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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Do This and You Will Win

So you want to win a bike race (i.e. criterium, road race, or time trial).  No problemo.  The surest way is to compete in a race where the only other cyclist is your little sister (if your little sister happens to be a badass, sorry you may be SOL).  Ok, seriously.  If you follow my advice to the letter you will eventually win a race.  This advice is primarily for the entry level competitor; however the following guidelines apply across all categories and levels.


The first step is training.  A plethora of books have been written about this.  PhD's have been attained on single detailed elements of this massive topic.  I'm going to boil it down to you in a couple of lines:  Ride your bike at least one to two hours a day, and rest one day a week (rest means no riding or riding at less than half-effort).  Do intervals training once a week as follows:  ride absolutely as hard as you can for one minute, then soft pedal as easy as you can for three minutes; repeat 5-8 times or until you think you see Jesus.  Place your rest day two days before your race.  This would be Thursday for a Saturday race.  Also place your interval day on Tuesday or Wednesday.  The day before the race you can ride moderately hard, but NO LONG HARD INTERVALS...... that's what the race will produce. (From personal experience I tend to race better on a second day of criterium racing, but not as well on the day after a long hard road race). 

At the Race

Now it's time to get ready to race.   You've done the training and you're riding the right equipment.  What equipment you ask?  Let me be pithy.  For the beginner to intermediate racer, the bike frame and components make (almost) absolutely no significant difference as long as they are functioning.  As you improve and move up in categories, I then begin to suggest spending some money on fast wheels such as 404 Zipp tubulars, or HED Stingers (or similar wheels by another company) and good carbon-soled shoes.   I would also suggest that you buy used wheels, and new shoes.  On second thought, at the category 4/5 level,  the special wheels and shoes are not necessary, but I would rank equipment as follows:  (1) wheels; (2) shoes & pedals (it's the point of energy transfer to the bike, plus it's rotating weight, and important for comfort);  (3) all else.

Ok, so now it's time to race.  (You better know what and when to eat first)  Warming-up prior to your race is important for time-trialing and criteriums.  Again, there are many variations.  Let me be pithy: ride 30 minutes at a conversational pace with 2-3 one minute intervals at 80% (estimated) efforts with full recovery in-between.  Allow about 5 minutes to get to the start line.  If you have a bike trainer, bring it to the race in case the surrounding streets are unsuitable for warming up.  Try not to use the trainer if the temperature is high, due to the potential for overheating and dehydrating.  If the trainer is absolutely necessary, you can dampen your body with water and consume ice water to keep your core temperature down.

How to win a Criterium Race

The type of course should determine the importance of starting and riding at or near the front of the peloton.  If the course is a simple, flat square or rectangle, your starting position is unimportant.  If the course is technical with a lot of cornering and the field size is large, it is critical to start and ride as near to the front as possible.  There are 4 reasons for this:  (1) It is safer because you tend to be in front of most crashes;  (2) higher chance for making it into a winning break-a-way;  (3) you will have smoother and easier cornering, with much less "accordion" effect of braking into and sprinting out of the corners;  and (4) you won't get gaped off the main group due to riders in front of you falling off the pace.  

The first two laps and the last two laps are generally among the fastest and hardest, so mentally expect this.  Focus on the wheel of the rider ahead of you.  Stay nicely in his/her draft.  Try to relax but concentrate on good cornering.  Do not half-wheel.  Faster races are safer than slow races because the riders become single file and if a crash occurs on a corner, the rider is swept out of the way by pure momentum.  Be wary when the group bunches up - allow yourself some escape room.  On very slow corners, ride the outside and faster corners try to be on the inside if riders are paired/grouped up.

Generally, the first half of the race is inconsequential.  Save your energy and spend zero time at the front pulling the field or sprinting for primes (prize laps).  Do stay close to the front during a prime lap, especially later primes.  This is a good opportunity to get into a break-a-way.  The strongest riders will naturally be up front during this period and attacking/launching off field after this period is ideal.  Often, the prime winner will not make this counter-move, which is also nice because you have illuminated a potentially good sprinter. If you do get in a break-a-way, it is critical to initially ride very aggressively.  The best scenario is to get out of the view of the chasing pack (out of sight, out of mind).  If you are lucky, you will have maybe 2-5 other riders with you that are all from different teams. Their team-mates should not chase you and may actually discourage others from pursuing you by drafting off the chasers behind you and not rotating through.

