How to win a bike race!

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.

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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.

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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.

How to Race Cat’s Hill and other very hilly races

Cats Hill Google EarthA lot of people get nervous when they’re looking forward to doing a hard, hilly race. Whether that’s a crit with steep punchy climb in it, like Cat’s Hill, or a hilly road race, I think a lot of people get too psyched up about the hill that they lose a little perspective on the course as a whole. Right now I don’t plan to get too in depth about it, but here’s a few thoughts on how to race the famous Mike’s Bikes Cat’s Hill Classic here in Northern California, and of course, much of this will also apply to other hilly races, short and long.Cats Hill Strava Profile

  1. Get a good warm up. Any race that starts off hard, like a crit, a time trial, or a road race with a hard climb at the start will require a good warm up beforehand. If you aren’t adequately warmed up, then things will be harder than they need to be when the race starts, to do yourself a favor and spend at least 20-30 minutes on the trainer or 30-40 minutes out on the road. If you aren’t warmed up, you’re not performing at your best, so that should be a part of your routine for any hard workout or race already. At Cat’s Hill, you need to be ready to sprint pretty hard less than 1 minute into the race, so just keep that in mind.
  2. Be ready for the hill. Know what gearing you want. Position yourself. A large part of how easy or difficult it is to maneuver your way around the course and up the hill has to do with your positioning going into the hill. I would try to move your way up so that you start the hill close enough to the front that you can respond to attacks if you need to and so that you can take it easier on the hill than the people around you and lose spots in the field but still have plenty of people around you to get a draft. If you start the hill near the front of the field, then you can give up a lot of spots and save a lot of energy but still be comfortably in the field getting a draft over the top of the course, but you will have saved a bunch of energy if you only do a 2/3 effort instead of an all-out sprint up the hill every lap. Also, on the topic of gearing, on any steep hill when you’re going hard, your front shifting won’t work well, so most people do well to set up in their small chainring a few moments before the turn into the hill. That way they’re already set when they lose all their speed up the steep grade and aren’t bogged down in a huge gear in their big chainring.Cats Hill photo
  3. Don’t get too excited and don’t panic. Many people get way too excited about the hill and sprint up it almost full-speed every lap. By the end of the race their back hurts and their legs feel like jelly, but every lap they still accelerate hard up the hill and immediately ease up over the top. Rather than doing that, just stay comfortably in the field or close enough to the front that you can reposition yourself over the top of the course. Save energy by being efficient. Feel free to give up a few spots when it doesn’t matter to the outcome of the race if you can easily regain them a few moments later at a lower energy cost… A mid-size male rider may do an 800 watt sprint for 20 seconds to get up it, but will then pedal at 300w over the top of the hill. They could just as well do a 600w sprint to get up the hill just a few seconds slower but then have way more in the tank to do 300w if they can or 400w over the top of the climb to respond to an attack or make an attack. All too often, because everyone else is going hard and because people are afraid of losing their position, they use up too much energy on the hardest part of the course when it actually only matters a little. So, don’t get dropped, but don’t be afraid to lose 5 or even 10 spots in the field. You can regain them later.
  4. Look for room to attack over the top when many people aren’t usually going as hard. Again, most people go crazy on the climb, but then they slow down across the top of the course. This is where you can potentially pick up a lot of speed and distance yourself from the field going into the downhill. Personally, that’s my favorite place to attack on that course, and most courses, right at the top or right after the top of “the climb” where everyone went hard. When people go hard and then ease up to recover, a lot of the time they’re not looking to attack and don’t think you will. This is where I’ve attacked several times to get away for short-lived breakaways on that course. And, the year that I won the race, I did it by attacking my 2 breakaway companions over the top of the course. I got a gap and it couldn’t be closed on the downhill and finishing straight away.
  5. Be safe. The roads aren’t great. Sometimes people drop their chain on the climb. There’s always things that can go wrong, so as with any crit, learn the course when you pre-ride it or during the first few laps so that you know where the good lines are, where the fast and safe lines are, as well as where the trouble areas are to avoid hard edges, rough pavement, etc.

