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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Question of the day..... week....... uh..... year, concerning bike racing tactics

I do occasionally get viewer mail with questions and comments.  I truly try to respond to all and some are worth responding to in a blog format so that others may share this information, add to, or even correct my errors (which hopefully aren't too often, but I'm hope I'm called out whenever possible). I strongly encourage audience participation.  So let her fly!

So without further to-do, Scott writes:

"I was also hoping to ask you a racing tactical question. I am a former collegiate track and cross country athlete transitioning to cycling. I am still in category five and I notice during our races that jockeying for position in the peloton is a key ability to stay towards the front. We have a lot of guys that will try and take a pull, but die within seconds of being in the wind so the lines are always changing speeds. When I make an attack on the outside it can be hard to get back into a line and back into the draft. Do you have any advice for me on how to get back into a line when I attack on the outside? It seems like the best way to gain position instead of trying to jockey through lines within the peloton which seems to have an element of luck to it."


Congrats Scott, and welcome to a new and strange world of bike racing.  I want to say right off that I NEVER encourage anyone to take up the sport of bike racingI say this because when they crash (and they will eventually), they can NEVER blame me for their misfortune.  With that said, if you are like me, nobody can talk you out of experiencing the thrill of bike racing, and therefore it's cool for me to encourage you and others who are equally crazy.    

Before I answer your question, I have to tell you that the single best bike racing advice (or survival tactic) that you will ever receive is this....... try not to half wheel. Half wheeling is probably the single biggest cause of bike crashes. This is true even for professional bike racers.  Basically half wheeling is when your front wheel crosses the imaginary plane of the rear wheel of the cyclist in front of you.  This is especially dangerous when riders are all in close proximity to each other.  Sometimes it can't be helped, but you should try to avoid it when posible.   If the front rider swerves accidentally or purposely to avoid an obstacle they could sweep your front wheel if it is close by.  The lead rider almost never goes down, but the half-wheeler often does and usually thinks it was the other riders fault. Not true...... it's the half wheelers fault.

Now to your question.  Staying up near the front of a race is important as follows and in this order:  1. Near the end of the race, as in the  last two laps or last two kilometer of a road race, 2.  if the race course is technical (lots of turns),  3. if the roads are wet, 4. if the field size is large.    Conversely, if these 4 conditions are not present, then it is not necessary to ride near the front.  I'm giving you the green light to ride in the back of a small field size on a non-technical course early in a race.  Just don't forget to move up during the end of the race so that you are positioned to sprint for the win.

You write, "We have a lot of guys that will try and take a pull, but die within seconds of being in the wind so the lines are always changing speeds."  I believe from your description that the lead riders are actually riding correctly.  Let me explain.  The lead rider is performing the most work.  Riders following tightly in his/her draft can travel the same speed but use up to 30% less wattage or energy than that lead rider.  Or in other words the lead rider is working up to 30% harder than everyone behind him/her. New racers tend to pull for long stretches and then get dusted in the sprint because they have no gas left for the real race. 

Check out my post on the importance of aerodynamics in cycing.  The graphics shows you the importance of being aerodynamic and also explains why the lead riders wouldn't want to stay there permanently.   Instead,  they take a short turn at the front and rotate back into the pack.  Smaller groups usually form a rotating chain. Typically a rotating paceline will travel faster than a single individual.

I would suggest copying the riding style of the other riders that you have described and DO NO MORE WORK (aka pulling, aka leading) than the rider who is doing the least work.  In other words save your juice for the big finish.  Also read my blog post called:  Do This and You Will Win.

My last advice for you is to have fun fun fun!  Oh yeah, and don't half wheel!

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