Winning break-a-ways generally occur when the field is at their most tired state and the strongest riders tend to be at the front, a gap occurs and bang they are gone.  If you are in the draft of other riders and are suffering, alarms should be going off in your head that this is the time that a break could occur.  Try to get near the front if it is possible.  You should do this in bursts and advance past as many riders as you can each burst.  If you are lucky, you can jump on a wheel of someone who is advancing in front of you.   If the field is single file it is generally best to wait until it slows down and starts to bunch up.  On the other hand, if a gap occurs and a break develops, it is best to bridge across as fast as possible, then try to sit on and recover, then start working with the break ASAP.  When in a break, generally try not to do more "work" than the racer who is doing the least amount of "work." Basically, after the break-a-way appears to be successful, try to save your energy.

 Often the winning break-away occurs late in a race when the least tired riders (i.e. at the business end everyone is hurting) will make the move.  Two common mistakes of beginning racers is to either be too aggressive at the beginning when everyone is fresh and strong or not aggressive enough at the end when a properly placed attack can win the race.  It generally takes experience and confidence for a rider to know when or even if they should leave their break-away companions late in a race. Lance called it divide and conquer.   And Boonen, who is a feared bunch sprinter,  said it was much easier to win alone than try and win a sprint!  It's important to know racing tactics and how to apply them to pull off this feat.  

Often break-a-ways don't succeed and even if they do the winner is typically determined by a sprint.  Bike racing is all about timing.  The last two laps of a criterium is critical for positioning.  If the race is not single file the back of the pack will swarm the front.  You must be aggressive (not reckless) and constantly try to stay at or near the front.  This is not a time to worry about drafting.  Get out front if necessary, you will be safer and if you don't go full out you should be able to get back in the draft.  You may be very tired at this point, but no matter what you must not let yourself give in and let off the gas.  The winner will generally not be the first person out of the last corner unless it is less than 100 meters and that person is a good sprinter.  You should be in 2nd position around 100 yards and perhaps 3-4 if the finish is around 200 yards.  There could be some variation to my description based on the sprinting abilities of you and your competitors.

How to Win a Road Race

Nearly all of my tips for winning a criterium apply to winning a road race.  However,  there are some major differences.  Road races tend to be much longer in duration and often the course is composed of either a 4-8 miles long course that is ridden for several laps,  or a very long loop raced in just a single pass (rarely point to point races exist).  And, whereas criteriums are commonly an hour long, road races typically last 2-6 hours in duration.  As a result, it critical to know the course, conserve your energy, and consume both food and fluids.

Get a map of the course and study it.  If possible, preriding the course on your road-bike is ideal; otherwise if possible have someone drive you while you study both the course map and the terrain.  Mark on your map:  (1) where the feed-zones will be located; (2) technical areas with a lot of turns or narrow roadways; (3) road hazards such as pot holes, large cracks, significant hills and/or descents, etc.   Try to memorize associated landmarks that can help you remember these critical points and alert you as you approach the finish during the last 3 kilometers, the last kilometer, 500 meters, and the final 200 meters from the finish.  It may be helpful to know the history of outcomes from previous years on a particular race course.  Often, the final outcome of a race is determined  as much by the design of the course along with it's specific weather conditions as the racers themselves.  This information can help you anticipate critical points of a race (such as the winning break typically occurring at a specific hill late in the race, or that the race always ends in a field sprint, or the race typically has a very high drop out rate, etc).  Most importantly know where the finish line is; if you do not know where the finish line is, your chances for winning are greatly diminished.    

Consider the weather and prepare accordingly; conditions can change significantly during longer races.   If it is very hot out, feed zones are critical to your success.  If neutral support isn't available, long before the race you should find someone who will give you cooled bottles containing water and electrolytes.  If it is hot out, it is advisable to carry as many full water bottles with you as you reasonably can.  The weight and discomfort is worth the price.  (Read my article on heat management; it will help you).  If it rains or there is a high probability of rain, you should run a lower tire pressure.  Drop your psi down to  90 in the front and 105 in the rear.  If the course is technical and you are running tubular tires, it is recommended to drop another 5 psi.  It is also advisable to know the wind direction in order to get the best drafting position and know where cross-winds can be used for or against you.  Wind direction can change during a race.  Look for flags, plant leaf direction, and your senses of sound and pressure sensitivity to guide you (note it is hard to determine wind direction during winter because of lack of leaves and your skin and ears are covered up; as a default,  draft the same as others racers).   Cold weather requires having multiple layers of clothing that can be opened and/or removed and stored in your jersey pockets as you race.  If you are in doubt about as to what to wear, look at what everyone else is wearing. Being prepared is a key component to successful road racing.

