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Road racing explained – Part 1 – Bunch basics

Road Racing part 1
Bunch riding – The Basics

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The first twenty minutes of a cat. 4 event are always critical, this is when most people feel frisky and full of riding, so there will be various attacks and chases followed by variations in speed and general messing about. This usually sends the inexperienced riders into confusion and panic.

Because there’s never any pattern to this part of the race it’s not really a surprise that very few of the riders will have clue what to do. During the early stages watch the riders attacking and trying to get away, they may well get a few metres off the front but usually the (over) enthusiasm behind will chase all of the early breaks down. This is because the riders in these breakaway groups are either not committed enough to the move or just don’t have the legs for it.

Also watch for the strongest riders and those who are just along for the ride, this will help you develop a strategy for later in the race. For the complete novice there is a tendency to be pushed to the back of the bunch where it appears to be calmer and less confusing, this can be your first mistake.

Through and off…
Many riders new to bunch riding tend to overdo everything, accelerating too much as they reach the front or trying to get off the front too quickly, all this is unnecessary and wastes energy. For example if you are riding in two lines (moving through on the right) the left-hand string will be ‘soft pedalling’ in order to drift to the back. So to get through to the front you just need to ‘roll through’, allowing enough space for the front rider before you swing over.

The problems start when people upset this tempo and ride for themselves or without thinking, surging through too fast and breaking the chain behind them. This forces the riders behind to chase the gaps left by the acceleration, and if you do this, you’ll eventually have few friends left in the peleton.

So if you do feel strong, and want to chase, spend longer on the front once you have pulled through or wait to go it alone and save you energy for the attack.

‘Bouncing on the elastic’
The biggest issue you face physically is the fact you will have to close gaps on your own back and forth like an elastic band. If you are at the back this becomes amplified as you will have to chase after a corner or at the top of a hill, and overtime it gets a little harder – this is a piece of elastic that will eventually snap. You will be working harder, far harder, than a rider in the first 10, so if you can stay there you should be thinking about moving up ASAP. Especially as staying at the back has three basic ‘my race is nearly over’ issues:

1. You will have to make more effort to chase after corners or changes in pace.
2. You are far more likely to get tangled up in splits and crashes
3. The race is all far away and you’ll miss all the fun

Front riding has a dramatic effect, as Jeremy Tapp found out:

“I was advised to push harder and establish myself in the first 1/3 of the bunch. The theory being that there is less surging, and you can react to changes in speed faster. (Plus of course the knock-on benefit of less crash risk).
Anyhow, I did this, and it worked marvellously. The pace was steadier, and I lasted the whole race in the group. I even did a few stints on the front which was great.”

The chase
If a break goes down the road the usual technique is for two or three riders to chase it down, often even they don’t know why, they just want to… then the break is caught and everyone sits up.

This is frustrating for the breakaway group as they are probably trying to make a gap and work hard together to stay away. But this is typical of British racing (at whatever level) and can make the racing very negative. You’ll notice in pro racing that it’s rare for riders to chase a break down straight away. They usually let things develop and if they want it to work they will shut down the chase or (if they don’t have a rider in the move) send someone over to the break.

All these things are pre-arranged or decided on the road by the team captain/leader, or nowadays (and more controversially) by the manager. Also the team who doesn’t have a rider there, or who wants a bunch sprint will always be the first expected to organise the chase.

Making sense of the chaos
Unless there is a team structure the usual amateur road race bunch remains fairly chaotic – unless someone decides to organise the rabble into a chase. The structure and organisation of the bunch will depend on various things:

1. The wind direction and strength of it
2. The number of riders wanting to help
3. The overall size of the bunch
4. The ability of the riders

Bizarrely, I have heard novice riders complain when a team gets organised and shuts a race down, or decides to chase a break, complaining that they are in some way cheating. But if a strong rider capable of winning manages to escape, then the team’s main purpose will be to:

1. Prevent riders escaping to get across to him
2. Prevent the bunch organising a chase
3. Keep the pace steady so that no one is tempted to escape
4. Organise a chase if their man isn’t in the move

So why are organised teams seen as cheats? Could this be a hangover from the days of amateur racing? Do we British see this as just not being cricket? Surely the strongest rider should be allowed to win?

I don’t know why, but what I do know is the strongest rider in a road race seldom wins it, especially if they let everybody know they are the strongest. Take Nicole Cooke in the Olympic road race, they all knew if she got into a break she would or could win and so they didn’t let her. She became isolated unable to escape.

So strength helps win but it doesn’t guarantee success.

So when do I pull?
Basically cycling etiquette is to pull your weight if asked, but this can mean you risk your own chances of completing the race. So, to start with, stay tucked away and out of the wind.

In my experience the better the standard of race, the less this is an issue. In top-class races (where teams are organised) you will find that each rider has a role to play and if this means getting to the front and chasing breaks, then that’s what they do, often risking their own position in the race to ensure victory for the team. This makes it much easier to hide in the bunch, letting the team take the strain.

Stay off the front
In a 4ths race the best advice is to stay off the front unless you intend to attack or bridge across to a breakaway group, both of which require confidence, strength and experience. All of those things you develop, in time. Usual activity on the front may seem like you are ‘racing’ but all you are doing in reality is reducing your chances of success, so don’t do it. This is the classic mistake for triathletes, mountain bikers and time triallists. They go straight to the front and everyone else sits there behind enjoying the view and waiting for them to get tired. If you have good strong legs, why waste all that energy?

In the next instalment we’ll look at attacking, climbing and sprinting…

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