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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Bicycle Racing Tactics and Strategies

There's not a lot of good material out there on tactics for bike racing, so I thought this would be  a good a place as any to provide some, plus this format is ideal in that readers (and myself) can comment and add or correct points made here.

My first introduction to bike racing tactics came from Greg Lemond's Complete Book of Cycling (no longer in print), then later by teammates, reading countless race articles in the cycling magazines, books, watching many hours of race footage on television and over two decades of personal race experience with hundreds of races completed..  Needless to say, I've learned a thing or two and I'm more than happy to share.

The importance of race tactics can not be understated.  Typically race tactics determine race outcomes far more than just physical ability alone.  The fantasy of beating your opponent by pure brute strength alone is just that.... a fantasy.  One reason for this  is that bike racing is organized by ability (categories), and the other is that proper race tactics will  typically trump a physically stronger rider with poor tactics, because of  nature of bike racing (particularly aerodynamics).

It is critical to understand the role that aerodynamics play in bike racing in order understand race tactics.  For this article I am going to assume that you understand the specifics of aerodynamics and bicycling.  (If you don't, please click this  text-link to read my comprehensive article on the subject).

Here's a few definitions that the beginner/novice must know to understand cycling tactics:
*Attack:  A swift acceleration designed to separate a rider from the pack
*Breakaway:  An individual rider or a group of riders who have created a significant gap between themselves and the main peloton or smaller group of riders
*Bridge:  The act of closing the distance to a rider or group of riders when they have created a gap.
*Chase:  When the peloton or small group of riders is working to close the distance to a rider or group of riders who are out ahead of the group.
*Counterattack:  The act of attacking from within the chase group immediately after the group has caught the rider or riders whom they were chasing down.
 *Drafting:  a position behind or to the side of a rider that enables another rider to stay out of the wind.
*Wheel Sucker: Competitor who stays behind other racers in their draft and will not move into a lead position and share the work load in order to gain a competitive advantage.
* Operation Drizzopple:  Procedure for getting rid of a wheel sucker by collective gaping off the paceline and sprinting back on until the wheel sucker fatigues and falls off the pace, or begins pulling.  The word drizzopple playfully comes for  a Snoop-Dogg-like blend of the words "dropping" and the beverage "Snapple".  It is always nice to serve a wheel sucker a nice cold bottle of drizzopple.
*Pacelining:  A practice where a group of cyclists are organized to efficiently take turns riding in the wind and sitting in protected from the wind (drafting)
* Echelon:  technique to make maximum use of another rider's slipstream in a crosswind, typically diagonally stacked in a line (variation of pacelining)
*pulling through:  to move into a vacated lead position from second in a paceline or pack.
*Lead out:  The act of riding hard and fast at the front to provide shelter for a teammate and set him up for a sprint to the finish.
*Blocking:  Disrupting the competitors from chasing riders (teammates) up the road.  This can be a subtle art.  Typically it is done by being physically between the breakaway riders and the chasers and simply going a little slower than the lead riders which allows greater separation between the two.   It's subtle because if blocking is done too aggressively (as in riding too slowly), the riders being blocked will simply come around and chase.  (It is illegal to purposely impede the forward progress of  a competitor, especially by swerving).  Another form of blocking is by setting on the lead chasers wheel and not pulling through (wheel sucking).  This form of blocking disrupts the pace and helps the breakaway gain distance.

There are multiple and interactive types of tactics in bike racing, namely psychological and physical, which can be divided into categories of individual and team tactics.  Bicycle racing is typically a team sport (some exceptions may include track, mountain, bmx), but can be done as an individual without teammates.

Bicycle racing, like most sports, is like warfare without the killing.  All racing tactics can be discussed in the context of Sun Tzu's  masterpiece work, "Art of War".  His principles and philosophies can be applied beyond warfare to many areas of life, but here I will apply it to bike racing specifically.