The NorCal Racing Calendar

Every year, there are a lot of good races to choose from in Northern California, many of them are pretty exceptional events within 1-2 hours from the SF Bay Area. So, those of us that live here are lucky to have so many options. Most weekends from February to August there are usually at least one crit and one road race on the calendar. But, this can present some challenges as people around here choose which races they want to put on their own schedule, so here’s a rundown of some of the ones I’d most recommend to someone who wanted to try a mix of races across disciplines and throughout the year. This is a selection of popular events and personal favorites.

You can find the road racing calendar for Northern California here.

I’ll also include some notes on the fitness demands of some of the races, to give an idea of what kind of athlete is likely to do well or what kind of fitness you may want to work on while preparing for the race. I’ll refer to pure sprint ability, anaerobic capacity, aerobic capacity, threshold, and endurance fitness on a 5-point scale, with 5 being very demanding, and 0 or 1 being very undemanding of that energy system.

There are many races, but I want to get this posted so people can consult it as needed. I will add more details as I have time. Feel free to ask me about specific races, how to plan a racing season, how to train for specific races, or anything else, any time… nate@englishendurance.com

My mission is to use my knowledge and experience to help people get more out of their riding.

Cal Aggie and Cherry Pie Crits (Jan/Feb)

These two early season races are favorites among Bay Area residents who want to get the ball rolling early with their racing. Because they’re so early in the season, many people are still building fitness and aren’t looking at the race with as much ambition and intensity as they might if the races happened in May, but they’re a great way to check in on your fitness, remind yourself what riding fast in a group feels like, andcrit-profile to have some fun and boost your motivation as you look towards the coming months of training and racing. Like most crits, the kind of fitness you’d want to do well is going to be mostly sprint and anaerobic. To a lesser extent, your aerobic capacity and threshold fitness may come into play, especially if you ride a breakaway or try to take a flyer late in the race.

Chico Stage Race

This race is a relatively new race that’s been added to the calendar, but has quickly become the premier stage race in Northern California. It’s got an excellent circuit race on the Thunderhill Raceway with some open twisty turns and a couple of good rollers. The Paskenta Hills Road Race on day two is a favorite among those who enjoy a mix of smooth, rough, and unpaved roads. There are dozens of flats and an interesting dynamic with the gravel section, a few rollers, and some wind on that course. Often people get more anxious about the gravel, but I think the flat tires and the wind involved in this race are the key features of the race. The TT and crit on the last day are pretty classic. The TT is dead-flat and relatively fast. You can stay in the sticks the whole time and the winners usually have a pretty high average speed, for the pros it’ll be a little over 30 mph. The crit alternates between being open and tight, but is pretty fast overall, so it gets strung out and is almost certain to end in a sprint between the course and the GC interests involved.

Snelling and Bariani Road Races

These are two early season favorites with mostly flat courses that include some rolling hills and often some wind. They’re good races to go to if you don’t consirolling-rr-profileder yourself a specialist climber, sprinter, or rolleur, because if you ride smartly, you can finish well with a little luck. At the very least, they’re both going to be great workouts and you should be able to get to the finish in the main group coming off of a decent winter of training, even if you aren’t in peak form.

Cal Berkeley Streets Crit

This is a fun race right on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus with a s

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Berkeley and Santa Cruz Crits

light uphill/downhill rectangular course that ends up making the race feel like a VO2-max interval workout. Every lap you hammer up Bancroft and try to recover on the Durant downhill. For people living in the East Bay or even in the city, it’s a very short trip to get to this race and given the timing is usually held with ideal weather conditions.

Santa Cruz Classic Crit

This is one of the very few races that I’ve never done, but it’s a favorite among many local racers. Santa Cruz is a cool town and hosts this crit on relatively narrow roads with a bit of a kicker climb. It’s a course for critters, but road racers with a lot of punchy acceleration for climbs and sprints can do well.

Tempus Fugit TT

If you want to test your aerobic fitness, there aren’t a ton of opportunities to do time trials or hill climbs, but this out-and-back test against the clock in Castro Valley is convenient and a great way to test your high end aerobic fitness and maybe your TT position. It’s well worth doing if you want to race without some of the pressures of mass-start events, too. I general-tt-profilethink that time trials are underrepresented and under-appreciated in the US cycling community. Whether people spend thousands on a fast TT bike, carbon wheels, skinsuits, helmets, and go crazy geeking out over every detail, or people just ride for fun and fitness, it’s always great to have a goal, try to get fitter, and check in on your progress. Runners may only do a handful of races throughout the year, and I think for cyclists who are not interested in the intensity of mass-start racing, time trials afford them the opportunity to have goals and train for something other than the simple routine of training. Obviously, I think there is a huge value in training for the sake of staying fit and enjoying cycling, but for many people, doing Merckx-style time-trials with no pressure is a great way to add focus to your exercise program.

