Having a good understanding of the course you are about to race can give you a competitive advantage that other riders don’t have. What are things you should consider?
• The Drive - Something as simple driving to the course can be useful. Map the route similar to the drive on race day. Time how long it actually takes to get there, as this will allow you to plan the morning of the race and eliminate the possibility of being late. Arriving with plenty of time to register, dress, warm-up and go though your pre-race routine is something we all take for granted. This will be at least one step that helps to ensure that happens.
• Warm up locations and the start - Scout out the start area and warm up locations. This can be more important than you may first realize. I remember back in 1990, USA Cycling had the Master’s Nationals time trial in Tijuana, Mexico (why, I am still unsure.) Of course, I couldn’t easily check out the course prior to race day unless I wanted to go through the hassle of crossing the border. When I got there, they stuck us in this bullring area and forced us to warm up in a parking lot that was littered with more broken glass than I have ever seen in my life. Needless to say, if I could have known that, I would have gone to great efforts to take a trainer! Of course, this circumstance won’t happen very often, but just having a sense of the warm-up area, relative to where the start of the race occurs will give you peace of mind as you arrive at the race.
• Lines of sight – As you begin your trek around the course, look for lines of sight, both looking forward and behind you. Where would be a good location to attack and get out of sight quickly? Where are good points to look back and be able to see chase groups? As an example, I use a situation that recently happened at one of our local races. A rider had been dropped by the main group and was chasing hard to make contact. After 5 minutes or so, he made it back and then to his surprise, another group of about 5 joined them just a couple minutes later. What the single rider neglected to do was take the opportunity at a key time to look back across an open valley to see that the larger group behind him looked organized and was chasing hard. At that particular moment, he could have made a decision to wait (but still ride) or give it his all to chase the main group down by himself. By realizing he had an open line of sight back to the chasing group of riders and seeing how they were formed (working a paceline), versus being an unorganized group, he should have played the percentages and waited and used less energy, which he needed later. It’s a calculated risk, but one important to recognize.
• Key locations – In general, I like to identify key locations on the course where a rider might select to use energy and other locations where you would conserve it. For example, a small hill that is followed by a straight downhill and straight flat section would not be a good place to attack using energy. Attacking a group there will just allow the field to chase you down after a hard effort because it is difficult to get out of sight. On the flip side. If a twisty road follows the same hill where lines are sight are shorter, this may be a perfect location to launch that attack. In this case the smart rider is thinking ahead.
• The Hills - Check the lengths and times of all climbs on the course. Also check the wattages you may produce at different intensity levels. This really helps when understanding what kinds of efforts the race will require.
• Wind direction – Always important and should never be underestimated. Understanding wind directions can be vital in this or any race situations. Especially look for changes in wind directions as they relate to corners on the course.
• Road conditions – Once you are racing there really isn’t much you can do about the road surface, but being prepared and knowing can be beneficial. Are there any major potholes, gravel, or dirt sections that would require you to position yourself better as they are approached? And are the dirt sections better in different areas of the road?
• Markers – Pick out markers all over the course you can use to help you remember certain key points during the race. This is particularly important as you approach the finish line. I’ve had athletes who neglected this detail and were in a position to do well at the race if only they’d known when the line was coming up. Also measure distances around the course. For example, how far is the finish line after the last descent or marker you have established?
• Check out the finish – Think positive, you or your team will compete for the win, so talk about the run up to the finish line and examine it a few times. If you are there with your team, you might want to simulate the last 5 miles of the race together.
• The team thing - Most of the time, you will be racing with your team. So, it’s a good idea to try to arrange to do this reconnaissance together. The more people looking at the same course and its nuances will offer more valuable information for all to learn and apply.
Computers are a great tool to explore a course with maps, profiles, and Google Earth available, but nothing substitutes a trip to the course itself. The same goes for teammates or friends telling you about their experiences on the course. It’s just not the same as firsthand knowledge. Make that extra effort to get there. After you then experience the course, what characteristics you discuss with others about the course will then make more sense.
Hopefully this article will give you a better understanding of what types of things you are looking for to give you that all important competitive advantage.
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.