Simply defined, a counter attack is an offensive move that is launched right after a breakaway brought back, or straight after an opponent’s attack is caught. The tricky part is making the counter-attack stick, which isn’t going to happen if it’s not done at the right time. Note to Contador: the counter attack comes along with a few rules of etiquette.
At the beginning of a race the first few attacks almost never work. Everyone is still excited and fresh and you’ll almost always be chased down. To get into an initial break you have to wait for the 4th, 5th or 6th attack by the time something will stick (and there’s no guarantee that it will stick for long). You can tell by the mood of the the peloton, the conditions and the terrain as to whether anything is going to get away or not. If you’re racing in a Masters category, good luck ever getting a break to stick. These old foxes chase everything down!
Let’s focus on the the end of the race. One of the best times to counter attack is late in the race when everyone is getting tired. If you’re tired, it’s a good indication that everyone else is tired too. You just have to be prepared to suffer more than the others.
At club level racing you’ll often see the same guys doing all the work while the others are sitting-on waiting for things to come down to a bunch sprint. When I say “work”, I mean the arduous task of chasing down the breaks. They could have a number of motives for doing so, and it’s in your best interest to understand what those are.
A few scenarios:
1. A great place to counter-attack is after a hard chase effort by the bunch and the break is brought back. Once the break is caught there will often be a lull in the pace. Take full advantage of this lull and disorganization and launch a counter-attack (if the race situation makes sense to do so). The guys at the front who were working their tails off will want a rest and will expect others to chase. Everyone else will expect the guys at the front to resume the chase.
2. If it’s close to the end of the race and the bunch is all together, chances are that everyone will be motivated to chase everything down and bring it to a sprint. There’s not much sense attacking in the last kilometer if it’s a blistering pace, but I’ve seen it work on occasion. If you’re not a sprinter there’s no harm in trying your luck early. If you’re going to do this, it’s best to counter after someone else’s attack has been brought back. There’s a chance that the momentum of the chasers will be broken which you can take advantage of. However, if there’s a team driving the pace it will be a doomed attempt. Unless you’re Cancellara you won’t get away if the speed of the bunch is 45km/hr.
3. You’ve made your way into a successful split with half a dozen other guys and you have a teammate with you. Perfect. One of you have a 90% chance of winning if you play your cards right. Plan it so that your teammate attacks at the final kilometer or so (or vice versa). He’s got to give it everything he’s got and hang out there for as long as he can. He has to completely sacrifice himself even though he knows he’ll probably be caught. This will force the others into a defensive position and make them start chasing. You’re obliged to do nothing except sit at the back. The moment the group catches him, you launch your attack. I can almost guarantee that the chasers will stop and look at each other expecting one another to pick up the workload. You might have another wheel sucker come along with you, but your odds are now much better. By the time the bunch behind you gets organized you’ll be well away and your teammate will be sitting-in with no chasing responsibilities.
Being able to read the race is arguably more important than fitness itself. The key to a successful counter-attack is making sure you do it when everyone is tired or there is confusion in the peloton. The best way to practise this is by getting out there and throwing caution into the wind. You’ll learn far more from your mistakes than from your victories.