Copperopolis RR

Copperopolis is definitely one of the most famous NorCal races out there. It’s long and tough with climbs, rough roads, wind, and a finish on an uphill roller after a descent on terrible roads. A lot of people consider this one of their favorites, but it’s definitely hard hilly-rr-profileon you and can be hard on your equipment. Most people will race their normal race gear, but some people who have nice carbon race wheels will race with their training wheelset just in case they brake a spoke or pinch-flat on a hard asphalt edge somewhere.

The race laps start with a couple miles of flat through the feed-zone, and then climb for 15-20m on rolling and then steep uphill roads. It’s a little more shallow at the top, but it comes right after the steepest section and it’s really rough all the way up. Many people who naturally climb out of the saddle are forced to stay in the saddle, so their wheels don’t bounce around. When it does start to level off, you’re already pretty gassed and sometimes it’s a struggle to stay with your group if people attack or pick up the pace over the top.

Once you’re on the pleateau above the race-start, there area few rollers and usually abit of a breeze. The lane isn’t terribly wide, so it can quickly become challenging if it’s windy. After a series of short 20-30s rollers, it opens up to some dead-flat land for a few miles on rough roads that can be plagued by crosswinds, so it can be tough through the far-side of the course.

The second half of the lap meanders back and forth for a few miles on essentially all rough pavement. There’s a few rollers, and finally about 5 miles to go, you climb over a few hills, still on really rough roads, and then descend on what seems to be some of the worst pavement on the loop down to the finish. It flattens out for a moment and then kicks up maybe 150-200m up what looks like about a 5% grade to the finish. The Pro 1/2 field does this lap 5 times for a total of close to 110 miles. It’s pretty awesome, and tough. It’s one of the more demanding courses, because there’s really little room to take it easy on any of the laps and the race is about as hard as people want to make it. Anywhere on the loop, people can attack and try to get a breakaway going  or try to make a split in the field, whether it’s in the wind, over climbs, or just on rough roads where there’s only one or two good lines to take to minimize all of the bumps.

It’s a classic race that you could call the Paris-Roubaix of NorCal, because it’s long with rough roads and always has dynamic racing.

Sea Otter Classic and the Central Coast Road Series

The rolling hills around Moterey are a great place for the Central Coast Road Series and the Sea Otter Classic events. The Sea Otter Circuit Race on the Mazda Raceway is famous for its corkscrew turn and is a fun, tough course. All of these courses demand some good aerobic fitness as they all have lots of short climbs, but that’s part of the fun. The Sea Otter road race traditionally finishes on a challenging climb after long circuits with a very steep 2 minute climb on the start of each lap. If you want to learn how to race hilly courses well, the CCCX races provide a good venue for practice.

Mike’s Bikes Cat’s Hill Classic

This is one of the most well known crits in the Bay Area and one of the longest running. Greg Lemond won the race back in the late 70s, and a number of famous riders have won it over the years, as well as a bunch of local riders. But it’s always a combination of skill, smarts, and luck that get the win. The course is famous for it’s steep climb up “the wall,” a short climb of maybe 80m up a 20% grade in the middle of each lap. The course is L-shaped and has the one steep uphill, a bit of a roller, and then a long 300m descent back down to the finishing straight-away. The descent and finishing straight away have less than excellent pavement, so you have to pick your line well to get a fast place for your wheels to roll. Every lap it’s hard to sprint up the climb, so you have to be ready to go from the start and need to be prepared mentally for dozens of 20 second sprints up a steep grade.