The principles from Sun Tzu's "Art of War" applied to bicycle racing:

The first principle is "Winning Whole".  The idea is to win with your resources and objective intact.   This is accomplished by, one, removing your competitor's hope for victory, two, using all of your advantages, three, exploiting your competitor's weaknesses, and four attacking along an unexpected line.

Applied to bike racing, your resources includes items such as your physical and mental being, finances, and even relationships, while your objective is winning.  I like to equate the idea of "winning" in this discussion with the idea of "respect" because it's one of the fundamental measures of what true or complete "winning" is really about.   Winning by using any means possible, may be prohibited by the first principle of Sun Tzu.  Specifically cheating, which may lead to a victory, but an incomplete or false victory; one that's absent of respect (both from self and others). There is a similar moral code to both warfare, bicycle racing and life in general. 

Below I will go chapter by chapter and point by point how the philosophies and tactics from "The Art of War" may be applied to bicycle racing.

1.  Removing your competitor's hope for victory.
Examples in bike racing:  a.) Gaining a great enough lead that your competitor gives up, such as lapping the field in bike racing.  b.) A lesser example is for a break-a-way group to have enough advantage that they are not visible to the chasing group.  c.) another example is sitting on a competitors wheel when you have a teammate in a break (you (almost) never chase your own teammate).  By sitting on a chasing competitors wheel, you remove some of his/her hope for victory because they know that not only will you not aid them, but you are in a drafting advantage using less energy than them, and you will counterattack them when the opportunity arises (this can have a crushing effect if done repetitively).   Hennie Kuiper put it this way, "Racing is licking your opponent's plate clean before starting on your own." 

2.  Using all of you advantages.
Examples in bike racing:  (Too many possibilities to list all here) a).  Great hill climbers attacking up long climbs, b.) great sprinters sitting in for the finish, c.) superior bike handler attacking a technical course, d.)large dominate teams sending riders away on breaks and then blocking for them, and then counterattacking the chase group if they catch their teammates e.) ability to learn the course by preriding, especially when your competitor can't. f.) getting a great starting position on a technical course because of hometown connections.

3.  Exploiting your competitor's weaknesses.
Examples in bike racing:  a.)  if your competitor has no teammates, and you do, use your teammates to block (position themselves between) him/her in and send your riders away, cover your competitor as he/she chases and then counter attack if he/she catches the group. b.) attack if you see that your competitor has fallen off or is struggling to maintain contact with the group.  c.) if your competitor is an inferior sprinter, try to make sure the outcome is decided in a sprint finish. Tim Krabbe' (author of "The Rider") put it succinctly, "When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what's your first reaction?  To help him to his feet?  In road racing, you kick him to death."

"Know your enemy and know yourself", Sun Tzu warns.  If you do so, then you will win a hundred out of a hundred  battles, Sun Tzu promises. 

4.  Attacking along an unexpected line.
Example in bike racing:  Making a run from behind, not off the front in plain sight. Using tactical variations.  If you typically win by sprinting, try a breakaway win or the opposite (this can work very well if you are  good at both disciplines of sprinting and time trialing)

Another principle of Sun Tzu is "Way of Life".  Engaging in battles you cannot win is a waste of time and resources and not in accord with the Way of Life.  Applied to bike racing, one should generally seek out races that one is capable of winning or at least at being competitive in.  Going to a race above one's ability (happily races are ability/experience based) and getting spit out the back is a waste of one's time and resources.  Getting beat up is not really character building.  Do not let pride overrun good judgement. 

To win whole, you must find the means to keep you and your teammates morale high while you destroy your competitors morale or make it easy for them to quit.   In bike racing this is done by competing in races you can do well in and doing well; winning.  As for making it easier for your competitor to give up, sugar goes much further than vinegar.  Meaning that being courteous and respectful to your competitor takes some of the steam out of their sails; reduces their will to fight.  Remember, in bike racing we tend to race the same people repetitively over time.  Nothing motivates a person more than the chance to defeat an arrogant jerk.  In  bike racing it is far easier to ruin another racer's chance for winning than it is to help someone win.  It's far easier to sacrifice one's chances for winning or placing well by pulling the peloton up to an unliked rider who's in a break-a-way and ruin their chances for a victory than it is to slip away from the peloton for your own or teammates victory.  Again do not let pride overrun good judgement, and don't be a jerk.  

