Many pro races, whether a Classic like the Ronde over this past weekend or most stages of Grand Tours, begin in a very predictable fashion of a long “suicide” break. Most of the time, these breaks never have a chance of making it to the finish. But sometimes, as Dirk Demol will tell you after winning Roubaix in 1988, such breaks can pay off big time. In our previous article on the anatomy of a bike race, we went through the initial stages of a road race, ending it with the imminent closing down of these early breaks. Let’s continue on with how the race can unfold from here…
Scene 8: Act II
Song: Disturbia by Rhianna
The mood of the race changes as we enter Act II. Things are a little more relaxed. There are less opponents to worry about and the odds have increased that one of the remaining riders in the lead group will take the day. One way or another, the selection has been made and it’s the team leaders who are now sizing each other up. They are looking to see who their biggest threats are and what they can do to shut them down.
Erik Saunders once said something like, “Winning a bike race is all about closing doors. Some riders you can close the door on once and they won’t be able to get back through. With other riders you may have to shut the door on them repeatedly until you finally keep them out. Then there are riders who will get through that damn door no matter how many times and how hard you close it on them.”
Once the dogs are finished sniffing at each other and the new pecking order has been established, the race resumes. You’re looking at a strong group and they are highly motivated. While no one wants to show their cards or burn any matches too early, simultaneously there are 100 riders still rolling behind them and a break of five riders still up the road. The challenge group gets moving and hopefully falls into a nice pace with everyone doing their share of the work.
Scene 9: The Catch
Song: Doomsday Clock by The Smashing Pumpkins
It doesn’t take too long for this group to get up to speed and, when they do, they are really moving. The finish line is still far enough away that no one is afraid to stick their nose in the wind. Chances are one or two teams will have multiple riders in this group. In some cases, these teams will be expected to do a little extra work because of the advantage they have. In other cases (such as when a GC rider is on one of these teams) the captain will do his work and also a portion of the work of his team leader in order to keep him rested. In this group there are also teammates of the riders in the break. These riders are completely excused from doing any work. Even though their teammates in the break are now visible up the road and will be caught at any moment, they will not face the wind even once until the catch is made.
With the break in shouting distance, you might expect the group to get hungry and ramp up the speed. In fact, the opposite is true. With 20 or so miles to go before the finish, catching the break only leads to more uncertainty and more chances for an opportunist to pull one over on the teams. The status quo must be maintained for as long as possible, especially now that there is no question that the break will eventually be caught. The pace begins to even out, but it’s been a long day and the break is getting tired. Slowly, painfully, agonizingly, the break is caught.
Scene 10: The Counter
Song: Not Time Soon by Gnarls Barkley
Remember what I said about the status quo? With the break swallowed up, the race is blown to bits and it’s now anybody’s game. Just like in the beginning of the race, the attacks begin; however, now there is much more at stake. One of the guys who gets away in this final group is going to come across the finish line with his hands in the air.
One rider attacks and gets a good gap. Everyone looks around at each other. Another rider jumps and bridges across. Now there are two strong riders five seconds up the road. The pack looks around at each other to see who will take the bait. Suddenly a third rider gives it a go. This time the pack responds and the third potential breakaway rider unwittingly brings the entire group across to the break.
Without even a pause, the next attack goes. The two riders who just got caught struggle to make it back into the fold. The rider who chased goes off the back. This drama unfolds several more times. Finally something sticks. There’s no way to predict the exact composite of the group. Aside from the luck, skill and fitness it takes to get to this point, it will most likely be several strong riders who know each other, who have proven themselves in the past and are branded as racers who will work all the way down to the wire to make sure a break succeeds.
If those criteria are not met, one or more of the riders in the break will simply sit up and drift to the back. With that dead weight dragged behind, the break will surely crumble with a kilometer. But if the right chemistry is achieved they are gone, baby, gone.
Something they never show on TV is the group of 30 who miss the break. Since they’re not on the screen, it is easy to assume they’ve jumped into their team cars where donuts and coffee are waiting for them. But these guys never stop working. Often, they bust their butts in a futile chase for 40 kilometers and finish less than a minute behind the winners. Alas, the television station has already taken us to commercial and we never get to see that halfhearted sprint for the remaining top 10 places.
