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At it’s most basic, an attack is an attempt to distance one’s self from other riders, but an attack can have a more subtle purpose. Here are a few examples:
1. Kicking the hornet’s nest
Radios didn’t ruin cycling, but they did take some of the hilarity out of it. Back before radios, and when races were less formal affairs, one of the racers (his name escapes me) was infamous for attacking, getting out of sight, and then hiding in the bushes. When the peloton came by, he would jump out and tag onto the back, while his rivals chased away on the front.
You can’t do this anymore, but a well-timed attack can set up a miniature version. Say, for instance, that a break that you don’t like the looks of has a gap and any moment now the guys driving the chase are going to look to you to work. It would be much better if these other chuckleheads would chase the move down for you. Attack, but don’t give it all that much. This will leave you fresh enough to slide back in near the front of the pack as you’re caught, and give you a good view of the flury of counter-attacks it provokes. This will often put an end to the breakaway, at little cost to your self.
Two beautiful things about this move are that the more heavily marked you are, the better it works, and that it works as well with 2 laps to go as with 20. Timed properly, it can set up a teammate-less version of the Poor Man’s Leadout.
2. The Poor Man’s Leadout
Speaking of which, the Poor Man’s Leadout is one of the most basic and effective of team tactics. It only requires one teammate. Of the two teammates, the weaker sprinter puts in a late attack, while the sprinter sits on. Like all great cycling tactics it gives your opponents two choices, neither of which has much appeal. Namely, they can either chase the rabbit down and lead the sprinter out, or they can not chase, and let the rabbit win.
This can work in field sprints when you don’t have enough people to do a proper leadout, but is most effective out of breakaways. Because the sprints are slower and there are fewer people to keep track of, normal leadouts are fairly pointless in breakaways. The Poor Man’s Leadout, however, is incredibly effective, since everyone is probably tired and therefore more likely to hesitate. The rabbit wins more often in this situation.
3. Attacking as blocking
The time honored method of blocking is to sit on or near the front and refuse to help set the pace. This is fine, but once a chase gets organized, it’s bordering on bad manners to get in the rotation and mess it up. That’s not to say that people don’t do it, or that it’s not effective – they do and it is, but push your luck and you can get all kinds of hate coming your way, some of it physical. Instead of making enemies or getting put in the ditch, try attacking the chase. Experienced riders may ignore you, realizing that you won’t ride away from a paceline on your own. On the other hand, they may respond to your attack. When you’re already working hard in a paceline, making an anaerobic effort hurts, bad. Some of the chasers may start thinking about getting some shelter; those that remain will have some of the wind taken out of their sails; the chase will take some time to get organized again.