I’ve bike raced in a lot of different places but have never experienced a handicap race until coming to Australia.   These types of races are extremely popular here and I think it’s great.  What makes a Handicap bike race?  Well, all the starters are grouped into similar abilities by a “Handicapper” in the days preceding the race.  Yes, all the starters (old, young, fast, slow, men, woman, ).  On race day all the riders are let off with their respective groups onto the same course at different intervals.  The slowest group will start first, the second slowest group will start a few minutes behind and so on.  The time intervals between the different groups is determined by the Handicapper.  The Handicapper will take all sorts of things into consideration when determining who is to be in each of the groups and the start interval (riders’ previous race results, who in the various trade teams have entered, weather conditions, course profile, etc).

The first group starting the race is called “Limit” (could be starting with a 30mins advantage).  The next group that starts is called the “26 minute group” for example.  All the way down to the second last group which is called “the Chopping Block”, and the final group to start is called “Scratch”.  Scratch is obviously the fastest group of the bunch.   Scratch starts the race with a large time disadvantage (eg. 30 minute) and need to catch up to every other group in order to win.  If the race is handicapped properly and fairly, all of the groups should catch each other in the closing kilometers of the race.

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The rider who crosses the finish line first wins the race.  He/she could have come from any bunch and was never caught.  There is also a prize for the fastest time.   This is the rider who comes across the finish line in the least amount of time.  The Fastest Time prize will usually go to a rider in one of the stronger bunches like Scratch or the Chopping Block.

I love handicap races.  It gives absolutely everyone a chance to race against each other and some 13 year old kid or a 70 year old could have a legitimate chance of winning the race.   You might think that if the winner comes from a group that had a 25min advantage it would not be considered a “real win” by some of the others.  This is not the case. It is regarded as a legitimate win just as much if a pro from the Scratch bunch won the race.  The Fastest Time prize is also regarded very highly and the prize money is usually just as good as getting the win.

When a handicap race begins and your group is let out of the starting gates, the bunch usually works beautifully together rolling turns like a well oiled machine.  You are trying to catch the group in front of you (which is minutes up the road), as well as trying to not get caught by the group behind you.  One of the fun things about handicaps is the collusion and strategy talks before the race begins.  Everyone has their own opinion on what the strategy should be and how the race will pan out.  The great thing about handicaps is that they are so unpredictable and anything can happen and their is no strategy!

Preston Mountain Classic

On the weekend we raced the Preston Mountain Classic handicap hosted by the Preston Cycling Club.  As it turns out, this was a fine example of perfect handicapping with the whole race coming together near the end (over 120 starters).  I was on the Chopping Block with 15 other very strong riders.  We were working well together and I thought there was no way that we would be caught with the firepower we had in our group.  Of course the group of 21 Scratch riders would be stronger than us, but there were very light winds and Scratch sometimes doesn’t play nicely with each other which favors against them.  Well, to my dismay we were caught by a rolling freight train of Scratch riders 60km into the race. The group grew to over 40 at this point since we had already picked up some stragglers from groups ahead (riders who are dropped from their groups are allowed to tag along with groups coming up behind).  At this point our group didn’t exactly work well together but we caught the 8 minute bunch within a few kilometers after.  We kept on picking up various bunches all the way through until the “Break O’Day” climb you can see on the profile below.  The bunch split to pieces after this leg smashing climb but we still had a number of other groups up the road we needed to catch.

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At this point of the race there’s a bit of a dilemma.  Do you work with the bunch and do some hard rolling turns to help catch the groups ahead?  Or do you sit in and let the strongest riders do all the work?  At this point there were about 60 riders just sitting on the back of the pack and some of them were the fittest riders in the race.  Why would you smash your legs just so that one of the strongest riders can take the win?  It doesn’t make sense, unless one of those good riders sitting in the back are one of your teammates who you’re working for.  Rule of thumb in bike racing: only pull a turn if you have damn good reason to do so.  Many times there is good reason to get up there and work, but many times there is no compelling reason besides being a gentleman.  Riders will try to bully you to get up there to work while their team leader sits in and rests.  Just smile confidently and tell him “no thanks”. He’ll understand that you’re onto the game he’s playing and will move on to pressure someone else.

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The peloton charged into the final Strath Creek climb still having not caught the front runners.  This is a 4km bitch of a climb where the pace lifted and the strong riders attacked to split the bunch up once and for all.   I averaged nearly 500 watts for 5 minutes on this climb and was relegated to the second group in the split. It was a killer!

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From the top of the Strath Creek climb it was a final 10km charge of rolling pinchers to the finish line.    I was in the second group and we were picking up heaps of riders from the front bunches who crested the climb before us.  We charged straight past many of them and some were able to hang on.  The strong group in front of us (made up of mostly Scratchies) had about a minute gap at this point and were breathing down the necks of the front runners coming into the finish.   About 100m ahead of the Scratchies a few lone riders made it burn like never before and fought for their lives to stay ahead to crossed the finish line just before they were caught!  Perfect handicap finish!

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Images courtesy of Jarrod Partridge. More images can be found here.