Cycling Tactics: “All the Horsepower in the World Will not Help You” Part 4

12 02 2011

Part 3

The Sprint

Or more specifically, being in the right place at the right time in the last 200m of the course, involves many factors. You may have teammates working with you, or you may be working for the designated sprinter on your team. Either way, it’s hard work coupled with a good sense of timing. In this post I’ll refer to material from Serious Cycling, The Lance Armstrong Performance Program, and Racing Tactics for Cyclists.

One factor initially determine the skills of a sprinter, and that is the preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibers. This is a genetic trait. Some of us have it, and some of us don’t. But that’s not the only indicator, learned skill is the other factor, and according to Burke, it is often the deciding one.

There are some guidelines to use in the organized chaos that we call bunch sprinting. As the pack approaches closer to the finish, 5k, 1k, and 200m, their group behavior will change. Teams will try to organize to put their sprinter at the 150m-200m mark ready and clear to make his charge to the line. This process is usually called a lead-out. Basically, teams that are organized orient themselves in a single pace line. Their sprinter will be second from the back of the line. Their sweeper will be last. The sweeper’s job is to keep the opposing teams men from drafting-off the sprinter. Depending on how far out the pace line is from the finish, the lead men will either rotate through or pull as hard as they can for a distance and then fade-off. The idea is to keep the speed high enough to discourage other attacks while at the same time conserving the energy of the sprinter. It’s not a good idea to start the lead-out too early…you’ve got to have something left for the finish. Don’t ask me how I know this.

As the train draws closer to the 200m mark or so, the sprinter will start to drive the last lead-out man. The sprinter is in the best position to see what the other teams are doing. If another team tries to surge past, the sprinter can “steer” his lead and reduce the amount of open road in front of the other group. If his timing’s right, the sprinter can shut the other team down and make his bid for the line at the same time his lead transitions off. Team trains often drag-race each other to the finish line. If someone gets nervous and makes a bad move, things can go bad in a hurry. During the Chapman Lake race last season, I was in the middle of the pack front when a rider about two places ahead got sideways. The next five seconds saw about twelve racers go down in a blur of bikes and bodies. All I remember is going over the bars and waking up on the side of the road.

Lead-outs sound great in a perfect world right? I mentioned situational awareness in a previous post. Trying to manage your own energy state (or lack thereof), the positions and energy states of your competitors, and the course layout can be daunting. But we’re paying money to do this right? So we’re having fun. If it’s uphill or windy, delay your jump, likewise, if it’s downhill or a tailwind is blowing, make your move earlier since the sprint will be faster.

But what if you’re the only guy from your team near the front? Here’s where we have to pay even more attention. There are a few types of racers at the front near the finish of a course: those who are struggling and just want to finish, those who won’t contest the sprint because they believe they can’t do it, and those who are strong and willing enough to lay it on the line. Our solo, thinking racer will identify the fast guy and position themselves for the draft. He’ll likely have selected the right gearing too. The idea is to be in a gear that allows you quickly jump and shift-up as you accelerate. If you can’t grab the fast guy’s wheel, stay near the front but on someone else’s wheel. At the right time, if the racer in front of you turns his head to look back, attack on the opposite side…his realization may open enough of a gap to give you the advantage. Let’s say though that the pack gets nervous and picks-up speed early, as each surge passes you might have to jump to a wheel a number of times. The dicey part is everyone else will be doing the same thing in an effort to get to a good position.

“If you’re leading, save a double-kick to foil a drafter behind you. As he steers to either side to make his move, tap that second-to-last kick to expose him to less draft and more headwind. If you’re outside the 200m mark, you can also use the road/lane width to make his drafting less efficient.” It may be enough drag to drain any sprint from him.

There’s a lot happening near the finish line of a race, just remember that the race isn’t over until the finish line is crossed. The next time you watch a recorded racing video, count how many times the lead changes in the last 100m. You might be surprised at the count. I’ll summarize with Thomas Prehn’s review:

  • There has to be at least one person to lead-out the sprinter
  • The final lead-out person has to drop off the sprinter at 150m-200m to the finish line.
  • In a pace line lead-out save enough energy to get back into the pace line.
  • Watch for “waves” that could get you or your teammate boxed in.
  • The sprinter directs the lead-out

I should mention the skill of throwing your bike at the line since it is a technique that wins countless races. However, in order to do this you have to get to the finish line to execute it, which was the whole purpose of the above. I’ll save this topic for another post.

