So you have been watching the Tour Down Under and doing your homework watching race videos and now your stoked to get on the start line and do some work. The only problem is that you don’t have any teammates or at least an organized team. Game over right? Everyone knows that road cycling is a team sport. Not so fast though. If your smart, opportunistic, and scrapy you can level the field with the bigger teams. Even if your racing with a team these tips can be valuable in setting up your race strategy.
Know the Course
This is crucial! You have to know what to expect when you toe the start line and there are no excuses for not knowing the course. With the internet you can see maps, elevation files, and even read past race reports (Mapmyride.com is a good resource to search for races and see GPS files including elevation). Pre-ride the course, if possible, the day before or for crits the morning of your race. If it is an A race, planning a trip a few weeks prior can give you important first hand course knowledge and help you mentally and physically prepare for the race. Knowing the course is also an important factor in where to line up at the start. Is it a crit and there are 2 quick turns right off the line? Do you want to be on the inside of those turns or outside? There are benefits to both: The outside line will allow you to maintain speed and possibly move through the pack a little easier. The inside can be fast and is the shorter line through the turn but everyone wants to be there so it may be harder to move up. Generally inside lines will allow you to maintain position in the group but you will have to watch for the riders trying to dive the corners. What is that? That is a technique where riders will come inside and brake late to move up positions in the group. It usually happens when the field slows and riders are trying to make up a lot of positions. Typically this isn’t smooth and can be dangerous so keep your eyes out for those guys running up the inside of the turns. If you decide to give this technique a shot make sure you aren’t having to grab a fistful of brakes going into the turn. That means you aren’t smooth, are dangerous, and wasting energy. Don’t be that guy.
If you don’t have the opportunity to see the whole course at least know the last few miles so you know any crucial corners, climbs, or descents coming into the finish. Where is the sprint likely to start? Is it uphill or downhill? How long can you actually sprint (see know your strengths below)? Knowing the answers to these questions can make or break your race.
Know Who is Fast
So this can be a little harder than knowing the course but it is possible to find past results, and figure who and what teams are riding well leading up to the race. If you have been racing for a while you may already know who the stronger racers are in the field. Watch them and if you see a move going up the road with most of them in there, odds are they aren’t coming back and you need to be there if you want a chance at the finish. It can become a little overwhelming if you have 5+ super strong guys in the field. In those situations it can be useful to pick the cyclist who has been doing the best recently (look at the past few race results) and go every where they go. Odds are good they will make the move that stays away and if your following their wheel, you will be there too.
Its also good to know who the top sprinters are in your fields. If the group stays together you should know where the fast wheels are and make sure your following them as much as possible. Good teams will have a rider sweeping their sprinters wheel, which basically means keeping opportunistic riders such as yourself from getting a free draft to the line. In that situation you may have to fight for the wheel or sit on the teammate sweeping and hope to be able to close the gap when you see the sprinter start to go.
Know and Recognize Team Tactics
Even if you don’t have an organized team to race with you should know tactics so you have an idea of what other teams are trying to do. Recognizing that a team is sending a bunch of guys on consecutive attacks to soften the field so they can eventually launch their team leader up the road can prevent you from chasing every little attack that goes up the road. Even if its something you can’t tactically fight (like being in a 4 man break with 3 guys from the same team) at least knowing what they are likely trying to do may give you a little edge or help you find a weakness to take advantage of (when your riding solo you have to be opportunistic!).
Know your strengths
How do you ride in comparison to your friends and teammates? Do you have an awesome sprint, can accelerate well over and over, or do you drop everyone on the climbs? How long can you hold a maximal power before starting to fatigue? If you’re using power, you should know or talk with your coach about your mean maximal power outputs for different durations and know where you fall on the infamous power profiling chart (make sure you actually test for that 1min power otherwise it will look low on the chart). Using a mean maximal power chart can be very valuable in setting up your strategy for a sprint since you can see exactly how long you can hold a sprint effort. Some sprinters have tremendous acceleration and hold on to the line while others can continuously ramp up from 300meters out and simple overpower the others. Knowing what type of sprinter you are can make a big difference in how you setup at the end of the race.
Possibly the most important tip…
Remember, you don’t have to work. There is no responsibility of every rider in the peloton to do their fair share of the work. Your racing to win right? Sometimes that means just sitting in. Other times that means taking pulls and working with others. Either way, know why you’re at the front and why you’re expending energy. If you are in a race with a few big teams and you are on your own, you shouldn’t be pulling the field lap after lap. If you accidentally find you got rotated to the front of the group and it’s not in your best interest to work, take a quick (less than 30 second) pull, and then pull off. You don’t need to “stamp your authority” on the field by crushing the pedals for the next 5 min to only be off the back 30seconds later. You need to make sure your saving energy for when you need it. If you’re racing to win, a lot of time that means conserving; its not about your workout and there isn’t a medal for who works the hardest. Be smart and race like you want to win! Note this is related to the above, know your strengths.
If all else fails, get hella strong and do a Jens Voight, get off the front and solo to the line. If you really are the strongest guy or gal in the field then this might be a good tactic to prevent the attack/counter-attack scenario that will eventually wear you down. Fair warning though, most of the time it doesn’t work (see know your strengths above).