Some Thoughts on Positioning

If you’ve ever seen a bike race, been in a bike race, won or lost a bike race, then you know that positioning is a key part of racing effectively. Any good bike racer needs to efficiently save energy, hold their position at the right times, minimize useless accelerations, and be within striking distance at key moments throughout the race.

The decisive moments of any race could potentially happen at any time, so there’s a need to be alert and even at the ready, but they are unlikely to happen at any given time, so you have to avoid being too alert, too focused, too anxious about fighting for position at all times. You need to strike a balance. You need to have a good filter to block out the noise of the race, and have a good sense of what the signal is within that noise, so that you can sense things coming when the race really gets underway.

This is one of the key things that any bike racer learns throughout their time as a bike racer, and like many things in bike racing, there are many parallels between what happens in bike races to what happens elsewhere in life. Whether it’s work, relationships, or most anything that involves multiple actors and seemingly infinite variables, success often lies in the combination of good preparation and self awareness combined with a clear and focused mind, good judgment, and decisive action.

There are a lot of mistakes that people make in the way that they try to position themselves in races as well as the ways in which they think about positioning. Positioning is inextricably linked to any strategy or tactics you try to employ in any race scenario. You cannot look only at positioning, because it only matters and can only matter in the context of the unfolding of the race and how you plan or decide to act within that context. Position only matters in context.

I’ve heard a lot of advice shared, some of which is very good, some of which is sub-optimal, and some of it is just terrible. Yet, sometimes when spoken with confidence from someone with more experience than you or your buddy, it can sound like good advice. What really matters at the end of the day is results, right?! So, whenever you’re thinking about positioning, race strategy, training, nutrition, or anything else, you have to look at whether or not it will work, or work for you. Always keep this in mind. Many times what works for other people can be a great indicator of what may be perfect for you, but sometimes it will be completely counter productive for you to train, race, or ride the way someone else does. As with all things, try to be very self-aware and sensitive to your mind and your body so that you can get the most out of them both, whether in bike races or life generally.

Without further ado, here are some thoughts on bike race positioning:

“Fighting for Position”

When people talk about positioning, they often talk about “fighting for position.” They talk about things as though you’re always in a battle to be where you want to be. Not only that, but there are a lot of implicit, unstated assumptions made about what the “right” or “best” position is going to be. There are a few things wrong with this…

First, positioning shouldn’t be about fighting for positioning. Yes, sometimes it is a bit of a fight or battle of wills. Sometimes if you want a position, you have to be willing to put in the energy to get into position, or have the skills and risk tolerance to get there. You have to be self-interested and protect your position to keep other riders out of your way and out of your space. This doesn’t mean that you have to be mean, unsafe, or unsportsmanlike. The fact that people are uncivil or unsafe is really quite unfortunate, even contemptible. There’s no reason that you should knowingly and willfully put yourself or other people around you at risk because you want a position or want to move somewhere. Usually this is simply unpleasant, but it sometimes causes crashes, and it’s often done by people who have no business taking risks in the first place.

I’ve been in countless bike races where I’ve seen people take dumb risks for little or no real benefit to themselves. Many if not most times, those people are taking risks when they don’t have the legs to actually finish off the race with any result that would or could warrant the risks taken. It seems that this comes down to a lack of self awareness combined with a lack of understanding of racing. Usually, the strongest riders and best racers show the most class by not taking risks unless perhaps they’re assuming some minimal risk to themselves down a descent or through some turns on their own. The best racers ride with class and professionalism, and command respect, because everyone knows that they care about everyone’s safety and winning fairly or not at all. If they ever put anyone at risk, it was accidental or inadvertent because they couldn’t see the person behind or something like that. Racers at all levels benefit if you act professionally. Everyone has more fun, the racing is safer, and the camaraderie better when this happens.

Rather than always thinking of “fighting,” most of the time you should think of positioning differently. As with anything, the words we use and the ways in which we frame discussions or stories have a huge impact on how we behave and approach things. Think about positioning as surfing or maneuvering or going with the flow… The more riders there are in a field, the more it operates as a fluid with a flow and with turbulent eddies within it. Bike racing fields often move like a mobile wash of turbulence, on a large scale it flows quite smoothly, but with many small movements and adjustments within the field. If you think of it like this, then you can look at how to use the movements of the field and the riders in it to help you get yourself where you want to be at the right times with the least possible effort. Usually it does take some effort, but with some finesse, you can save yourself a lot of energy and leave yourself much more for the decisive moments of the race where you’ll want as much energy as possible, say, over the final climb or in the sprint.

Always look to be efficient and save energy when you can for when you need it most. Look for ways to use other people’s efforts to get you to where you want to be. Be patient when waiting a few moments or minutes won’t hurt you. Look ahead on the course, pay attention to the terrain, the turns, and the wind, so that you know when you need to be at the front. Some courses don’t have any major features (wind, hills, tight turns), so there’s no specific need to be at the front at any particular moment, in which case it all comes down to tactics and how the field collectively decides to race the race.

