalize. What about the competitors? Whose team is strong? What combinations of racers will likely win if they’re in front? Who are the sprinters and the tractors? Yes, these are a lot of questions. But it’s a better method than just sitting in the pack clueless.

How are your competitors doing? Look at their body language; are their shoulders and heads bobbing up and down or side-to-side? What’s their breathing sound like? Are they eating and drinking? These things will give you clues to their energy level. On the other hand, it could be a front. Is it possible that a racer will camouflage his external signs? I think this is possible only up to a point.

Can you keep an eye on your drafting rivals without giving away that you’re doing so? One method when your hands happen to be in the bar drops is to drop your head and look back towards your rear axle. You’ll see the front tire of the man right behind you. If you look through/under either arm, you’ll see who’s off to your 5:00 and 7:00 directions. This is good because you don’t have to sit up to turn your head, especially during a lead-out for a teammate. I like knowing who’s around me at all times, and if I can do it without letting-on, great.

You’re always watching for a breakaway but how do you know which one is the winning move? Usually the attacks made early in the race are from fresh and strong riders. It’s the attacks later in the race that are important. One way to know is to measure the duration by it takes the pack to reel the breakaway back. As the pack tires or looses initiative or perseverance, that duration will increase. Look for the longer duration that is different from the rest, the next attack will likely be the winning breakaway. Should I stay or should I go? Good question, and the answer is “it depends”. If you’ve got the speed you can loiter near the front and observe the attacks go. If you think the pack isn’t going to respond you can afford to wait until the break is almost out of your bridging range. Then you can choose to make the bridge, and join the breakaway. On the other hand, if this attack was a play to wear-out the group, you’ve just wasted a match out of your matchbook.

Pace Line Fundamentals
Animated graphic of a simple pace line.

A Single Pace Line

Now that you’ve read the clues right and established yourself with the breakaway the question becomes this: How do I stay up here and exploit the advantage? Part of the answer is cooperating with the new group, and that usually means a pace line. A pace line is a single file of racers where the lead racer pulls for a few seconds several minutes. This is not to be confused with an echelon where the lead rider moves on and then off…there’s no pause. An echelon is also known as a “through and off“. Echelons continually rotate with no distinct pulls from the racers in that group. So lets return to the single pace line.

In this case the racers take aerodynamic advantage of each other using their draft. The group is riding in order to exploit a gap from the pack behind, or in an attempt to catch another group in front. Note our animation to the left. Our black jersey is in the pace line and reaches the front position, he finishes his pull and always signals and pulls off into the wind (from the left-front in this case). The signal can be a finger-flick, an elbow wag, or something similar. The point is to always alert the riders behind you. As our black jersey soft-pedals, the pace line continues with the original tempo. Also note how our black jersey begins to transition back into the line once his front wheel comes abreast of our racer in the white jersey. He’ll start his acceleration as he rounds the white jersey so as not to create a new gap.

A double pace line will have a line of racers mirrored to the side (right side in the case of the animation). The only difference is that the lead riders pull-off in opposite directions (outboard), and then soft-pedal to transition after the last pair of riders.

Should there be a change in wind direction, the lead rider must ensure that the riders behind know about it. A change in pull-off direction then takes place and the rotation continues. Abruptly changing the pull-off direction can lead to an accident as the #2 riders crashes into the former leader. Also, as the wind direction changes towards full sideways, the trailing riders will angle-off to the downwind side of the lead rider.

Everyone decides what their own duration will be. There’s no standard that says otherwise. Obviously, things like a strong headwind or your remaining strength reserve must be considered. Remember, racing is also about energy management. Above all, try to keep the speed and transitions smooth otherwise the group’s rhythm will be thrown off.

On the other hand, sabotaging a pace line is easy; just cause interruptions. Introduce a gap or an inefficient pull-off, all of these buckle the harmony of a working pace line. Beware though, you create bad feelings when you do this. Be prepared for the backlash. Is a particular rider putting the hurt to you? The best solution is to position yourself one-rider away from that guy both front and back. If the tempo of the pace line is too much you may choose to sit-in. You’ll have to wave the transitioning rider into your place though. Again, this part isn’t cooperation but self-preservation. It won’t be looked upon favorably. Additionally, you risk getting dropped if the group decides to shell you off the back.

Whew. This post is already long. In Part 2 we’ll conclude pace line fundamentals with the echelon. Stay tuned.




4 responses

7 01 2011
Spokane Al

Now I understand even better why Lance Armstrong would ride legs of the Tour de France over and over and over to cement the lay of the land in his mind months before the race.

Your reference to John Boyd and his OODA loop decision cycle was a good one. Your reference to its application to biking racing as well as it’s applicability to a number of other situations outside of fighter pilot tactics is interesting. If you have not read his biography, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War [Paperback] – – I highly recommend it.

7 01 2011
Eric Abbott

Hello Al,
I did read that edition! (I recognized the cover.) My comment about horsepower came from my high school days shortly after meeting some of the local motocross kids in the area. When I heard of Eddie Sanchez I wondered, “What makes him such a hot shot?” After I rode with him I knew. I was on a 175cc bike, he was on an 80cc bike…and there was no way I could catch him. (The only way was the straight-away drag which was rare in our riding area.)

Yeah, you got to do the pre-race recon. You got to think about the course and the competition. These are some of the reasons I love road-racing so much.


8 01 2011
World Spinner

Cycling Tactics: “All the Horsepower in the World Will not Help ……

Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

30 01 2011
Eric Abbott

Glad you liked the article!

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