Wente Vineyards RR

This is one of the tougher race courses on the calendar. The whole race is hilly or windy with relatively little time where you can relax. Any time someone in the field wants to hilly-rr-profilemake the race hard, they can. At the same time, anyone who wants to get in a break away or split up the field can probably work to do so as long as anyone follows with them, but it makes the timing of those efforts all the more important, because it could be an attack on the first lap or the last lap that gets the winning move going, but it’s hard to tell. It’s a very dynamic race for this reason. I’d say it’s similar to the Berkeley Hills RR, Pescadero RR, and even Winters RR for this reason.

The racing is hard and dynamic. If you’re a strong climber, decent on the flats, and willing to suffer, it’s a great race for you. Within reason, anyone that is a strong racer can finish well in this race, but whoever wins it will have to be a good climber, because it finishes in an intermediate climb that has several minutes of shallow grades and finishes in a few minutes of steep climbing.

Berkeley Hills RR

Berkeley Hills is the longest running road race in the US, and a favorite. It’s probably the most centrally located course and one that many locals ride dozens of times every year. hilly-rr-profileUnfortunately early this 2017, heavy rains led to significant erosion and a collapse of part of the roads used for the traditional course. The course is usually held around “the Bears” loop just over the hills from Berkeley. For 2017 there may be a new course, which I can’t comment on at the moment, because I don’t know what that may be, but the traditional course will no doubt continue use in the future.

It is a rolling course with a lot of false flat uphill and 2-5 minute climbs. Throughout the loop there are two extended flat sections of road where the field is likely to stick together, bhrr-profilebut you can’t assume too much, because the riding along San Pablo Dam Road at the beginning of each loop is prone to being windy, and it can be enough of a crosswind to cause some damage to a tired field a few laps into the race. 1/3 of the way through the loop, there’s a descent onto Castro Ranch Road that then goes over a couple of pitchy rollers. They don’t look like much on the course profile, but they’re enough to cause some serious discomfort or allow for splits in the field if people want to attack and get a break going. The second 1/3 of the loop is mostly false-flat uphill and is usually uneventful, but because it’s slightly uphill, nobody gets a free ride. The roads are also narrow here, so if a break is up the road, it can be tough to get a chase going if that’s in your team’s interest. Finally, the last 1/3 of the loop goes over a handful of short to intermediate climbs and a few rollers. You get about

Pescadero RR

The Pescadero Road Race is great race in coastal California half-way between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. It’s got two sets of hills on either end of the course, and several miles of false-flat uphill and downhill between them.  The rollers at the start are short, but hard. The feed-zone and finishing climb is tough and requires great climbing speed or smart tactics ahead of the climb to allow for the win. Everyone who wins this race earns it.hilly-rr-profile

I like this race because it’s very dynamic. There’s enough climbing to make it demanding and requires a good amount of high-end aerobic fitness, but there’s enough flat-land riding that team tactics and durability matters as much as climbing ability. The times I’ve done this race there have been multiple breakaways, but you can see them come back, break apart, or you can see riders or groups bridge up to the break. Even with a minute or two gap between the break and the field on the last lap, you still can’t say what will happen at the end.

Lodi Cycle Fest Crit

This race is a great mid-summer event that usually draws good attendance because it has a good course and good prize purse. It’s a flat figure-8 course with one small loop and one longer rectangle with one overlapping corner. Most of the pavement is good, but there are a few small bumps, and enough turns to keep things interesting. For the most part it’s a pretty fast, wide-open course with room to move around. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to attack, but also room for the field to chase down breaks. Usually it’ll end in a bunch sprint, but small moves that happen late in the race can get away and make it to the finish ahead of the field if they time it right. The heat can be a factor and making sure you stay cool and meter your effort can make a big difference in whether you finish strong and animate the race or whether you end up limping in at the back end of the field.

sprint-crit-profile

Classic Crit Profile

One year I made a promising move with a few laps to go and got a good gap, but really, it’s a race for the sprinters. As expected, I got caught with about a lap to go and our sprinter won, but for the stronger time-trialists without top-end speed for sprints (like me) you can use your strength a few laps out to help your team’s sprinter by letting them get a free ride as the other teams chase you down. This is a great tactic in any race, and seemingly overlooked as people often bide their time thinking that they have a chance at winning, when they may not have.