Scene 11: Rolling
Song: Funky Music by Utah Saints
Although the viewer at home doesn’t know that there are 30 riders still in this race, hungry to steal the victory, our guys in the break certainly do and they are busting their butts. For the racers in the break, their frame of mind is a little different now than the tempo sections of the race earlier on. Although the pace is the same and the riders are tired, the suffering doesn’t seem quite as bad. Sure it hurts, but before the motivation was defensive, working hard to keep someone else from winning the race. Now, the motivation is offensive. The motivation is winning and everyone wants a piece
Scene 12: The Final Shuffle
Song: 20 Dollar by MIA
We’ve got a lead break of six racers barreling towards the end. Something like a mountain top finish or a stiff tailwind could throw off this formula, but as we enter the final moments, we’ll assume it’s a flat to rolling technical finish. A real classic.
Although there is no way of predicting the exact dynamics of this group, there are some constants. Rider A is a better sprinter than the others and would prefer the race to come down to a fast flat group finish. Rider B is a better time trialist than the others and would like to get away on his own. Rider C knows he won’t win in a sprint and wouldn’t be able to stay away solo so he has to be very crafty and look for a hole or a window to jump through when no one else is looking. The other three riders fall somewhere along this spectrum.
As a result, a whole new whirlwind of action begins. The sprinter does only what is absolutely necessary to keep the group together while staying out of the wind as much as possible. The time trial expert launches numerous attacks on the hardest sections of the road hoping his sheer power will force a separation. Everyone else maneuvers to use the movements of the other riders to their own advantage. Like in Judo, they must use the momentum of their opponents against them. Rarely does one wins by sheer strength at this level, even though to the untrained eye it might seem that way.
Since any of the above eventualities are possible at this point, we’ll go with the most interesting one which is that a series of highly calculated attacks and counter attacks spits out a few unlucky riders who took their shot at glory and were rebuked, leaving a group of three riding under the red flag together with nothing separating them from enduring glory but a long empty stretch of road.
Tommy Nelson (Liquid Fitness/Adageo Energy) can barely lift his arms after outsprinting Ben Day (Fly V Australia) to win stage two of the Southern Nevada Stage Race.
Scene 13: The Sprint
Song: Hang Me Up to Dry by The Cold War Kids
Some might think this would the most exciting part of the race and, I guess, in some ways it is. What we see are three talented riders, toe to toe, head to head, giving everything they have in their body and their soul to be the first one to cross a skinny white line taped on the road. The behind the scenes details of the struggle that played out over five brutal hours in the saddle, however, will actually determine the day’s winner. In some ways the race has already been decided.
Imagine if a bicycle race was scored like a round of golf. A point would be given for every gap that had to be made, every unsuccessful attack, every chase after a flat and every moment spent out in the wind. Then instead of a sprint, the rider with the lowest score would automatically be declared the winner. It sounds crazy and it certainly wouldn’t be as exciting to watch but, more often than not, the result would be the same.
Scene 14: The Victory Lap
Song: In My Heart by Moby
Nothing in the world compares to winning. However, although every team wants to see their jersey on the podium, there are a lot of ways to measure success. If the team rode as well as they could, stuck to the team strategy and did their jobs, then it’s tough to feel bad about a good hard day’s work. Whether the victory lap is a roll around the Champs Elysees or a quiet crawl back to the team hotel, this is a chance for the teams and the individuals to reflect on what went right, what went wrong and what they could do better next time.
So there it is, the basic script for a bike race at the elite levels. What can we take from it as amateurs and enthusiasts of the sport?
• Team work is truly the name of the game. Even if an individual rider may be incredibly fit and strong, it is rare that they are strong enough to overcome a committed team of riders. Sure, Quick-Step is full of superstar riders in their own right, but their teamwork is the reason why Lefevre’s squads have dominated the Ronde and Roubaix the past 15 years back to the Mapei days. So do what it takes to build a strong team at any level of the sport.
• If you are a solo rider, then learning how to understand race dynamics can help you to tag along and be at the right place at the right time. Phillipe Gilbert in his FDJ years was a classic example of a strong rider on a relatively weak squad, winning classics from Het Volk through to Paris-Tours because he understood how to benefit from the racing script and the work of other teams.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com.