Over the years, my thoughts and perspective on racing has evolved significantly. The ways in which I frame the task of racing to win or get results has changed as I have raced more and more and tried to learn a lot from those experiences.
Very briefly, I’ll summarize by giving a few basic guidelines or heuristics I would consider using in most any race situation:
- Do the least amount of work possible to accomplish the immediate goal.
- Don’t hold back from doing the necessary work to accomplish your goal.
- Take calculated risks. In order to win, you can’t be too afraid of losing.
- Minimize potential downside. Try to steer away from losing scenarios.
- Be Stoic and limit any emotional, irrational choices, they often lead to wasted energy and losing scenarios.
- Watch more than you act, but when you act, do so decisively. Half-measures often lose races.
Really, there’s a million ways that any race could go, and a number of ways that you can approach them. Just as with anything, there can be different ways of viewing the same situation or problem, and there can be different successful ways of addressing that situation or solving that problem. But, it’s good to find a way of framing the situation so that you can see possible solutions that have the potential to work for you. So, the rules above are not necessarily the only or best ways of looking at things, but they are general principles that I’ve found to be pretty effective for me in bike racing. And, as with many things, what can help you to be effective at training for endurance sports or successful at sporting competition often carries over into other spheres of activity. Without getting too far afield of training and racing topics, I think that this is one of the things that I value about bike racing is that it has the potential to teach lessons and skills that can benefit us away from the bike as well.
Going into a little more detail on these points:
- It is obvious that you should do the least amount of work possible throughout any given race, so that when it matters, you will be fresher and have more energy. Sometimes you need to get to the front of the race to avoid yo-yoing at the back of the pack or to be in position for a climb or technical part of the course. Or, maybe you see a breakaway forming that you recognize is one that you need to be in, but somehow you missed it and want to either shut it down or get across to it. Instead of attacking to get across as soon as you have an opening [like many people do] or putting your head down and blowing yourself up right away trying to chase it back [also something very common], just wait for two seconds and look for opportunities to accomplish that goal with the least amount of energy that you can manage.
In this example, if you wait for the right spot on the course, you may have a much easier time attacking and bridging across. Even if the gap is bigger in 3 minutes’ time, but there’s a good hill that’s sufficiently long for the bridge effort, then you can just relax, focus, hold off, and then go at the right moment. Or if you want to have the field re-group and not let that breakaway get away, then you could wait to see if someone else is also anxious about it. You may not have to chase at all. Or, maybe you have a teammate or a couple of friends that can help chase it back. Or, if you’re all on your own, then consider when and how to most effectively shut down the breakaway.
I’ve been in a lot of races over the years without any teammates where I was one of the riders other people would play off of, because I was one of the stronger riders in the field, and rightly so. It made it harder for me to win, but it was great fun, a great challenge, and made me learn a lot over the years. Keep in mind that I’m a strong climber and time-trialist… My two favorite tactics for shutting down a break that I didn’t like, assuming that I didn’t want to try to bridge across to it was 1) just put my head down and pull it most of the way back as soon as I saw a good opening. This was only made better if it was on a hill or in a cross-wind, because then my effort would help everyone get to the break, but it would hurt their legs as well as my own. Or 2) jump hard, but not too hard, to make a bridging effort, but not one that I really cared about. Whenever someone attacks in a race, people take notice, and almost always someone will respond, especially if people are on edge about seeing a breakaway forming and riding away from the field. So, if I want a break to come back and it has 10 or 15 seconds, I might try to float back to 10th wheel and then wind-up at 80% effort to jump off the front of the field and get 2/3 of the way across the gap. If you do this right, then someone else will get on your wheel and 3 or 4 other people will get antsy and chase after you. Before you know it, you’re most of the way across the gap with the field scrambling to catch you and regroup, but at that point, the breakaway is barely ahead of the field, which has a lot of extra momentum. At this point the field will regroup as the break sits-up, someone else in the field assumes the chase, or a few other guys see their opportunity and jump to the break, closing the gap.
Those are just examples, but hopefully you get the idea. There’s often more than one way to get what you want, and you just have to look for the easiest one.
- Many people realize how important it is to be efficient and save energy while racing bikes, but this leads to a lot of racers being too complacent, too often assuming that other people will do the necessary work. Sure, it’s smart to let other racers do your work for you, but when people become too passive and only race negatively, it doesn’t make for fun, exciting, dynamic racing, and those riders who do absolutely nothing until the finishing sprint or climb usually don’t get the best results. Rather, always look for the decisive moments or situations in every race and be ready for them, willing to put in the work required to make it. Sometimes you need to dig deep to get over a climb, make it across a gap, or make a split in the wind, but you need to be willing to bury yourself if and when it’s necessary. This is a part of why cycling is such a great sport. You win races by being smart but also by being willing to turn yourself inside out if and when you need to. Sometimes these moments are predictable, because the course has a hill on it that you know will get harder every lap until the last lap or two it will shatter the field, or because there’s a strong wind and half-way through the road race there’s an extended stretch of crosswinds where the field will break apart. Be ready for those predictable moments. Also watch and pay attention to what the field is doing. Sometimes there are unpredictable moments when you may have to put in a lot of work to make things happen. Often these are the moments where that work may not pay off with anything but fatigue, but they may allow you to win or get on the podium where if you hadn’t acted, you would have had no chance of finishing well.
