Racing bikes is as much a game of chess as it is about endurance and power. It is difficult to teach a person race tactics in a short time, race craft is learnt through experience. You could race with one tactic and win, then use the exact same tactic in your next race and finish dead last. Every race is different, every single move (attack, chase, wait) causes different reactions and can effect race outcomes. Below are some basic principles of racing.
Energy and picking your moment to attack
Break Away – on your own
Break Away – with other riders
Have a plan
Enjoy your racing and accomplishments
These principle will apply to most races and if followed should help you to be in a winning position more often than not. Remembering there are always exceptions. Good cyclists are not only fit and strong, they are also smart at reading the race.
Energy and Picking Your Moment to Attack
Conserve as much energy as possible throughout the race and only exert energy if it will directly help you to win the race. A simple way to look at energy is to pretend that you start your race with 1,000 tickets and every time you use your energy it is costing you tickets. So your objective is to be in a wining position with as many tickets left as possible.
Every time you attack, chase a break away, do a turn at the front of the bunch, or ride out of the slip stream it costs you tickets. This is not to say that you should not attack or chase down a breakaway, it means that you have to consider weather your efforts will help you to win or not. For example, unless you are one of the best sprinters there is no use staying in the bunch for the entire race and not using any tickets till the finish. If you are not the best sprinter you will want the bunch to split and you will want to be up the road away from the sprinters. In this situation you will have to use tickets (energy) during the race.
If you are going to attack or attempt to break the bunch up choose your time. If the bunch is working well together with everyone taking their turn at the front and there is a head or tail wind, then this is not a good time to attack. A single rider will never beat a working bunch. Wait until the bunch is tired and not functioning well as a group before you attack. A classic tactic is to wait until the bunch has worked hard chasing an earlier break, then attack just as the bunch is about to catch the breakaway, the bunch will want a rest from chasing the previous attack and they may let you ride off. Another good time to attack the bunch is in cross wind, attack along the edge of the road on the opposite side as the wind is coming from. This will force the bunch to work just has hard as you are as they will not be getting any protection from the wind. Cross winds present a good opportunity for the strong riders to do damage and get rid of the weaker riders from the race.
Break Away – On Your Own
A break away is when you have attacked and are ahead of the main bunch in the lead pack of riders.
If you are in a break on your own there is very little tactics. Here are a few tips to help give you your best chance.
Ride smoothly; your average speed will be best. Try not to do burst with efforts of high and low speeds, keep it smooth.
Concentrate on your peddling. As soon as you think about something other than your peddling you are slowing down. Depending on what stage of the race you are at you still may need to consider your race plan.
Ride in the car tracks as they are generally smoothest part of the road. On most roads you will see the paths that the cars make in the road.
If there are buildings or trees by the road ride as close to them as you can. They will provide some protection from the wind.
Try to keep low in an aero dynamic position.
If your breakaway is unsuccessful and you are going to be caught by the chasing riders, be ready for them. Take time to get your breath back, have something to eat and drink. As they are approaching accelerate so that you are doing a similar speed as them when they come past so you can easily get back in to the bunch.
Break Away – With Other Riders
If you are in a breakaway with other riders it is important to work as a team. If you want the breakaway to stay away from the bunch you have to show the other riders that you are committed to the break and that you are willing to work hard. Do hard turns on the front. If the other riders think that you are not committed they may not commit and the break will not work.
Look after the riders in your break. Give them room up the road in cross winds so they are not stuck on the edge of the road out of the slip stream. When it is your turn on the front do not accelerate fast. Keep the pace smooth so the rider who did the turn before you can get back in the slip steam easily. Once every rider in the break is in a good position you can lift the pace slowly keeping it smooth.
Cycling is about you winning not the break wining. For a break to work all the riders have to work together as a team. There then becomes a point in the race when the brake away riders ‘your allies’ become ‘your enemy’. You have to beat them across the line. Once you are certain that the main bunch is not going to catch your break away group it is time to think about beating the riders in the break. At this point you may want to consider doing the opposite to the suggestions above and try to make it hard for the riders in the break.
Riding in the bunch is possibly the most important skill in cycle racing. If you ride in the bunch effectively you can preserve a lot of energy. Skilled bunch riders will know,
Where to position themselves within the bunch;
When to do turns on the front of the bunch;
Able to predict and react to changes in the bunch; and
Able to ride close to the riders around them taking maximum advantage from the slip steam.
There are always exceptions but generally being about the 10th rider in the bunch is a good position. 10th is close to the front so you can react to moves and go with attacks if you desire. It is close enough to the front that you should not get stuck on the edge of the road out of the slip stream in a cross wind. 10th is far enough away from the front of the bunch so you will not have to do too many turns on the front to hold your position. When riding in a bigger bunch you have to continually be moving forward through the bunch. If you are not moving forward in a big bunch you are going backwards.
It is important to be close to the front of the bunch when racing on a circuit with a lot of corners such as a criterium. The bunch has a rubber band effect when cornering. The riders at the front of the bunch slow down to go around the corner which forces the riders at the back slow. The front riders then accelerate out of the corner; this means that the riders at the back of the bunch are breaking while the riders at the front are accelerating. Therefore the riders at the back have to accelerate a lot harder out of the corner than the front riders.
It is important to be at the front of the bunch in cross winds. It is to your advantage to do your turn at the front and be part of the working group in cross winds. In a cross wind the bunch will spread (echelon) out across the road. For the riders that get stuck on the edge of the road it is very difficult as they get minimal slip stream advantage.
If you are in the working group at the front of the bunch in a cross wind it is important that you stick very close to the wheel in front of you. Riders from behind will try to force their way into the working group so they can get protection from the wind. If one person can break your link in the chain, another two or three may get through and you will end out of the group and in the wind.
When you are in the bunch it is important to concentrate on what is happening ahead of you. Watch the front of the bunch. If the riders at the front are accelerating you know that you to will have to accelerate; the sooner you react the better it is. Don’t rely on the wheel in front of you. Be prepared for changes.
Know what changes (e.g. climbs/corners) are coming up in the circuit. Be aware which side of the bunch will offer the best protection from the wind and get to that side of bunch before the corner.
Be wary of tired riders in front of you. If the rider in front looks tired and it is likely they are going to drop off from the wheel in front of them, go pass the tired person.
Riding close to the wheel is a skill that will come with practice. Make an effort to get good at riding close as it will save a lot of energy as you gain maximum slip stream advantage. Know who the good bike handlers are in your race, follow them learn from them.
Have a Plan
Have an objective and a plan before you start the race. As mentioned earlier there is no perfect race tactic. However you are still better to go into the race prepared. Be realistic about your ability, strengths and weakness.
If wining is a distant dream for you at the moment your plan for the race may not be to win but to improve on an aspect of your racing, for example your plan could be to ride the race using as little energy as possible teaching you how to preserve energy, or to get in a breakaway so you learn how to handle your self in a break. Stick to your plan, to eventually win a bike race sometimes you have to be prepared to lose a few.
After the race assess your performance and plan. Figure out what went well for you and what did not. Think about what you will do next time you are in the same situation.
Enjoy Your Racing and Accomplishments
As you have read racing bikes is complicated so winning is rarely easy. Therefore celebrate your wins as they can be few and far between. Similarly do not be disheartened by your defeats because the difference between winning and losing can be due to one of a hundred tiny factors. However evaluate your wins and loses and learn from them.
A true understanding of cycling tactics will only come with years of experience. The more you understand cycling the more issues arise and it becomes even more complicated. However this article which only scrapes the surface of cycling tactics should help to stimulate thoughts regarding your racing.