Someone asked me an interesting question the other day. “How did you get to be a professional?” It was an interesting question because of its bluntness as well as the assumption that seemed to underlie it. The assumption was that that there is a formula, a secret code, or a series of steps that once taken would lead inevitably to fame, fortune, and groupies. (the obvious perks of any professional bike racing career). The answer could be as simple as natural, raw talent. Perhaps that’s part of it, but there’s much more. There’s the willingness to develop resilience in the face of failure– frequent failure, and the acceptance of some serious sacrifices in your personal and professional life. There has to be a tenacious desire to learn from more experienced riders who unfortunately often don’t want to share what has taken them years to learn (“trade secrets”, they say).
So, the biggest secret of all is that there is a secret code to success in cycling. It’s not a simple one–it’s hard to crack, and it’s not one that I’m nearly articulate or experienced enough to describe exhaustively. It exists, though. Trust me. What follows is an honest attempt to distill some of the lessons. I’ve had to learn them the hard way, but I’ll try to break it down into a series of easy to follow rules to race by. You can use them to crack the code for yourself.
Rule # 1: Be unpredictable
If you’re feeling exceptionally good, start racing like you’re feeling lousy. It is common knowledge in cycling that the strongest rider in the peleton seldom wins the race. In fact, the strongest rider in any given race is at a distinct disadvantage. As soon as the rest of peleton identifies the strongest rider, there is a concerted effort both conscious and instinctive to level the playing field by ganging up on him. If it’s a breakaway scenario, the other riders will allow the stronger rider to pull for twice as long. If the strongest rider is positioning for a field-sprint, the other riders will mark his wheel and push him into the wind with 500 meters to go.
If you lay your cards on the table by attacking too early and too often, other riders will mark you out of the race. If you take long pulls in an attempt to whittle down the field early, the other strong riders will be all too happy to allow you to do their dirty work for them. If you take the longest and fastest pulls in the breakaway, you will dissuade your breakaway companions from “pulling through,” either because they want to take advantage of you, or they are simply too exhausted to contribute. Remember, anonymity is your friend. Winning moves go when every other rider is already too tired to respond. If you bide your time while your opponents tire themselves out, you can launch your winning attack when they are all too worn out to react. One well-timed attack that catches your opponents off-guard is always more effective than the ten that they expect.
Rule #2: Patience is a virtue
It’s all too easy to get discouraged in a bike race. I’ve been in many races when early on, a racer I’m friendly with will roll up beside me and tell me how terrible his legs feel. Now, consider the possibility that he’s implementing Rule #1. That’s a distinct possibility, and he may not be as good a friend as you think! But more than likely, he’s being honest. The first few miles of a race can often be the most unsettling; especially during a stage race, or the second day of a weekend series. If you wake up groggy and sore with a wicked headache, you’re probably not going to feel much better at the start line. It’s easy to get discouraged when you start to get dropped on the first climb of the day, and I’ve often been tempted to pack-it-up and go home right then and there. But wait; don’t lose faith! Patience…The fabled “second-wind” does indeed exist!
If you’ve done the hard work in training, and gotten the proper rest, you just might surprise yourself. I’ve been dropped early in races often enough to know that staying with it and fighting tooth and nail to catch back on, things can turn out in my favor. It’s not uncommon for me to spend the first 30 miles of a race just waiting for my legs to come around. You may not be the strongest rider in the race, but you are effectively implementing Rule #1 by riding conservatively and allowing the race to develop before you make your move. This often requires that you implement my next rule, which I will cover in next week’s installment of “Eric’s Rules to Race By.”
Rule #3: Learn to Sag
There are very few of us, in any category, who can climb with the elite of our respective fields. However, it is a blessed fact for those of us endowed with slightly greater girth, that there are very few races in the United States that are designed for our spindly climber friends. Most races end in group sprints, or select the “hard-men” of the peloton, who can brave adverse conditions and muscle their way over shorter climbs. For those of you who despise climbing, remember that most races are designed to favor you–as long as you can survive a few elevation gains.
Sagging essentially boils down to knowing where and when you can race conservatively to save energy and where and when you must claw your way to the front of the pack and stay there.
You must learn not only how to sag, but when to sag. Take, for example, the Philadelphia International Championships, one of the classics of American bike racing. Philly’s most formidable challenge is the daunting Manayunk Wall. About a half-mile long, the Manayunk Wall is a staggeringly steep ascent, invariably lined with drunken, unruly spectators. If you’re willing to brave a beer or two spilled down your back and language that would make a sailor cringe, come to Manayunk to see sag-climbing at its finest.
For the first 6 of the 10 brutal ascents, you will see some of the strongest racers in the world, ride this climb at a snail’s pace. At the bottom of the climb, riders turn left from a cobble-stoned street and begin the ascent of Levering Street. The wiliest of riders have positioned themselves near the front, but as a few overeager competitors, and those assigned by their teams to hunt for the early breakaways begin to sprint up the climb, these savvy racers settle into a comfortable tempo and watch as most of the race passes them by. By the top, they are nearly at the back, and they begin the descent having hardly broken a sweat. This pattern continues for most of the race, and as the spectators watch the field dwindle, they soon see that the few that are left are those that have used their energy wisely in the earlier part of the race.
