What Was I Thinking?
Photo by James Broadway
A reader who left a comment yesterday gave me a good idea for a post. He wanted to know what I’m thinking during a race. It’s a good question because I clearly remember a time when I was doing absolutely nothing during a race except for holding on for dear life. No thinking whatsoever. I was just making up the numbers. However, the beauty of bike racing is that it’s a thinking man’s game. Once you progress and stop worrying about the physical aspect it’s a very tactical sport.
Let me present some scenarios during a typical road race and what I’d be thinking during it. Note, this is very different from how I’d approach a criterium. Also note that this fictitious scenario puts me in top form and in a winning position (unlike my Tour of Geelong where I got absolutely shelled). Keep in mind that this demonstrates my particular racing style which is highly dependant on my strengths and weaknesses. It will be much different than that of a pure sprinter, a climber or a Jens Voigt.
I’m almost always late for the start. My best case scenario is that I’ll rock up just as the commissaire is their instructions. In a road race I’m not too concerned if I line up at the front or the back unless it’s an Open event where there is a wide range of abilities. If a mix of pro riders all the way down to Z graders are there, I’ll fight my way to the front. Otherwise I’m not too fussed.
- My first thought is always: “how strong is the wind and what is its direction”. Look at the grass, trees, flags. Wind over 30km/hr is a good reason to be aware. It’s also likely that the wind will pick up during the race.
The race starts and things are calm during the neutral zone. I’m usually catching up with a mate I haven’t seen in a while BS’ing each other about how unfit we are and how we’ve been sick. What I’m thinking while these tales are taking place:
- “It’s windy out. I’d better make my way to the front of the pack. When the commissaire’s car pulls off it’s going to be mayhem. I don’t want to be caught at the back when the race changes direction and this tailwind becomes a crosswind”.
The commisaire’s car pulls off and the race begins:
- Damn…these young guns sure are fast! Just stay up at the front but don’t pull a turn. Nothing is getting away at this point in the race.
- Which way is the wind going again???
- Get off this guy’s wheel. He’s leaving gaps already and we’ve only begun.
- Here’s a good wheel. This guy is strong. Stay put
- An attack, another attack, another attack. Let them sink out there. It’s early, we still have a long way to go. These guys at the front are still chasing down everything.
A short climb approaches:
- Good thing I’m close to the front. Everyone is still full of energy so they’re going to punch it up this hill. Don’t panic…just stay seated, put it into an easy gear, and use as little energy as possible. Spin, spin, spin…
- Ah good….the climb is over, I haven’t gone into the red, and I’m still sitting comfortably in the peloton. I’ve lost 30 positions but I’ll slowly make that up.
There’s a road marshall up ahead waving a flag indicating a left-hand turn:
- Oh no…get to the front! I don’t care what energy it will cost. Move to the outside and catch a swarm coming past. Phew…these guys are thinking the same. Jump on!
The peloton turns left and the crosswinds are howling:
- Damn…I’m not close enough to the front and there’s an echelon forming up there.
- Oh oh…this is going to hurt. They’re stringing out the entire peloton in the crosswinds and I’m caught in the gutter.
- This is bad. The guy in front of me is getting tired and is starting to drop wheels. I’d better move around him if he does this one more time otherwise I’ll be forced to close his gap.
- Oh good…here’s a guy putting himself out in the wind and is moving up. Get on his wheel…
- Now what? I’m up at the front but I’m not in the echelon. Wait for someone’s hesitation and then I’ll sneak my way in there.
- Waiting…waiting…the gap of a handlebar is all I need…Perfect! Here it is. I’ve now I’ve got my place in the echelon.
Now I’m rolling turns in the echelon:
- okay, keep a smooth echelon going and DO NOT let anyone on the wheel in front of me. Don’t allow a millimeter of a gap and hold your ground.
- remember exactly who the guy is infront of me and don’t hesitate for a split second to move out and get on his wheel when you see him roll past. Hesitate and I’ll be screwed.
