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The Race

It’s lap 5 of 30 on a flat and windy criterium course. There is a lull in the pace and you are carrying good momentum – time to attack! After the initial jump, you settle into your aero tuck and start pounding the pedals with everything you have. The gap quickly grows to 15-20 seconds and you’re committed to making it stick.

About a minute into the breakaway effort you look down at your computer and see you’re tapping out 400+ watts – it feels easy.

Three minutes into the effort and you’re still at 400 watts, but the gap has only grown to 25 seconds. Not bad, but hopefully the chasing peloton will quit soon because this effort isn’t something you can sustain much longer.

Fast forward to minute five – your legs are starting to feel heavy, cadence it starting to slow, and your power is beginning to drop. With 19 laps left in the race there is no way you’re going to maintain your 25 second gap with your legs rapidly turning to mush and no help in sight.

After another 1/2 lap you get news that the gap is getting smaller when a spectator yells “15-seconds”. At this point you realize the field is going to make the catch and you’re on the verge of blowing up. You decide to sit up hopes of saving something for another move – or at the very least avoid getting dropped.

As the field reels you back, the counter attacks start flying. Competitors who’ve been sitting in are fresh, and their powerful attacks are impossible to answer. After an intense series of attacks, a breakaway of 4 riders forms up the road. Within a few laps they’re out of sight and it doesn’t look like anybody is going to chase and your legs are still toast – game over.

I don't want to imply the long breakaway can't work – it can and it does. Eddy Merckx was a big fan of epic breakaways and he won a few races.

I don’t want to imply the long breakaway can’t work – it can and it does – you just need to be smart  about it (being super strong doesn’t hurt). Eddy Merckx was a big fan of epic breakaways and he’s won a few races.

Post-Race Analysis

Reviewing the race, you learn that you bested your prior 5-minute power record by 20 watts. This is awesome and an excellent sign of improved fitness. However, looking at the race tactically, your attack did not provide you with any lasting advantage and your energy was wasted.

Had that massive 5-minute effort been saved for a different moment, such as the final 5 minutes of the race or in establishing a breakaway with a few other riders, it could have been a much different story. Instead, you dug a giant whole early in the race then after getting caught spent the remaining laps trying to dig your way out while the race went up the road.

Tactics Are Key to Success

In road racing, tactics are just as important, if not more important, than physical strength. If you want to be successful in road racing then huge power numbers, chiseled abs, and lightweight/aerodynamic equipment will only take you so far. The real secret to winning races is in taking all those tools and learning how to use them correctly.

A list of tactical skills you should consider learning

  • Hiding from the wind in the peloton
  • Staying in the top 25% of the peloton
  • Moving through a peloton
  • When to utilize single and rotating pacelines
  • How to pace yourself in a breakaway just beginning to form and pull away from the peloton
  • How to pace yourself in an established breakaway
  • When/how to bridge gaps to a breakaway
  • Estimating the success of a breakaway based on which riders/teams are represented
  • Attacking
  • Counter-attacking
  • Covering attacks
  • Field Sprints
  • Playing cat and mouse

There are plenty more examples I’m sure I forgot, but this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive. It’s more to get you thinking about all the various situations you can and will find yourself during a road race or criterium. Every race is unique with dozens of different ways a race can play out, which to me is part of what keeps it fun as I never fully know what to expect.

Notice that many of these tactical skills are focused on saving energy versus expending energy. Every kilojoule of energy saved during a race is energy that can be used during the moments that matter. I’m sure many of you, no matter how strong, have felt the elastic snap during a hard climb or a single-file gutter-fest. An extra 20 watts in those situations wouldn’t hurt, but I can guarantee you that smarter tactics (for instance staying in the 25% of the field to avoid getting guttered) would very likely keep you out of trouble, meaning that extra 20 watts can be saved for later to help you win the race instead of save your ass.

Tour of Lawrence 2012

2012 Tour of Lawrence Circuit Race – You didn’t want to be at the back when the action happened on this course!

A few ways to improve your skills

  • Group rides: Your local group ride is a great place to hone your skills and can be so much more than just a hard workout. Oftentimes breakaways are harder to form because everybody is usually motivated to work and chase stuff down, but that doesn’t mean you can’t focus on other tactical skills. Work on conserving energy by hiding from the wind between your pulls on the front and rotating through the paceline smoothly. If your local hammer fest has a few city limit sprints try testing out different tactics to win the sprint. A longer effort from maybe 1K to go can be challenging and a good tactic if your top end sprint isn’t the strongest. That said, maybe you need to work on your finishing sprint so waiting until the final 200 meters to test yourself against the better sprinters would be a great learning opportunity.
  • Team Time Trials: Learning the dynamics of a breakaway is something you just have to practice a lot. If you’re on a team convince your teammates to join you for a “team time trial”. Instead of going for your usual 40-50 mile Sunday group ride with all the normal sprints, regroups, easy sections, etc., turn it into a timed effort. You’ll also run into dilemmas like how to handle a strong rider surging too much, or a weaker rider that can’t contribute. Sometimes you’ll be that strong or weak rider. Breakaways are all about the mental game, both with yourself and your competitors.
1984 Olympics 100k Team Time Trial (USA_team)

1984 Olympics 100k Team Time Trial (Team USA)

  • Training Races: This is the obvious place to practice race tactics. If you’re a solo rider, than your goal should be testing methods to conserve energy and stay positioned well in the pack so that you don’t miss the winning move. If your on a team, then you can practice trying to get riders into breakaways by attacking, counter-attacking, covering attacks, etc. One of my favorite skills to practice is bridging gaps. I’ll purposefully let a move get up the road a little ways then attempt to make the bridge. I usually start conservative and don’t let the gap get too big before trying to bridge, but as I gain confidence I’ll attempt larger moves.
  • Talking with your Coach / Teammates: Whether you know it or not you’re visualizing the different situations as you discuss them and that’s a great way to improve without even having to be on the bike. Before races discuss your race strategy with your coach or teammates. After the race discuss what went well and what could have gone better. When you or a teammate does something well acknowledge it. If a mistake is made don’t get upset about it, learn from it and do better next time. Coaching is more than just intervals and fitness, it’s about guiding athletes through every aspect of what helps them reach their goals, both mentally and physically.
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If your training like a beast and getting stronger every month but continue to not get the results you expect then maybe strength isn’t what’s holding you back. Just like training to improve your time trial or sprint power, race tactics are something that take time to improve. Increasing your tactical IQ through practice, reading, and discussion will pay off huge in the long run. The important thing with all of this is to have fun, try new things, and be open to learning from your mistakes.

Kent Woermann

Kent Woermann is the owner/operator of Move Up Endurance Coaching. He is currently a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and holds a category 1 license in road, mountain bike, and cyclocross disciplines.

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