Road Racing explained - part 2
Road racing – part two: Climbing, attacking and sprinting
These three techniques have a lot in common, so we’ll deal with the basics together. Good climbers are often also good sprinters, as both require explosive effort - the ability to go hard and turn up the pace at the drop of a hat. Attacking requires cunning and planning, as you will need to make efforts and recover quickly, so that the breakaway can succeed. Sprinting can be daunting and tactical Track riders learn these techniques as a matter of course: if you struggle when the bunch hits the final kilometre then get down to the track, you’ll be sprinting like Eric Zabel in no time…
Once you’ve done a few races you’ll need to learn how to get around the peloton quickly and smoothly. This is the hard part. On the open road it's also potentially hazardous as you need to consider traffic and other road users.
If you imagine the peleton as being a flock of birds, there will be fluid parts of the flock and more rigid parts. The outside flanks are usually the fluid parts and riders will be constantly joining this chain to get up to the front, once at the front you can either drift back, or maintain your position, it’s a constant flow as you move forward. We are looking to stay at the front, so this means you have to find the solid part of the peloton, where you know you can sit happily – ‘Armstrong style' - surveying the race ahead of you.
However, in the Tour de France Lance uses his team-mates to help hold his position, they fetch and carry stuff, keep a check on breaks and chase unwelcome gaps for him. He still has to retain his position, but it's much easier when that's all you have to think about (which is why there was all the fuss about him chasing down Simeoni 'personally').
How to get up to the front takes experience and knowing which wheels to follow. The stronger riders will already be at the front, you will have marked a few of these as 'good wheels' already – these riders are easy to spot as they will ride confidently. Road racing well is an ability that comes to you with time, that’s why riders with experience rarely get dropped, they know how to stay ‘in the wheels’.
Hills are a major problem to the rookie road racer. You may feel like Richard Virenque in training, but come to a race and you get shelled out the minute it heads over a minor hill - but why? The usual mistake is to start the climb at the back of the bunch. This is a big no-no. Try to move up to the front of the bunch before the bottom of the climb, then as the road tilts upwards you will only lose a few places and still be in touch at the top of the climb. Start at the back you will stay there, ‘bouncing on the elastic’ and eventually being dropped.
Also novice riders tend to start the hill in a higher gear than they can manage all the way up, it may seem OK at the bottom of the climb but doesn't allow for changes in pace (or the severity of the climb) at the top of the hill. Better to start in a low-ish gear than one too high, this will allow you to concentrate on riding and mean you don't place strain on the gears when you have to change. You can always change up a gear or two if it’s too low, which is also impressive to your rivals.
Where to attack
Usually on hill, but there are no rules. The force of the attack is the important thing. Attacking on a windy day, into the wind, may seem a little stupid but it can work. However, solo breaks on windy days rarely succeed, so unless you can persuade a few others out of the comfort of the peleton then it’s better to stay put and wait. It’s not really where you attack but how. Some races can be won by attacking on a slippery corner that other riders are hesitant on, or on a downhill section. The key is to suss out where you plan to get an advantage and then prepare for the moment. When to attack is usually when there is a lull in the action, say: after a break has been caught, just after a sprint lap or as a strong looking rider has just had a go. These are all times when everyone is using the slowing down as a bit of a breather. Some riders will keep attacking relentlessly after each move has returned and this is a good tactic if you have the legs for it. Eventually they’ll give up and you’ll be away.
How to attack
Go like hell! And don't hold back until the gap has established itself. Work like a Trojan if you have to, to get the move to stick. You will get to ease up a little when the break is away, but the biggest mistake you can make is NOT to commit everything to it at first, pathetic attacks are just that - they never succeed. Road racing is all about recovery and your training will reflect this type of effort so worry about the finish later – remember that fortune favours the brave so don't be afraid to have a go: if you establish a gap on your own you may have to keep going until you have tempted a few other riders from the group. Usually the speed at which you attack will determine how many riders want to join you. It’s all about timing and if you time it right it’s a lot easier than it sounds.
In a peleton there are many riders like you, if they are new to the game and maybe unsure about the tactics and protocol, they will also ride very tensely with their arms locked and shoulders tight, this makes your riding laboured and erratic. So first of all – RELAX…
A few more tips for blending in and becoming a ‘good wheel’:
1. Don't swerve, you’ll hear other riders shout ‘hold your line’ this means keep a steady course, especially when cornering. Pick your line and stick with it.
2. If you puncture or decide to drop out, put your hand up and move safely to one side. Don’t just stop.
3. Keep your eyes front, as looking behind will make you drift and put your front wheel in danger - and the front wheel is far more vulnerable to causing accidents than the rear.
4. Always indicate your intention to move into a space. Do not presume the rider behind has seen your intention to move, point.
5. Don’t ride into gaps that are closing, or about to close up, it’s better to wait a while to make you move rather than risking everyone’s safety.
The technique depends on many different factors, but to start out we are looking for a smooth jump followed by a sustained pace, don't do it all in the first 50 metres - increase the speed and keep your eyes front. Sprinting requires guts and determination, some would say stupidity too as it can be very sketchy.
These are just the basic points: (we’ll look into tactics and technique in more detail later on in the series)
1. Select a gear appropriate to the terrain and one you know you can keep going on: you may want to be able to go again, so leave a gear or two spare to use if you get the chance.
2. Sprints usually last 200-250 metres (which is about all your body can take at top speed) so make a note of where this is before the last lap. Then pick your wheel and don’t bottle it.
3. Sprint on the drops, you need to get low over the front of the bike.
4. Don’t lead from the front, unless it’s a hill and you are confident of winning. Wait about four or five bikes back and strike when you know the riders in front aren’t expecting you.
5. Practice in training - the best sprinters practice. A lot.
If you want to win, remember…
Cycle racing requires riders to work together and as a whole unit. The winners exploit this teamwork, usually by attacking or waiting for the sprint. It requires a big effort but making big efforts in the bunch will not help you win the race and it can upset the group's organisation too. Use your head, apply some of the above advice and try things out in training and races, you will not learn by being conservative with your tactics.
So don’t just sit there… it’s no fun and you won’t win.