In many cases, there are a few places on the course or throughout the race that you really need to be at or near the front in order to save energy and be ready for any key splits or attacks. Still, always look for the most efficient way to get to the front at the right time. Get to the front too late and you may miss the key moment… maybe you missed the break or the split over a climb or through the wind. Get to the front too early, and you have to keep fighting for position, sapping energy and leave you weak for the times in the race that your energy would be more useful. Timing is important; you need to be aware of the race and to have a good strategy. You may not have the best strategy, but usually any reasonable strategy is better than none.

Some people are good at protecting their position and staying there is much easier for them than moving up to that position in the first place. This is often easier with a strong team and you have teammates that can collectively take and hold a position near the front. You’ll see this in pro races when entire teams set up their climbers or sprinters for the decisive moments of the race. You’ll also see them doing this leading into sections of cobbles or crosswinds. Any time that there is a decisive moment, you want to be ready.

Have a Strategy, Think Ahead

Positioning is useless if you indiscriminately put energy into being at or near the front all of the time. Most of the time it doesn’t matter where you are in the field. Many people really miss this. Yes, you want to be at the front, but at the right times. If you’re pushing to be at the front all of the time, in most races this is a total waste of energy. If you have an idea of when the key moments are going to happen, then you can try to position yourself for those moments. If you’re smart then you’ll be ready when the real racing happens, and the rest of the time you will have been saving energy by floating easily in the field, leaving you more energy to go harder for longer when it really matters. So, as much as positioning matters, you need to put those efforts in the context of a broader race strategy that helps you to get the best results. This will mean that you are probably choosing to be “out of position” at strategic times so that you can save energy. But, then you can choose to be in position when you think it is probably going to matter the most. If you have chosen right, then you will be better prepared to do what you need to do to get the best result possible.

If you try to be “in a good position” near the front of the race all of the time, then you will likely guarantee that you’re in position when you need to be and you can see all of the major moves happening, but it also virtually guarantees that you won’t have enough energy to do enough about it. Or, you can be in position in all of the times that don’t especially matter that much, and if you are tired or aren’t paying attention, you can get swarmed right before the major moments in the race and miss out on opportunities simply because you didn’t have a good strategy going in.

If you knew how the race was going to go, then you could completely ignore the need to “be in position” and just choose the exact moments to move into the right spot. Instead of fighting all day to be near the front in case something might happen, you’d get to the front just as the race winning break or attack went off the front, or you’d hop onto the right wheel with a half-lap to go in the crit and be ready for a good sprint, rather than fighting it out for miles on end trying to be ready for when you or someone around you makes the big move.

Clearly you can’t know everything about how the race will go, but often just a little forethought you can have a very good idea of what might happen and when. You can do this by looking at the course, who’s in the race, and how the race has usually gone in the past. Usually there are only two or three likely ways in which a race will unfold, and maybe only one or two scenarios in which you are likely to do well. Consider this and invest your energy and strategically time your efforts with those things in mind. Sometimes you have to react and hope that things go your way; you can take advantage of the situations as they naturally arise. Sometimes you can exert some pressure on the way in which the race unfolds, and often a little bit of energy applied at the right times can alter the race so that your desired scenarios are more likely to come up.

Relax and Be Self Aware

Be aware of your mental state… Yes, racing can be stressful, and getting into the place you want to be in the field can be demanding, both mentally and physically. But, that doesn’t mean that you have to let that stress get to you too much. The more you can dissociate from those feelings and focus, or even relax and focus, the better you’ll usually be able to perform. Being anxious doesn’t help anyone, but being calm does, so focus on what you are trying to achieve but be a little stoic about it. Do what you can and don’t worry about things that you can’t control. Still, be aware of the race, your strategy, and be ready to recognize the important, decisive moments and try to do what you have to do.

Be aware of any doubts that you may have; recognize and dismiss them… Many times I’ve experienced doubt in races about whether I have the ability to do what it takes to get over the climb in the front group or to stay in contact through a crosswind, but it doesn’t matter whether or not you think you can do it, if anything, doubt doesn’t help. More often than not, the uncertainty of the situation and not knowing how long and how hard you will have to ride makes it easier to doubt your ability to do things. So, rather than wonder whether you can make it, sometimes if it’s a key moment in a race where you know that you will not be able to make it back into the race if you get dropped, just do what you can to get it done until you can’t.

