Racing: a few basics

Racing bikes is a very complex, chaotic activity, and for a lot of people getting into it, it’s hard to know what to do and how to do it in order to make the most of their fitness and to try to get the best results. I’ve raced for years, and all along the way I’ve continued to learn things about racing strategy and tactics, and could continue to do so for years to come. Even watching pro races in Europe, where people’s careers are in the balance, you’ll see people riding very smart races, taking risks and coming out with big wins, but you’ll also see people making blunders and losing races even with years of experience under their belt.

Here’s a rundown of things that I think are worth considering for people getting into racing or for people who don’t feel that they have a good handle on racing strategy and tactics. That’s not to say that everything I have here is necessarily right for every circumstance or right for you, but these are just some basic guidelines that I think are right for most people, most of the time. At the very least, this should be a good starting point for a lot of people who are starting out or have room to improve their basic skillset.

  • First and foremost, good racing requires good training. Training should be progressive, challenging, and specific. It should be hard enough that you’re fatigued after tough workouts, but manageable on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis so that your body can adapt to the training and get progressively stronger as you rack up more and more workouts. You can’t really do the same workouts at the same intensity week in and week out and expect to get better. Likewise, whatever kind of training you do is the kind of racing that you’ll be good at, so remember what racing you want to do well at, what your strengths are, and consider what you should be working on to maximize your chances of success at those goal events.
  • Before and during your races, consider the course, the conditions, and your competition. You could try to simplify and remember “the three C’s” or something like that. If you think about it, racing comes down almost entirely to these three things. The course determines when and where you’ll have to go hard to get up a climb, where the field will get strung out through a bunch of turns or a fast descent, where the wind may split the field, etc. The weather and other conditions can make a huge impact on a race. Heat, wind, rain, and other conditions can make a world of difference how a race is won or lost. And, of course, your competition’s strengths, strategies, and tactics will have a big impact on how the race unfolds. Ideally, before any race, it’s good if you can take a few minutes to think to yourself or talk with your teammates about the course profile, where the climbs are, what the weather will be like, whether it’s windy or not and if so where the wind will affect the race, and the competition. Be aware of when and where you need to be in position, where you need to be ready to go hard to get through a crosswind section or over a climb, think about when to eat and drink or get water. Also think about who you’re racing and what you think they may do and how you think you should respond. You may not win a race by doing this, but you can often avoid pitfalls that will definitely lose you the race if you’re caught off-guard by a crosswind or drift back to eat right before a decisive climb.
  • Save energy for when it matters. Don’t be afraid to use up your energy when it does matter. The ability to tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t is the hallmark of a good racer, but you can learn this skill if you just pay attention and reflect on race situations after they’ve happened. In general, whenever you can save energy, you should do it. A lot of people have the ability to sprint well at the end or get up the hill fast on the last lap of a race, but they don’t do it because they spent too much energy getting to the final sprint or the final hill. If you can save energy, you’ll be relatively fresher than your competition and have more of your sprint or hill-climbing power intact when it really matters at the end. As a corollary to that, never be afraid to act and use energy when it matters. If the field is going to split on a climb or through a few miles of crosswind, then you should position yourself and go as hard as you need to go to be in the frontmost group on the road that you can. Don’t hesitate and don’t waste energy doing half-hearted efforts. Do whatever you need to do to make it over the hill or through the crosswind. You may feel like you’re not going to be any good, but you never know how badly everyone else is feeling, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. You just need to do what you need to do to still be in contention for getting the best result that you or your team can achieve. If a split is happening and you don’t think the field will come together again, then it’s better to be blown and struggling momentarily in the front group than to be comfortable in the second group. The front group will likely slow down, or at the very least, you can hold on and try to recover and save energy while staying in the draft of the other riders in that split. If you get dropped, then so be it. If you’re in the second or third group, but you feel comfortable, then what good does it do you to be there, because you have no chance of winning or getting that top 5 or top 10 that maybe you were shooting for, because there’s 10 riders up the road in that front group.