Sun Tzu says to defeat your opponent quickly so that won't become fatigued and lose your strength.
In bike racing the best application of this tactic is in the development of breakaways.  The early efforts of a breakaway should be very near 100% effort so as to either lap the field or at least get out of sight.

Chapter 3, "Attack by Stratagem".
This is the art of winning without giving the appearance of trying or winning with the least effort required to do so.  This is done by drafting when possible and racing technically correct, such as not pulling competitors up hills or into headwinds, remaining hydrated and fueled, and timing effort correctly, etc.  In bike racing, timing is everything!  Starting a sprint too soon will turn into a lead-out and victory for a competitor.  On the other hand, starting a sprint too late will give a good view of the winner. 

Deception can be a major part of strategy, such as appearing strong when, in fact, you're weak, or appearing weak when you are strong.  In fact deception forms the basis for all warfare.  This premise from Sun Tzu applied to bike racing would be as such:  Absolutely never tell your competitor that  that your legs are starting to cramp up, or that you are dying (when this is the case).  Instead present a good poker face and stretch and hydrate  at the end of group out of site.  Conversely when you feel strong do not show it by taking long hard pulls.  Do the opposite, take short pulls, and feign fatigue (hang-dog facial expression, shaking out your quads, head low, verbally reporting fatigue, etc).

Keep in mind if you lie to your competitor that you are unable to take your turn to pull and then later attack, they will of course never believe you again (unless you later convince them that you recovered) and they will have a good reason  to spoil your future races if possible.  Deceit should be used sparely and convincingly.  A bluff should generally never be revealed if possible.

Chapter 5, Energy (or "Directing")
Sun Tzu's book focuses on the use of creativity and timing in building an army's momentum.  This is equally true for bicycle racing.  Pacing oneself and using the proper timing of one's energy leads to success.  For example it is critical to close gaps quickly in order to stay in the energy saving draft of the group, bridge up to critical breakaways, and time one's efforts in the closing kilometers and final sprint finish.  (this generally requires experience).  A poorly calculated effort can result in "blowing up" and having to dramatically reduce your work load just to complete the distance.   Timing one's effort is extremely valuable in advancing one's position within the field of other riders.   It is best to advance in bursts, typically when the pack is starting to bunch up, as opposed to being stretched out single file. 

Creativity often comes into play with bike racing, as being able to look for new ways to solve a problem that kills momentum.  For example if hills are an Achilles heel for you, try altering your training, riding position in the pack, reviewing and preparing for a specific course.  Short punchy hills may only require maintaining one's speed to carry over the top, whereas long hills may require the strategy of starting near the front (drafting going into hills should not be ignored), and pacing oneself even if drifting backwards in pack position occurs.   Try visualization.   It is a very valuable and creative  tool for improving performance.

Chapter 6, Weak Points and the Strong (or "Illusion and Reality").
"Strike the weak and avoid the strong" , wisely advices Sun Tzu.  In bike racing being the first to attack may put you in the stronger position because you lead the way according to how you have chosen.  Sometimes in bike racing it is better to dish out the punishment rather than to be on the receiving end.  Specifically being in the front of a race that has a technical course with lots of turns.  The lead riders are able to choose their lines and generally can go through them cleanly without breaking (slowing), whereas riders in the back tend to bunch up and break into the corners and then have to sprint maximally out of the corners in order to keep up (this is progressively fatiguing) , like a giant accordion.  This effect can lead to gaps and riders getting dropped from the group. Other times it is best to not be the first to attack.  Especially if your competitor is equally your match or your superior.  The advantage goes to the drafting rider.  So if the course is not technical, and the finish line is not near, then it is best to feign weakness or just simply try to exhibit more patience than your competitor.   Try to out wait  them to make the first move, latch onto their wheel and once they show weakness from their effort (letting off) counter attack their move with full effort.  If they are able to ride into your draft, then your counter move will typically be a failure unless their first effort was too long. It's best to place your move with a cross wind or a section that plays to your advantages, such as being a better technical bike handler in a technical section. 