Be aware of your physical abilities, be confident about them, but also know your limits… There have been plenty of times when I thought that the race was lost because I was out of position or thought that I may have missed a split in the wind, but then later things came back together. Sometimes I’ve had to keep going alone or in a small group for miles but have made it back to the field and back into contention for a good result. You never know what will happen. In contrast, I’ve heard of newer racers getting themselves into a breakaway only to sit up and go back to the field because they were unsure as to whether or not they’d be able to sustain the intensity that they had sustained to get the break going. I’ve talked with people who held back in a time trial or hill climb because they they were unsure that they’d be able to hold the pace to the end. You never know what you’re capable of until you try, and even then, studies have shown that if you try again, you almost always have just a little bit more in you than you had previously thought. Embrace the difficulty and submit yourself to the effort that you think you need to do if the race situation demands it.

Be aware of your bike handling skills and confidence… Whether people are talking about descending or positioning in the field, I’ve talked with many people about technical riding skills and often they convey that they sometimes try to push their limits by trying to rail a descent as hard as they can or they force themselves to push through small spaces in the field in order to get better. Yes, practice does help us to get better, but assuming unnecessary and uncomfortable risks does not necessarily make us better. It does increase our risk of harm and also our risk of sustaining real damage to our confidence if we slide out in a turn or lock handlebars with someone because we made a poor choice. Rather than forcing yourself into uncomfortable situations, it’s better to know what you’re capable of, and try to execute better and better in order to build up a better feel for how to corner, how to smoothly move through a field, or how to stay comfortable and stable if and when you do bump into someone or tap bars. Slowly working on getting better by expanding your comfort zone and increasing your feel for the bike and movement within the field will help you to confidently handle your bike better. Don’t force yourself into stressful and demanding situations because you have the idea in your head that you should be fighting to be in a certain spot or that someone told you that you should be in a certain spot. Find the spot that you can get to and defend safely and with confidence. This may mean that you’re in the middle of the field, two wheels back from the front, getting a huge draft. It may mean that you’re hovering along the side of the field, near the front, with an open avenue to get to the front whenever you want, even if it costs you a little bit of energy, because you’re only getting 2/3 of a draft. But, if you’re relatively fit, and not very comfortable pushing your way up into the middle of the front of the field, this may be way less stressful, way more comfortable, and much easier for you to maintain. It comes down to self awareness and a realistic assessment of where it is safe for you to be, where you’ll be comfortable and confident, and what your fitness will allow you to do. Again, you want to give yourself the best opportunity to get the best result possible given your current fitness, skills, and mental state. Doing what other people do or what other people say that you should do may well work, but it can also be a terrible strategy if it isn’t where you’re at in your current stage of development as an athlete.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Like any skill or physical ability, training is key to long term progress and success. No matter where you’re at now, you can get better, and it’s not a matter of making decisions or assuming more risk by taking someone else’s advice and sticking your bike where it shouldn’t be. Rather, it’s a matter of being honest with yourself and knowing where you’re at, looking for what you can practice and where you can improve, and then doing it.

Go out on group rides and get better at smoothly rotating in a small group. Get more comfortable riding close to people that you trust. Improve your ability to read other people’s movements. Get better at reading lines through turns, while also reading how other riders are going to move through the turn. [Not everyone reads the same lines through turns.] Do some race rides where you can practice moving up and holding position where the stakes are very low and there’s no downside to wasted energy or poor positioning. Pay attention in races to what you’re doing, how you’re thinking, how hard it is for you to get where you want to be, and try to learn how you can do the job more efficiently. Watch other riders that move efficiently and see what they do. Pay close attention to how the races unfold so that you get a better and better sense of what to expect. Watch professional races online to see how things move. Look at who won the race and see what they did over the course of the race to allow that to happen. If you can anticipate the race, then you can save a lot of mental and physical energy.  Whether you’re very strong or just holding on, good positioning, efficient movements in the field, good strategy and good tactics are all the same.

Train for racing by including a variety of different training intensities. If you do group rides or race rides, that can be a good way to train for the physical demands of racing. Obviously you need the aerobic conditioning to maintain a sufficiently high average power in order to keep pace with any race field, but you also need good muscle recruitment and speed to accelerate and anaerobic fitness to deal with hundreds of small changes in pace that require anaerobic efforts to cope with the small accelerations. Some of the best things that you can do in training to get better at pack riding are the following:

  • race rides or fast group rides, especially those that include more than 20-30m of fast riding at one time
  • long steady, high-aerobic efforts to increase your sustainable aerobic power, e.g. 3x10m threshold intervals or a 95% effort time-trial up a long climb, especially if it’s a little pitchy with steeper and shallower portions
  • repeated sprints or anaerobic accelerations, like 12x15s sprint, 45s recovery or 30x10s seated accelerations with 20s steady recovery or extended periods of 30s over threshold, 30s just under threshold (e.g. 3x10m over-unders)
  • seated big-gear work and seated accelerations, because riding in a pack you generally have to have good strength and power in the saddle, because you often can’t or shouldn’t get out of the saddle
  • go to the gym: strength work (like squats, lunges, and dead-lifts) that builds power is very helpful for most athletes, especially for developing in-the-saddle power and stamina