  • Pedal less, brake less. Any time you’re pedaling, you’re using energy. Every time you’re braking, you’re giving up forward momentum. Don’t ride your bike without looking up the road. The more you can read the movements of the field and the course, the more you can save a few pedal strokes here and there and the more you can avoid using your brakes, all the while, you’ll be saving some small amounts of energy that will help you be slightly fresher towards the end of the race than your competition. Of course, sometimes you really need to be pedaling hard and sometimes you need to slam on your brakes, so be ready for that, and more than anything, try to be safe for your own sake and for the sake of everyone around you. Just don’t sprint after everything that moves or brake any time you see a turn up the road or someone slowing down in front of you. If someone attacks and you want to go with them, then maybe you should sprint to get on their wheel, or many times you can just wait for a moment or two and hop on the rider next to you who’s thinking the same thing. When they sprint, you can do just 2/3 the effort and get a draft and essentially a free ride up the road. Or, if someone’s slowing in front of you, look to see if there’s a safe way around them up the road. Sometimes it’s easy to move up if you just anticipate field movements as the road curves or goes uphill.
  • Play off of other people and use their energy to your advantage. Get a draft whenever you can. If you want to move up, look for someone else who’s putting in the effort and see if you can safely get on their wheel to draft your way up to where you want to be. If people are attacking and counter-attacking like crazy, and you know that the speed can’t be maintained, then just sit back and relax, follow wheels and save your energy by not accelerating any more than you need to. Do the least amount of work possible, but also watch and be ready for when people tire and maybe the break actually goes off the front, or watch for when that late race flyer will actually work because people are tired or inattentive.
  • Collectively as a team, use your energy efficiently to improve your chances to perform well as a team. Sometimes that means that some riders cover the early moves in a race, but are likely not going to factor into the late stages of the race. Or, it may be that some riders work to chase back a break, while others save themselves for a sprint or late race attack up the climb. Likewise, look at the other teams and pay attention to the race situation, so that you can take advantage of the energy that they may decide to or be forced to use. If another team has to chase down a break, or close a gap, or they’re riding the front because they have the best sprinter, then don’t waste your energy or the energy of your team when you don’t have to. Let other people do the work. Again, the aim is to do what you need to do, but save as much energy for later in the race as possible. Many races are won or lost because of how much energy people did or didn’t use in the middle of the race.
  • Try not to lose, instead of trying frantically, and wastefully to win. I definitely don’t mean that you should race negatively, and by all means, I love to race aggressively. But, when you’re racing, just think about things for a second. Ask yourself if what you’re doing will increase or decrease your chances of getting a good result. If you’re decreasing your chances of doing well, then why are you doing it? Or as a team, are you working to increase the team’s chances of doing well or are you just wasting energy? Are you riding the front? Are you attacking to try to initiate a break-away? Are you chasing down a move that your team didn’t make? Are you riding hard to stay on the front going up a climb? This may be worth while, or it may be a total waste of energy and you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Late in the race when things actually matter, you could be too tired to do what you need to do to get the result you’re hoping for.
    • Riding the front is almost never a good idea, unless your team is chasing with good reason. Maybe people are soft-pedaling and you’re literally rolling along without pedaling, but that’ll only last for a moment. Otherwise, you should really only be at the front when you’re chasing for your team, alternating pulls in a break-away, setting up for a crosswind or descent where you think you need to be at the front. The rest of the time, try to stay off the front, or if you’re there, pull off safely and drift backwards.
    • Are you attacking because the early break-away hasn’t formed yet? Are you bored? Well, if you really know that you’re capable of riding away from the field or think that the course is tough enough, the wind isn’t a factor, and your best chance is to be in the break, then maybe it’s fine. In general, the early break usually doesn’t win the race and if you’re in the early break only to be caught later, you’re likely not going to be a factor in the race finale. Just follow wheels when someone else attacks if you want to be in the early break. And, only go into the break if you know it has a good chance of success. Most racing is about probability. If the early break has a 2% chance of success, then do you really want to take your chances there? Or would you rather wait and see what you can do as the field breaks apart later in the race?