As a rule,  it is typically best not to attack early in a race because everyone is generally still strong.  It's best to get into breakaways and attack near the end of the race when your competitors are at their weakest.  Remember to not start your plate until you have first licked your competitors clean!
 

Riders who will not "pull through" in a breakaway paceline are called wheel suckers.  These racers often are sprinters and they are conserving their energy  at the expense of their breakaway mates and greatly increasing their chances for victory by using their advantage of sprinting abilities.

The most ideal method for dealing with a rider who refuses to take a turn pulling is for everyone in the break to take turns drifting off the paceline with the "wheel sucker" on their wheel and then sprinting hard back onto the group  If everyone does this repetitively, this will eventually cause the "wheel sucker" to fatigue and not be able to claw their way back onto the group (also called Operation Drizzopple)

Chapters 10 and 11, The Nine Situations and Terrain (also known as  "Situational Positioning")
Use the best position and tactics in relation to the environment and to your opponent.  One of the best tactics in bike racing is to "attack" with a team into a crosswind as pictured above.
Riders 1 through 4 represent a team that have created an echelon,  and riders A and B would be competitors for this illustration.  Riders 1, A and B are essentially all exposed to wind and are riding maximally.  Riders 2, 3 and 4 are in the draft and are using considerably less energy (30-40% less).  Rider 4 is the gate keeper.  His job is stay as far right as possible so that rider A can't get any draft behind him while communicating to rider 3 to adjust left or right accordingly for his draft (helpful because the cross-drafting rider may not be possible to see).  3 tells 2 the adjust as well, who in turn, communicates the same to rider 1.  All riders "hold their line", meaning ride relatively fixed lines with the road (no swerving).    After a short period of time (30-60 seconds),  riders 1, 2, and 3 take turns in the lead position by rotating in a counter-clockwise position.   Rider 4, the gate keeper,  holds his position to prevent non-teammates from entering the draft.  

Gate keeper's are not always necessary for echelons to work, but it makes it easier for rider 1 to assume rider 3's position, otherwise there can be some difficultly with rider A, who will be fighting for a drafting position.

Tactically, rider 4 is also in a good position to block for his teammates by slowly drifting off.    Or he could drift off and sprint back on to see if they can create a separation.

Another good tactic is to attack before a technical turn.  It's even better when you have a teammate subtly block in response.  The confusion of the peloton in the turn will give you much needed time to establish a break off the front.  

Additionally,  breakaway groups have a slightly better chance of success in wet conditions (the peloton tends to not draft as effectively because of water spray and navigates corners slower).   And breakaways and solo riders have slightly better chances of success with cross-winds and tailwind conditions (both reduce the effects for drafting with larger numbers, as opposed to sections with headwinds and downhills because a large group maintain a higher speed by rotation of fresh riders. 

Breakaway groups with all the major teams represented have a much better chance of success (compared to riders from just one team or a weaker team), and especially so if the team leaders are present in these breakaways.  These are breakaways that you should try to be in.  Not only will their teammates not chase, but in many cases they will actively block for them. 

To learn more about Sun Tzu and The Art of War applied to sport click here.  Or better yet, buy the book and read it for yourself.  There are  more principles that can be applied to both bike racing and your life in general.

To learn other helpful cycling and racing tips see my page above for topics  such as what and when to eat for competitive cycling, psychology for competitive cycling, how to be faster with no additional effort, how to effectively high speed corner on a racing bike, and more. 

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