The golden rules of road racing
Road racing is a tough sport. You don’t just need to be physically strong — you need to understand the dynamics of the peloton, how to ride to your strengths, and how to measure your effort. Indeed, it’s not always the strongest rider that wins — it’s the rider that can combine strength with racecraft and timing to get the very best out of themselves.
In this article from the CyclingTips archives, site founder Wade Wallace lists the golden rules when it comes to road racing. If you’re just getting into racing, or you’re looking to level up your racing game, the following article is for you.
“Bicycle racing is a sport of patience. Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
I remember years ago, during my first road racing season, sitting in the pack having no clue what was going on. “When is a good time to attack?” I thought to myself. “Why aren’t these riders rolling through? Why are these guys chasing?” There’s a lot to understand when it comes to the psychology of the peloton and the game being played within it. Much of it can only be learned through experience — race lots and you’ll start to get the hang of it.
Road racing doesn’t follow the typical format of most other sports. There are no quarters, periods or rounds, but races often follow the same sequence of events. It might seem like a thousand different scenarios could exist with so many variables within the race (e.g. the strengths and weaknesses of each rider, the terrain, the weather conditions etc.) but when you’ve been racing for a long time you’ll begin to understand that it often plays out in a similar fashion.
The structure of an amateur road race goes something like this:
The race rolls off for a few kilometers under a neutral pace. The moment the lead vehicle pulls off everyone begins flexing their muscle and a flurry of attacks begin. Nothing will get away at this point. Everyone is fresh, excited, and the thought of rolling around in the peloton for the next 3-4 hours isn’t very appealing.
After about five or six attacks a breakaway group of roughly half a dozen riders will get clear (note that in Masters racing almost everything gets chased down!). The pace of the peloton will settle, everyone will relax, and the breakaway will work together in harmony.
Even in amateur road racing, where “teams” are not allowed, make no mistake: alliances have been formed regardless of the jerseys being worn. The riders whose interests are represented up the road in the break will be sitting in the middle of the pack and won’t be compelled to do any work.
The race will settle in and you’ll be rolling in the pack with your heartrate at 120bpm. The odd rider will try to jump across to the break. They’ll usually get caught in no-man’s-land and come back to the bunch after hanging out there for some time alone.
At 20 kilometres remaining the breakaway will be within sight. The gap is shrinking but none of the contenders want to show their cards too early and stick their noses into the wind. Eager or inexperienced riders will go to the front and begin chasing and the break will eventually be reeled in. The cream will rise to the top and then the real contenders will emerge.
Someone attacks and gets a gap. Another rider jumps across. Then another, and another. All of a sudden a strong breakaway group has formed and everyone in the peloton is sitting there looking at each other while the strongest riders simply ride away. A few people chase but in the end it becomes futile. The race is up the road.
Of course this isn’t the only scenario that plays out, but after you race enough times it will begin to sound familiar. The beautiful thing about road racing is that it is unpredictable and no matter how well you can read a race, if you don’t have the legs to go when it matters, there’s nothing you can do about it. That said, even if you’re the strongest rider in the field, you probably won’t win unless you understand how the game is played.
Here are a few tips to understanding road racing and giving yourself the best shot at victory. Within this I’ve quoted many truisms from Tim Krabbe’s excellent book, The Rider.
Conserve your energy
“Every time I take a pull up front, I feel it: I’m strong today. So what if I attack right here? Then my chances would be reduced.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
Bike races often come down to only three, four or five explosive efforts. Closing that gap, making the break, holding the wheel up that climb, responding to that attack, or nailing that bunch sprint. That’s it. Those critical moments are going to require the effort of your life though. Don’t waste your energy on the things that don’t matter.
Save your energy for the last third of the race. The majority of the time the winning move will come during this period. You’ll see many people try to get away at the beginning of the race. That’s fine, let them go.
“After one kilometer, a minuscule rider with a black rag-mop attacks: Despuech. Baloney. This race lasts 140 kilometers. Despuech is crazy. He is only showing us that he doesn’t stand a chance in hell. He knows it too, but still it’s a fact: he has to choose between finishing at the back after shining, or finishing at the back after not having shone at all.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider.