    • Climbs are another classic place where people can go too hard. In general, going over most climbs that last more than a few minutes, you do want to make sure you’re in the front third of the field so that any splits that may occur won’t take you out of contenton for a good result. That being said, not every climb is that way, and it will benefit you to discern the difference. Sometimes a climb is just a climb and everyone will get over it easily and the peloton will stay together, in which case, do as little work as possible to get over the climb in a position that will be advantageous after the climb. If you want to be near the front after the climb, then ride near the front. If you don’t need to be at the front after the climb, then don’t worry about it and consider saving some energy by going just 5 or 10% easier up the climb than a lot of other people. This is often how things can work on a course with a lot of small climbs. Every time there’s a little rise, at least a third of the field goes full-gas up it. Why?! There’s no upside (because the field is still together, nobody got dropped) and only downside (lost energy). After a little while of that, people can’t go so hard. But, if you just get up the climbs and down as efficiently and comfortably as possible, making sure not to get dropped, but also making sure to give up a few spots on every climb, just to regain them on the way to the next climb, then you may be way fresher than your competition when it comes to the last ¼ of the race when all it takes is a few riders who aren’t blown-up by then to attack and ride away from the field for the win.
  • Make a plan, but be flexible. If you don’t have a plan at all, then you may make a lot of random efforts that may or may not increase your chances of success, and in all likelihood will just reduce your energy stores for later in the race, and with it your chances of finishing well. So, just think about whether you want to ride waiting for a bunch sprint, a late race flyer (if so, where?), an early break (if so, how many riders are needed?). Have a plan and make choices and commit to them. Don’t waste energy by trying to make half-measures. But, also pay attention to how the course, the conditions, and the competition make the race evolve and consider changing your strategy if it becomes evident that another team is racing with a particular strategy, then you can play off of them and use it to your advantage. Don’t blindly put your head down with total commitment to a strategy if it becomes clear it’s the wrong one for that race. If you know your strategy is pretty sound, then you have to accept the fact that ultimately you’re playing the odds. Most strategies you might employ will mean that you have good chances of doing well under certain circumstances but lesser chances if the situation unfolds differently than you plan or anticipate.
  • Focus ahead of you, not to the sides or behind. For everyone’s safety, move safely and predictably. Hold your line and don’t make sudden lateral movements. Move up when you see you have room. Watch your front wheel and be aware of anyone behind you so that you don’t take out their front wheel. Look up the road so that you can see where people are moving, who’s a good wheel to follow, and what riders are causing chaos and are to be avoided. For everyone’s safety, it’s good to look ahead, and you’re more likely to see how the race unfolds and to learn something.
  • Be patient, but don’t hesitate to act when you need to. A lot of people waste energy and make poor choices because they are impatient. When in doubt, usually it’s better to delay. Doing things at the last moment possible or reasonable is often a good strategy, whatever the tactic is at the moment. If you plan on waiting for a split to happen in the wind, or waiting for someone to attack on the climb, or waiting to try to get into the early break, you really don’t need to initiate it or try to force it to happen that way. Just wait. There’s probably somebody else thinking of doing the same thing and then you can work together. Don’t just attack because nobody else is. Don’t ride the front trying to split the field because it’s windy and nobody else is. It’ll happen soon enough, and you don’t need to waste your energy to get it done. But, if you need to get across a gap in the wind, or over a climb late in the race, don’t hesitate. Assess the situation and make a total commitment to getting the task done. Maybe you’re trying to bridge across on a climb, trying to not get dropped in the crosswind, or maybe you’re trying to lead your sprinter across to the front group in the last few km of the race. If you decide to do something, and you think it needs to happen, then do it, don’t hesitate, and fully commit to it. If you can’t do it, then you can’t do it, but if it’s really crunch time, then you either have to do it or the race is over for you or your team.
  • Feel free to make mistakes. Make a plan and act it out. Maybe it’ll work, or maybe it won’t, but you’ll learn from it either way. You’ll learn something about tactics, and you’ll learn something about your fitness, so even if you lose the race, you win.
  • Don’t forget to evaluate the race afterward. Try to remember moments in the race that were decisive. Consider where you saved energy, where you wated energy. Remember when you weere positioned poorly or well. Think about the energy cost of your actions and strategies. Don’t go through races and fail to learn because you never thought about the race after the fact. Just as a few minutes of planning before the race can help that day, a few minutes of reflection after the race can sometimes matter more for all of the races down the line because of the wisdom you gain from your experience.