Keep the rubber-side down.


Cycling Tactics: “All the Horsepower in the World Will not Help You” Part 3

22 01 2011

Part 2

The Breakaway

In every race and on any course at least one thought will enter every racer’s mind: where will the winning breakaway take place and under what circumstances? In this post I’ll discuss what I’ve learned from Thomas Prehn and Edmund R. Burke, authors of Racing Tactics for Cyclists and Serious Cycling.

Road racing is partly about energy management, and part of that management is timing. Another part is situational awareness. In the previous posts I mentioned “reading the race.” When known strong riders or a particular teams strong riders start to position themselves near the front, it’s time to take notice. Sooner or later one of these riders will jump. This will happen at a place that tactically makes sense, like the top of a hill, a turn in the road, a bottleneck, or anywhere where it would be difficult for the pack to maneuver or negotiate.

Burke wrote this statement that made sense to me, “It is said that the doubling of speed requires a fourfold increase in energy expenditure.” One must be careful on where and when to burn a match.

There’s a curious effect when a column of racers are in motion, and I have no doubt that you’ve experienced this effect. I can liken it to an accordions motion. When that lead racer jumps there is a split second of pause as the second in line decides and acts remember situational awareness—and decision cycles that I mentioned earlier? By the time that decision cycle has progressed back to you, at the fifth position; a gap or gaps may have opened. Or has it?

The situationally-aware racer will anticipate the leaders jump and accelerate simultaneously. We all know that during a race there are numerous jumps, attacks, or surges. All these accelerations add up, all these accelerations will drain your energy reserves. The trick is knowing which one to go with, and which ones are done just to wear-down the pack or done for other reasons. I remember during one road race a competing team’s rider was sent to the front to attack. I had properly guessed that he was there just to string the pack out and wear us down. We had many miles to go and a breakaway at this point just didn’t make sense. He was certainly a tractor and he stretched the pack out. Those of us that knew what was going on just sat in for the free draft.

There are some occasions and locations on when to anticipate the jump leading to a viable breakaway. Above I mentioned when key racers amass at the front, other situations are:

  • When you are approaching a hill or other significant terrain feature;
  • When a prime is announced as breakaways will occur by those who conserved their energy by not contesting the prime;
  • When there are crosswinds. Especially when those crosswinds will involve the formation of crosswind echelon.
  • When there are sharp turns in the road like an intersection. Racers usually slow down to negotiate the apex. Other racers know this which is why they usually stomp on it after rolling-through.

One question that should come to mind when key riders mass at the front is: who is likely to work together when a breakaway forms? If the answer is “most of them,” it would be a good idea to be involved in that breakaway because they’re probably going to be serious about exploiting a gap from the pack. A related question is if this breakaway happens, do the riders have teammates in the pack who will block for them? If so, this will assist the breakaway in its escape. If not, a motivated pack will soon neutralize the break by working together.

Whether you’re in the break or supporting a teammate in the break up the road, another factor to be aware of is split-time. Split-time is the time difference between the last rider of the break and the first rider of the chasing pack. In a criterium, this will be a sum of seconds. For example, 15 seconds is a tactical advantage and can be tough to nullify. In a road race the equivalent gap might be more like 45 seconds to a number of minutes. Here’s the issue: the split-time will either increase or decrease depending on the dynamics of the race. If your buddy is in the break and split-time is decreasing, you might want to start blocking in order to protect his escape. If the split-time remains the same or is increasing, you might not want to draw attention to the increasing gap by blocking. Additionally, blocking consumes energy, and can create hostility, but that is the subject of a different post.

Gaining reliable measures of split-time can be challenging. If you have line-of-sight, you can use your cyclometer, watch, or other instrumentation to reliably measure the gap. If radios are allowed in your race, your team director might relay it. Relying on spectators’ information isn’t recommended as you don’t know the quality of data; and I wouldn’t recommend basing decisions on it.

In the end, the road race is a dynamic situation, “…don’t calculate too much. You must be able to react and employ the tactics quickly when necessary.”

That’s it for basic breakaways. In Part 4 I’ll talk a bit about sprinting.

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.

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