The split in the peloton has occured and there’s only 20 of us left.
- Good, the pace is settling down. Now is the perfect time to eat sometime before things get hectic again.
- Alright, now the cream has risen to the top. Now, who is working with who? Which teams are represented? More importantly, which teams are not represented? Will there be a chase group forming to do we have all the key riders here?
- Which way is that wind going again? The next turn in the road will wreak havoc, so let’s keep an eye out for marshalls flagging us to turn.
The road turns again into the open crosswinds
- Get up to the front again! I didn’t do all this work to get caught in a split. It’s gonna go into the gutter one more time until we whittle this group down a little more.
The pace settles in again
- I’m starting to get tired and lazy. I’d better get some more food in me. Where is that double espresso flavoured gel? That usually does the trick.
There’s 8 of you left. A climb approaches and there’s 20km left in the race:
- It’s crunch time. Everyone who has made it to this point is here to play. Whose looking strong? Who is looking sloppy? Body language doesn’t lie.
- Hold 4th or 5th wheel. This will give me the chance to respond to any attacks and have some room if I have a hard time keeping the pace.
- There’s sure to be an attack on this climb. I know I’m not strong enough to solo to the finish so I’m just going to survive this hill.
- I’ve made it this far, there’s only 8 of us. What are these guys’ strengths and weaknesses? How can I beat them? I only get a few chances like this ever season. I’m not going to let this opportunity slip by.
- What’s the reaction of the group? Is everyone buggered? Is it a headwind? Tailwind? How far until the top of the climb? Are the conditions and terrain such that someone could solo to the finish?
- No, this guy is trying too early. He’s got a 20 sec gap now but everyone here is looking strong and keen to win. We won’t let him get too far ahead.
Someone tries to bridge across!
- Now is the time to react. I’ve seen these situations before where one’s and two’s bridge across and all of a sudden a group forms that’s too strong to bring back.
- Time to go! There’s three of us who are bridging across and the others are back there looking at each other. This is good. Let’s start working together.
- Oh oh…these two other guys are on the same team. One is working, one is not. Let’s see if I can use some persuasive words to get this other guy working.
- Nope…they’re not going to budge, as they shouldn’t. There’s no choice for me but to pull my turns and try to bridge as quickly as possible.
We catch the lone rider out front. There are 4 of us only 2km from the finish. Only 3 of us are working together. The teammate of the other guy is not doing a thing.
- We gotta work hard because there’s a group right behind us guaranteed to be chasing. Their gap can’t be more than 20 seconds.
- Once we get into the final kilometer, I need to find a way to get behind the rider who is sitting on. He is the one who is either going to attack or respond to attacks. I need to get behind him once we’re close to the finish.
- At 700m remaining I’ll swing out and get behind the trailing rider.
- There’s no way I’m losing this. The next time I see this type of chance could be months away.
- Perfect. He responds. Get on his wheel!
- The other two are dropped. I have to work with this guy to catch the attacking rider. He has a teammate back there and if I don’t work he’ll sit up and wait for him. The chasers are too close to play cat and mouse.
400m to go, we’ve almost caught the rider out front.
- Now is perfect. As soon as we catch onto the front guy I’ll hit them. I’ll quietly put it in my 53×15 now so they don’t hear it coming.
300m to go and we’ve caught our man. 3 of us left.
- Now is the time for me to jump with a all-out sprint! It’s a bit too early but if I get a gap I’ll be able to hold it.
I hit them!
- I’m flying! My legs feel awesome and no one is going to catch me!
100m to go
- Arghhhh….it’s really starting to burn and I can barely turn my legs over. Damn…they’re catching up!
10m to go
- Damnit!!!! They’re coming around me!!!!
- I went to soon! Not another 3rd place finish! @#$%@# !
That’s a very typical race for me. I still have races that I think about absolutely nothing except for hanging on. The National RR Championships is a good example. When some Garmin or HTC-Colombia guys attack there’s nothing going through my mind except for “hold on….this is going to hurt!”.