Know your competitors (and yourself).   Sun Tzu says in his masterful work, The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.  Applied to bike racing you need to know both you and your competitors strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly.  Typically, in bike racing you will race the same people - both locally and regionally - again and again and you should come to know your competitor's strengths and weakness.  If you travel abroad to a race with an unknown cohort group of racers, however, you would be advised to do recon.  Conduct an internet search the preregistered names, check their rankings and write down their jersey numbers on a piece of tape and stick it to your stem or top tube.  High criterium rankings suggest that your competitor is a good sprinter, whereas high time trial rankings suggest that your competitor is an extremely strong rider, but probably doesn't have a great sprint (a great rider to be in a break-a-way with), and high road racing ranking suggest an all-arounder.  Staying proximal to the wheel of riders who typically win can allow you to get in the winning moves. 

Road racing can be done individually or as part of a team, and thus far I've only described it individually.  Being part of a good team increases your chances for either you or your team-mate winning not only statistically, but because team tactics can tip the balance of winning greatly to the team who does so wisely.  Because the final outcome of road racing is so heavily weighted on endurance and conservation of energy for a strong finish, teams that protect and favor a specific rider can greatly increase that rider's chances for winning.  This is primarily done by protecting a favored rider from the wind, and by having team-mates chase down break-aways in order to keep the peloton together for a sprint finish or helping your team-mates bridge up to a break-away.  Also, supplying water and food for a favored rider makes a difference.  Often, the biggest help that a team-mate can provide is to not give chase against another team-mate, and to counter-attack if their teammate is caught.  Beyond the race tactic advantages of being part of a team there are a number of other advantages that team membership provides, such as having traveling partners, sharing expenses, having people you can socialize with, trust, support and encourage reciprocally.  Developing long term friendships with team-mates and even competitors can be considered an act of "winning" in itself.

How to Win a Time Trial

There are several ingredients required to bake a victory cake in the time trial.  The first ingredient is fitness, which is produced by training.  10 to 15% of your total training should be high intensity interval training, 75% should be low intensity (able to easily talk and ride) and the remainder should be between low intensity and lactate threshold level (not able to talk easily).

The second ingredient is bike/body positioning and equipment.   Because aerodynamics is critical to speed, a smaller frontal profile is ideal.  This is best accomplished by going as low as reasonably possible and becoming streamlined (note that the rider/author pictured would be more aerodynamic if the head was lowered by lowering the arm-rests/cockpit area).  Body position is best accomplished with the aerobars and is the most effective method for becoming more aerodynamic.    In order of importance add, aerohelmet, skinsuit (vs loose clothing), aerodynamic wheels, aerodynamic bicycle, and then shoe covers.  If you are racing in the Merckx category (i.e. none of the above equipment is allowed), then the best way to get the most aerodynamic body position is to simulate an aero bar position with your forearms resting on the handlebars.  This is currently legal for UCI racing, but obvious caution must be applied.  Do not attempt during cross winds, turns, or poorly conditioned roads; otherwise riding with your hands in the drops is the best position.

The third ingredient is a good warm-up.  Ride easy for 20-30 minutes, then follow this with a few efforts at or just below your expected time trial effort.  This isn't hard science.  You can do 4 leg openers. These should last for 3 minutes each. Over the first minute, gradually bring yourself to your threshold heart rate. This should be just below your time trial pace. Hold it there for one or two minutes and over the last minute bring your effort back down to an easy/moderate pace. Recover 5 minutes and repeat. These should be just hard enough to get your heart rate up and a sweat going, but not tax your system or require any significant recovery time.  Or you can do 2 five minute efforts with five minute recovery between and just before starting the actual time trial.