Know Your Competition
The statement above, about letting early moves go, doesn’t come without its exceptions — sometimes you should follow the early move. If the strongest five riders decide to attack at the beginning of a 100km race, and you know they have people working for them, there’s a good chance you should try to follow the move.
I’ve been in dozens of races where I’ve been in early moves that have stayed away. You just need to go with the right group. This has more to do with the combination of riders rather than the strength of them (but the two often go hand-in-hand).
A chasing peloton will almost always be faster than a small bunch of riders. It’s not a matter of how much time you can get on the peloton; it’s how much time they allow you to get. Getting the peloton organised is the issue, and understanding who is working together is key.
Know the Gap
Pay attention to the gap the breakaway has. If you can see the break, watch for when they pass a landmark and time the gap from when the last rider passes it until the front of the peloton does. Is it increasing or decreasing? Always know the race situation so you can judge your strategy.
“Every once in a while someone along the road lets us know how far behind we are. A man shouts: ‘Faster!’ He probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
Attack with purpose
“Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
You know those times where someone attacks and everyone else in the peloton sits there looking at each other while more riders hop across and to the break and it just rolls away? Do you ever think “That’s the move and I’ve completely missed it”?
There is an art to attacking and the reaction of the peloton will differ depending on how you attack. Often the best time to attack is after a series of moves when the chasing riders are tired or psychologically worn out. You need to attack hard in these situations in order to get away — commit to the move!
The “soft attack” works brilliantly if you want to slip off the front and not get a reaction from the bunch. The peloton will often let you ride away as they won’t see you as a threat. Don’t do this for nothing though. Make sure you do this at a critical time of the race where your move is going to stick or create a good situation for a teammate.
Know The Wind
Study the course map before the race and know the direction the wind is blowing from. Crosswinds can split the bunch into multiple echelons and completely turn the race upside down. If the race is approaching a corner and you have a strong headwind or tailwind, get to the front of the bunch before the turn because this means the crosswinds are coming. As difficult as this may seem, it’s much easier to be rolling in the front echelon with a crosswind rather than being stretched out single-file in the gutter trying to catch a non-existent draft and closing gaps.
Of course, everyone will want to be in the front echelon. Fortunately though, many people won’t have studied the course and many others will get caught napping.
If there is not a crosswind capable of blowing the bunch apart, it’s still important to know the wind direction so you can hide in the bunch. Always try to move up in the bunch by catching a draft from a rider (or riders) coming up beside you. The more you can keep your nose out of the wind, the more energy you’ll have for the finish.
You only have so many matches to burn. Use them wisely.
Know Your Strengths
“As the better sprinter, he is the favorite, and the favorite has to accept that he’s the one open to blackmail.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
Are you weak on the climbs? Position yourself at the front of the bunch just as the climb is starting and slowly drift back in the peloton so that you use as little energy as possible.
Are you a poor bunch sprinter? Then it’s best that you try to win from a small bunch.
Are you a good time trialist? Then try to create a situation where you can win alone.
Study the Finish
Most road races at the amateur level finish where they started. Whenever I do a road race I’ll ride backwards along the finishing straight for about 5km as part of my warm up. I’ll look at the terrain to see if there are any climbs, descents or corners, memorising every detail and keeping the distance-to-go in mind. Races are only won at the finish and you don’t want all your hard work to go down the toilet because you didn’t know you had to be first around that final corner or up that steep climb.
Judge the finishing distance
The commonly held notion of starting your sprint at 200m to go is actually quite arbitrary. It’s a good gauge in races where the finishes are flat and fast. But starting your sprint with 200m to go is too premature if the finish is on a climb or into a block headwind. Conversely, it’s not far enough out if the finish is on a descent where you’ll get up to 70km/h.
Judge your finishing sprint based on the amount of time you know your body can do a maximum effort for. On a flat finish that might mean starting you sprint with 200m to go; on an uphill drag it might be closer to 100m.
“Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization. When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what’s your first reaction? To help him to his feet. In road racing, you kick him to death.” – Tim Krabbe, The Rider
Road racing is tough. Hopefully the tips above give you something of a leg-up though and help you get the best out of yourself on the road. Of course there’s no substitute to getting out there and gaining race experience first-hand …