In order to win, you have to really focus on the strategic and tactical side of the sport. The purpose of this article is to try to break down the bike race into understandable components and give you the specific tools to move forward and over time have a better grasp of what is going on out there. Notice I used the words “over time.”
One of my new athletes this year who just started bike racing likened it to jazz music. Jazz music is known for being “improvisational.” In other words, the musicians learn the components of the musical style and then when up on stage, performing for their audience, they basically make it up as they go along. Heck, when you think about it, pretty much a lot of life is like that. Whatever plan you make, it needs to be adjusted time and time again during the race. The key is having a good understanding of the components it takes to succeed.
So, in order to be successful in bike racing, you must first learn the essential components or ingredients it takes to be successful in bike racing, and then through experience have a better chance of success when “on stage.”
I recently had a great conversation with Mike Sayers, current assistant director for BMC and of course, a very experienced professional rider for many years about this very subject:
“I think that no bike racer should race a race without a general plan. That plan should be set before the start. I am a big proponent of having a plan and sticking to that plan and if you get beat you get beat. Basically, the better person wins. But, within that plan, you need to be able to adjust to given conditions (road, team, obstacles etc). A good bike racer looks at the entire race as it is unfolding. They are usually overly concerned with how they feel, where they are at, do they need the result etc. You have to look at the entirety of the race and how it is playing out at that moment. For example, there is a break and all but one team is represented in the break; should I try to be in it or not? First, will the team left out even put up a chase, are the teams represented happy with the riders in the break, how far to the finish, are the riders suited for a good finish if the break works?? These are just some of the questions that need to be asked and answered in a very short period of time. To answer these questions, the rider needs to know the teams and their riders and what they can do on a bike. That might take some homework before the race season. So once all those questions are addressed and the rider makes a decision on their next move, enter the break or not, a whole new set of questions come up and they all need to be answered in the same way. So the questions are never ending and figuring out the “lay of the land” within the race only ends when the race is over.
“To paraphrase, racing is like a chess match that the rider must look at from many different angles in a continual time stream from start to finish. Decisions, whether they work out or not, need to be made in a timely manner and there needs to be action. I have always felt action in a race is always better than reaction. I used to tell myself, “always move forward, in the race or in the group, and never go backwards. Nothing good happens when you go backwards”
Mike’s comments speak volumes; so let’s break down the components:
Have a plan, but…. – It sounds simple to do…and it usually is simple to make an overly general plan. Most everybody makes this type of plan. For example, a team will say that they want a rider in every break. The issue is which rider do you want in a particular break and what is the team going to do if you don’t have the right rider in that break. Let’s say one of your pure climbers makes a break on a course that suits power and sprinting capabilities, and he’s found himself in a break full of riders who are better suited to the course than he. The team should choose to bring the break back and reshuffle the deck to better their chances. In other words, it’s good to have a plan, but always be prepared to make many more decisions once the race starts. And you cannot make those decisions without communication and trust in each other.
Unfolding – I love that word, because that is what happens when successful riders can read a race “as it unfolds” and see what is going on. I remember when I first started racing and one of my friends mentioned to me that he really tries to focus on the tactics and pay primary attention what was going on versus worrying about how he feels. Mike is saying the exact same thing. Don’t worry about the result or how you feel, worry about what is going on at that particular time and what you or the team needs to do at that moment to have a better chance of victory.
Control – Identify the elements of a particular race that are in your control and out of your control. For example, you have control of knowing the race course, knowing wind and weather conditions, making sure your bike is in top notch mechanical condition and knowing who is in the race (more about this in a minute). You have control over doing homework before in terms of how the race has unfolded in past years (assuming it is an established race) and how riders have won. Results and discussions are all over the internet these days, make sure you get involved.
Know your competition – this is very obvious, but very challenging, particularly at lower levels of amateur racing, as fields are large, and there are new and different racers almost every race. Despite this challenge, it pays to be watchful both in an individual race and over the course of many races, of which individuals seem to be the stronger riders. After a short while, if you are paying attention, you will know which teams are threats, and which riders are good wheels to lead you into a sprint or to follow on a climb. At the higher levels of racing (e.g., M 35+ 1/2/3) you get to know your competition quite well over time. There, you generally know the team leaders and the domestiques, who can climb and who can sprint. Doing your homework in this way will help you when it comes to race day.
Work on your skills – Skills clinics are scheduled all over the place. Practice them time and time again. A lot of times I hear riders say they went to skills clinics but haven’t improved. My first question is “do you practice them every day or every week?” At our skills clinics, we make sure you leave with a clear list of “homework” items so you can get better and better at bike handling and gain confidence.
In summary, bike racing is really like a big “Improv.” You need to work and establish the necessary components to be successful and then through practice and repetition you can make the right decisions, which will lead to victory. It’s impossible to predict exactly what is going to happen in the bike race (like predicting weather). If you are prepared, there will be less to worry about and you can focus on the race at hand.
Ride safe, ride strong
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 9 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing thru cycling training camps, cycling coaching and performance testing. To contact AthletiCamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com or follow them Twitter Twitter.