The fourth ingredient is proper pacing.  If you have a watt meter, pay attention to it and ride according to your predetermined threshold level.  Always try to hold back a little during the first 5 to 10 minutes of a longer time trial, such as a 40k.  Because of adrenaline and fresh legs that are relatively lactate-free, it's extremely common to start too hard.  If you don't appropriately hold back you will more than pay for any gains later and have a net slower speed/time.  Instead, try to gradually increase your speed/effort slowly throughout the entire effort.  You should not be able to sprint across the finish line. 

A few additional tips.
(1)Take the shortest line through turns;
(2) run high air pressure in your tires (do not exceed manufacturers limits);
(3) if you have a choice go first in the morning or last in the evening because winds tend to increase in the morning and slow down in the late afternoon.  No wind is always better than any form of wind on out-and-back courses;
(4) hydrate before the race, and no drinking during the time trial if possible; consume your fluid intake before the time trial and use my recommended heat management techniques on hot days to help you;
(5) make sure your equipment is in good operating condition well in advance of a race and try to never make significant repairs to your bike just before a race (common rookie mistake);
(6) on hilly courses, pace your self by going harder on the uphills and recovering on the descents.  Hard efforts on steep descents is generally poorly spent energy;
(7) if you have to brake (such as a turn-around) do so at the last moment and then get back up to speed calmly, but quickly;  this is a technique that you should practice prior to the time trial;
(8) ride your ideal cadence (it may be lower than you've been told);
(9) focus on your breathing, cadence and pedal stroke (research shows that pulling up is not helpful for time trialing).  I suggest Lemond's method of a slight backward drag at the bottom of the pedal stroke, much like wiping your feet off on a mat.  The idea to help create a smooth pedal stroke through the dead zones of the pedals being straight up and down;
(10) don't slow down at the finish line; rather suffer all the way past the finish line and collect your prize and podium place accordingly. 

Badda bing, badda bang!  If you did everything just as I described, you have just won your first race!  Ok maybe not, but eventually.  You'll never forget your first victory no matter how small.  Mine was 2nd season as a category 4 in the Tidewater area in Virginia, while I was in the Navy, 1989.  I only caught partial seasons due to being out to sea on Mediterranean Cruises, but this 2nd season was the very last race of the season.  For some reason it was a really small race, almost like a tiny training race, maybe 15 guys.  It was around a school football stadium.  It didn't even really have true corners and I jumped the guy who typically won the sprints and did a long sprint (typical sprints are 200 meters and around 10-12 seconds) and he couldn't really come around on the curving finish.  That was over 20 years ago and I remember it happily.  I promise that you'll never forget your first win...... unless you bonk your head...... or become senile (like Fred does sometimes) ....... otherwise, you'll never forget it!!!!!

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  1. Good job. If someone can't win by following that advice, then they just can't win.

  2. Hey, thanks for the advice!

  3. Jimmy, thanks. I should add that it may take more than one try!
    Greg, thanks for reading. I hope to hear of some victory(ies) in your near future.

  4. great advice and website. Keep it up!

  5. Just wanted to say that as a beginner Cat5, your blog has been very helpful. Won my first race last week and I would say your tips work well as well in practice as they do in theory. And thanks for helping justify my possibly buying some nice, expensive wheels...

  6. K.T. That's freaking awesome to hear! Obviously, keep it up!

  7. Was wondering if you could help me out with something I'm struggling with in Cat 4 races. Every race I try to not be packfill and avoid being victim of the 'accordian' effect by staying up front, but somehow I either end up pulling the field or just getting sucked back into the swarm. I can't seem to manage to continually stay in that 3 - 10ish spot. I know that you say that for most of your basic crits (3 out of the 4 Gateway Cup courses for example), positioning is not really important until the final 2 laps. When I stay in the pack most of the race however I find myself having to slow down and accelerate at each corner do to the natural slowing of the field. On the contrary, when I try to stay up front throughout the race I somehow screw myself and end up having to take a pull and pace the field for a half lap or so. I'd be interested in your next blog entry if you wouldn't mind touching more on this subject. Thanks again for an awesome, informative blog.

  8. Ryan, your observation is classic of normal bike racing. It can be hard staying in the sweet spot of a field, especially when racing. I don't think it necessarily wrong to pull the pack provided that it is short (1/4 lap or less), not more often than some of the other typical top riders/finishers. On technical courses the extra energy spent in the wind is worth the cost. It will allow you the best lines, and fastest corners, with less braking and sprinting out of said corners ("accordion effect") and also put you in position for break-a-ways and counter attacking.