As the crucial laps approach, and the race has begun to make its final selection, the time for sagging has ended. The field has shrunk in size, and there is no longer anywhere to hide. The time has come to use the saved energy and begin the “real” racing. Only with a careful use of energy before this point, is it possible to “really” race the final 70km of a 260km race.
The same principles apply in amateur racing at all levels. If you can learn the art of sag-climbing, then success in races will come easily. To borrow an analogy from my coach, Jay Gump, racing is like having a checking account. You only have so much in the bank, and if you overdraw your account before the end of the race, you are broke. Training, racing, and recovering can increase the size of your bank account, but there will always be a limit. The less you use during the inconsequential periods in the race, the more you’ll have to use when you need it–when the selections are made and the victor is crowned.
Now that you’ve saved all that precious energy for the finish, what are you going to do with it? Whether you come to the finish line in a massive pack, or a two-man breakaway, you must master one skill if you want to take the top step on the podium. Many avoid this aspect of bike racing. Maybe you think you lack the explosive power, or perhaps you are anxious about sustaining severe bodily injury. Whatever, the reason, there is no excuse for not learning this essential skill, which brings us to:
Rule # 4: Learn to sprint.
Whether you consider yourself a time-trialist, a climber, or a break-away specialist, without at least some pack-sprinting ability you will have very little chance of advancing out of Cat. 4 or 5. At that level, very few races are long or selective enough to whittle the pack down significantly, so if you want those upgrade points, you’re going to have to earn them in the field-sprints!
Let’s start with how a sprint often unfolds: An effective lead-out is the most visible and obvious manifestation of team tactics in cycling, and it is also one of the most difficult to execute. There is nothing quite as beautiful as a line of teammates setting pace for their designated sprinter. When it all goes right, it almost looks effortless. Very few teams can muster the kind of marshaled cohesion of Mark Cavendish’s HTC-Columbia teammates or Alessandro Petacchi’s old Fasso Bortolo squad. I’ve only been in one sprint where everything went exactly right, and, in retrospect, it certainly didn’t go exactly as planned. At the Bound Brook Criterium in 2010, I was the last rider in the lead-out, and our team controlled the race so effectively that when I started my final kick 500 meters from the line, it was just one teammate within a bike-length of my front wheel. I ended up winning the race with my teammate in second. These scenarios are extremely uncommon, but when they do go just right, they require almost no real sprinting skill. In almost every instance, the vast majority of riders will find themselves without the support of teammates at the end of a race and sprinting skill is crucial.
At the ProTour level, most teams rely on a tag-team approach where one or two riders will try to take a few opportunistic risks for their teammate, and capitalize on even the smallest mistake of the main lead-out train. The key to effective sprinting includes two key components: timing and improvisation. Robbie McEwan has made an entire career out of opportunistic improvisation, and so can you.
In the case of the American-Style Criterium, nearly every race is won in the last corner. What this means is that every racer is essentially competing for that coveted position through the last turn. But the least important aspect of a bunch-sprint at the end of the race is the actual sprint. Over the course of the race, you must decide where you need to be in that final corner and focus nearly every ounce of your energy on getting there. Sometimes it is advantageous to come through first, while in other races it proves advantageous to start your sprint with a few riders ahead of you. For several laps leading up to this point, every corner will become decisive. There will be moments where you are elbow to elbow with another rider, daring each other to flinch as you vie for a line through a corner only wide enough for one of you. Deciding when to give ground, and when to defend it right up to the edge of disaster is as much instinct as it is technical know-how. A general rule of thumb is that if sacrificing a position or two with several laps remaining in a race saves you the energy to take three or four positions back in the final lap then it is worth giving the ground to your competitor.
Because a successful sprinter needs to devote tremendous energy and concentration to the last few laps or miles of a race, it is essential to use your energy wisely in the indecisive early moments of a race. Choose wisely when and whether to attack, and take care to give ground to other racers in corners during the early laps. This will help you to avoid crashes and perhaps even build some trust and goodwill with riders who may very well be battling you in the final moments of the race.
The only guarantee in sprinting is that there are absolutely no guarantees. No matter how well you’ve planned those final few laps of the race, you can be sure that conditions will change and you will be forced to adapt. The most important thing you can do in a bunch-sprint is to stay calm when things are spinning out of control around you. A hard grab versus a soft-feathering of the brakes can be the difference between sacrificing a position and finding yourself at the back of the pack in an instant. Remember that like Newton said, “every action requires an equal and opposite reaction.” If you slam on the brakes, you will have to use even more energy attempting to get back up to speed, not to mention you might cause a crash in the process!
If you maintain your composure, and develop the confidence to ride near the front in the final few laps of a race, you will be amazed by how quickly your sprinting improves. Just remember that you will have to lose many times before you learn how to win, and that it is perfectly natural to feel uncomfortable when you find yourself at the sharp end of the race in the final kilometers. Stick with it, and before you know it, you will be sprinting your way into the next category!