- Racing to win has to be proactive and not just passive or reactive. Sure, you can get top 10 results or even top 5s and occasional podium spots, but in order to win you have to either be stronger than everyone else [usually not the case] or you have to make a decision or series of decisions to put yourself out there and invest in pushing a position that may win or lose you the race, but at least you have a shot at winning, whereas if you sat back, you would never win it. This isn’t license to just put your head down and hope for the Hail-Mary solo move from 10 miles out. Yes, these suicide moves can work, but usually they don’t. Rather, look for the moment of weakness in your competitors or look for where the race course will be hardest or suit you best. Look for hesitation, inattentiveness, or complacency. When you think the odds might be in your favor, and you think you might have the legs for it, you just have to go for it if you want to make things happen. There are many instances in which this won’t work out. You may waste a lot of energy, but if you’re smart and stubborn, you may still win it if you keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself give up. Sometimes you may lose the race, but if you had never done anything in the first place, you would never have at least had the chance of winning. You will lose most of the races you start, but if you keep at it, keep training, keep learning, and putting in your best effort, you may well get on the podium or win. [Again, something that applies to other activities throughout our lives.]
- Over the years, I think that I started being less anxious about winning or losing, and that freed me up to go for it more freely when I did in fact go all-in. It also meant that I could often take more of a step back and observe, look for opportunity, and try to take advantage of situations that presented themselves. I’ve always been an aggressive racer and more often than not was one of the people forcing the race to go a certain way, but the better I got at racing, the more I think that I wasn’t looking for ways to win and trying to force that to happen so much as I was looking for the ways in which I was likely to lose the race and try to avoid those scenarios. There’s many ways to win a race and you can’t necessarily know until it’s done which way is going to be the right day at that particular race. But, there are a lot of ways to lose a race and those are often much more predictable. Doing a ton of effort for little or no reason, putting a lot of energy into a tactic or strategy with little chance of success, or missing the key move are all things that greatly increase your chances of getting a poor result… On the starting line of any race, there are a lot of people that could potentially win the race if the circumstances are right for them, but by the end of the race there are usually only a few riders who still have a chance. Between the start and the finish, the potential winners usually avoided falling into losing situations, whereas the people who are no longer fully in the race are the ones that put their efforts into the wrong moves, the wrong tactics, missed the big moves, or wasted energy making up for blunders. If you can minimize all of the scenarios that you see as working against you, then you will slowly but surely home in on an end-race scenario that has better chances of a good result than when you started the race. But, of course, realize that you can’t control the race. You can be proactive and help shape it, but never see a loss as a failure. Losses just show you yet another way that a race can go and you can look back on it to see where you might have done things differently to get a better result. [This is no doubt true elsewhere in life. You have to see failures as learning experiences. Anybody that does anything interesting or exceptional in life no doubt sees a lot of failures, shortcomings, or detours before they see success. You just have to learn and keep going.]
- Emotions are great, or can be. They make things interesting and if we didn’t have them, we literally couldn’t enjoy anything in life. But, it also exposes us to pain and fear… We have to be aware of these things and keep them in check when we make decisions racing. A lot of mistakes are made because people are anxious in races, angry, or question themselves and lack confidence. Sometimes people are afraid of losing or afraid of pain. Much of the time, the self-talk people may engage in or the anger, doubts, or fears they have will influence the decisions they make, and often this isn’t working in their favor. If you’re afraid that you can’t win a sprint finish, then you attack 5 miles out and hope for a solo win off the front. [I’ve done this.] If you’re afraid that you can’t sustain your effort as long as you have to, you ease up and stop suffering, and get dropped over the climb or through the crosswinds when really, everyone else was suffering too and if you had just held on for another minute or 30s or even 15s sometimes, you could have stayed with the group or been just close enough to catch back onto the group on the descent. Sometimes if you are angry at another racer for something they said or did against you during the race, then you might proactively race against them, but hurt your own chances in the long run… Emotions are fine, just be aware of them and try to make a fair assessment of the situation that isn’t too heavily colored by your feelings about the situation. Being Stoic like this can help you out immensely in races.
- Lastly, be just a little more patient and watch the race just a little more than you do. Or maybe a lot more. If you watch and read the race better, then you can be more decisive when you act, and you can act less frequently. The less you react on impulse at every little twitch of the field, the more energy you save. The more you watch for the key, decisive moments, the more you can be ready to give the necessary effort into the task at hand. Smart racers don’t react impulsively. They watch and wait. Sometimes you may not be sure and have to just make a choice to act or hold back. Sometimes you may question your choice, but until you reach the finish line, you won’t know for sure… Sometimes you may be forced to make a half-measure of doing some work but not fully committing. If you are engaged in a half-measure, be sure that there’s a good reason for it. Hedging in races is smart, but only if you’re hedging in the right ways. Sometimes your only option is to go one way, and when it is, you have to go for it.
There’s a million ways that races can go, and you can keep learning for years through hundreds of races how to race better and smarter. Above are just a few thoughts of mine on how I think about racing and how to win races. I hope some of that is useful or interesting to you, and again, there are a lot of ways that you can frame things in your own head. It isn’t right or wrong to think of things in these terms or another, but for most of us, it just matters whether we can work towards our desired results, so hopefully some of this helps you to that end. Or if you have your own way of thinking about racing, just be sure to evaluate from time to time whether your way of thinking is effective or needs some change… Life is change, after all. I’m pretty sure we stop changing, learning, and evolving when we die.