    You'll have to figure out your strengths and weakness and ride accordingly. For me I can move up in quick bursts and then quickly recover. I try to do so when the pack slows a bit (such as after primes). Also in longer straight-a-ways immediately after a corner. After accelerating out of the turn, simply keep your sprint effort up and run up the line. Try to get back in the group safely and before the next turn. I look for gaps or in front of a team-mate or someone who won't freak out as I move in front of them. I must say I hate it when someone does this to me, but immediately before or actually during a turn. I try not to do that, but in racing it happens by and to everyone eventually.

    Another technique is to visually mark a rider(s) (usually a winning rider or top finisher) and stay as close as you can to that rider. When you drift back or are passed simply race yourself back onto your marked rider over time.

    I hope this helps. I'm sure with more racing experience you'll figure out what works best for you.

  9. Dave, I re-read this blog post prior to the Belleville race two weeks ago and achieved my first Cat 4 victory...your advice helped immensely obviously! Thanks again

  10. Ryan, Great report and good job! Very nice to hear!

  11. David,
    I find your post on the importance of wheels and shoes very interesting. Can you elaborate more on the shoes and pedals part?

  12. Mike, the shoes and pedals are extremely important because they are the transfer points of power to the bicycle. The pedal should be light, with high end bearings (most efficient) and have a small profile (allows better cornering without clipping a pedal). The shoe should also be light, stiff (carbon soles are ideal) and comfortable. Lightness is quite important for best performance because the shoe pedal combination is a rotating object that accelerates faster if it's mass is smaller. Weight removed from rotating objects is probably twice as important as removing weight from fixed objects such as bike frames for performance gains.

  13. Thanks, David.

    I am now using the Sidi Carbon shoes with Look Keo2 pedals. I think that should be enough for me now. I'm not doing racing but I just want to learn on how to go faster.

    By the way, care to write an article about indoor trainers? I have difficulty finding proper long road for training and so I am now using the Lemond revolution trainer.

  14. Great equipment Mike. I run the same pedals and the Sidi shoes are excellent. I like your suggestion about writing an article concerning trainers and I will do one.

    Quick question about the Lemond revolution trainer: Is it noisy or quiet during operation? The design is ideal (saves tires and reduces chance of poor skewer mount that occurs with some trainer/skewer combinations).

  15. The Lemond trainer is already moderately loud when you're only going <30kph. At 30-40kph it is really really loud.

    What I do is I put a small bracket in the handlebar to put my Ipad on. And with an IEM (in ear monitors) I can watch Youtube videos while training without getting bothered by the wind noise caused by the fans.

    Another thing about the trainer is that it doesn't come with a RPM/speed meter, so you have to buy the module separately and that's another $350. So everything comes up close to $1k. Once installed the monitoring module works wirelessly to monitor RPM, speed, Watts, heart rate, pretty much everything.

  16. By the way, while the tips you posted are solid, I think it would be interesting to make comparison posts between say a Zipp 404 to the carbon wheels from Hongfu which costs $500 a set.

    I think a LOT of people would like to know how the hong fu wheels perform. I mean the Zipp is $2,300 and to many it's way out of our budget.

    1. Mike, the wheels look very nice and the price is EXTREMELY nice. By looks alone they should perform somewhat closely in the aerodynamic category (which is a huge factor), but the site gives no weights and no reviews. I would also like to know how they perform. They could be awesome wheels, or very heavy or worse.... fail around the nipples in the rim.

      Until a good review comes out on the hong fu wheels, my safest cheapest advice is to buy slightly used "name-brand" wheels. The old saying, "you get what you pay for", could very well apply here (but not necessarily... a person could get lucky, but I wouldn't count on it).

      Sorry I'm so late responding to your comment. In my defense, I did write the article about indoor trainers as you requested. :-)

  17. Nice job on this site sir.
    I will spread the word to my fellow ameture competetors. We do time trials each Tuesday. Usually windy, but always fast. I am the slowest guy in the trials, usually - though I am getting 5 percent faster every 2 weeks. This article sets up new inspiration for me to beat at east one person in front of me.

    Please add more advice for advanced beginners - psycological aspects help too...

  18. Good writing. I was looking for just a more simple explanation for training methods on the internet, but i think this is just what you nee to know.



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