Loyalton Time Trial

I would say that this is the NorCal time trial. It’s the regional championship event, but it’s also classic because it’s dead-flat at 5000 feet of elevation. It’s perfect for laying down fast times on a full 40k course. There have been two courses over recent years. The original course was pancake flat except for one very minor roller that may have had a total of 15 feet of elevation up a 2% grade,

tt-profile
Loyalton TT

or something close to it. It used to be mediocre pavement with winter-cracked roads, but was then repaved and nearly ideal for the most part. But, a few years ago, the USAC Elite Nationals was held in Tahoe and they started using another course just a few miles down the valley, which is the course they currently use. This course is similar, and even a little flatter. It’s got decent, chip-seal textured pavement, and a few minor turns that you can almost pedal through at full speed. It’s a fast course and good for riding a 40k PR you’re proud of.

Davis 4th of July Crit

This crit is a classic. It’s flat and relatively wide-open, except for a short portion of the back side of the course. The defining characteristic of this race is usually the heat. I’ve seen this race finish in a sprint multiple times, but it’s ripe for the occasional break or solo move. The odds are always against it at the outset, but with the heat and assumption that the race will usually finish in a sprint, it is possible for a late race solo flyer or a breakaway to get a gap on the field at a time that people have lost interest or want to put off bringing it back until it’s too late.

I’ve done this race several times and it’s always been fun. It’s also always been hot. Earlier in my racing career, I don’t think that I really handled the heat very well, and I would recommend that anyone going to this race thinks proactively about how they plan to approach it. I used to take two bottles at the start and was okay, but if you want to do well, for most people it will require more than just getting by and more than doing what works okay.

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If you race early in the day, then it shouldn’t be a big deal. If you race in the middle of the day, then you might consider doing a morning spin so that you’re already loose and ready to go. That way before the race you probably won’t need to warm up nearly as long and won’t have to deal with overheating before the race even starts, if it is 95 or 100d, like it often is.

Before the race, get in a good warm-up, but stay cool. Drink cold fluids, and consider taking a cooler with extra bottles and a towel. You can do a lot to stay cool and keep your body comfortable by pouring water over your head and getting your jersey wet. A jersey wet with cool fluids can make a big impact on your body’s need to sweat and the rate at which your body temperature rises. The last few times that I’ve done this race, I warmed up, cooled off with a cool drink and a wet jersey, and then went to the line with 3 bottles: one bottle of mix to drink, one bottle of water to pour over myself, and the third to drink as needed and pour over myself as needed. Plus, I’d take the usual couple of gels of which I would probably take one during the race, but it’s good to have 2 so that you have it if you need it.

The last time I did this race it was hot and I did my cooling routine. I think that I had an iced coffee like 15 minutes before the race. Anyway, it started fast and people were aggressive. By 1/3 of the way through the race, things had settled down a bit, and I waited until later in the race to try to make any major moves. Finally with 10 laps to go, several of us somehow split off the front of the group. At this point in my career I had come to think that for most crits that don’t have a hill or other major feature that defines the course, I would wait at least 10-15 minutes before I cared to look for possible splits or breaks that other people might initiate, and for the most part, I would wait until the last 1/4 of the race to try anything… In any case, we rolled off the front with myself, Ben Jacques-Maynes, and several other strong, motivated riders. We got a good gap, but with 5 laps to go, we were getting caught just as I was taking a pull. I’ll admit that I didn’t see the catch until it was happening and the rest of the break was starting to sit up. Because I saw the confusion and loss of momentum, I attacked with just one rider going with me, Chris Baker from Sacramento. We were able to ride the last 5 laps and finish ahead of the field. At that point there was no point in waiting or trying to regroup for another move. If the field was together with 3 or 4 laps to go, then it was bound to finish in a sprint. Always keep your eyes open and be willing to take risks. I figured that I had a 0% chance of getting any result if I was in the field, so even though the field could no doubt chase, they would have to choose to do so and risk messing up their sprint, so there was a non-zero chance of staying off the front, so it was a risk worth taking.

San Rafael Twilight Crit

 

Albany Crit

 

Patterson Pass RR

 

Dunnigan Hills RR

 

Suisun Harbor Crit

 

University RR

 

Winters RR

 

Vacaville Grand Prix [Crit]

 

Mt Diablo Hill Climb TT

 

Esparto TT

 

Oakland Grand Prix [Crit]

 

Everest Challenge Stage Race