Tactics can be divided into two basic groups which I will call macro and micro level tactics. Just like in economics, macro is easier to grasp but difficult to implement, and micro is more difficult to grasp but easier to implement (provided you have the physical prowess). Macro level tactics are team directed efforts designed to accomplish a certain goal. Micro level tactics are decisions and efforts made by an individual or a small group of teammates with respect to the team. What I mean by that is that even if you are the only member of your team in a break, you still need to consider your teammates. Micro level tactics depend a great deal on experience. Without experience, you simply have to stick your nose in the action and get some.
Macro Level: Team wide tactics
Macro level tactics are what rule pro racing. The reason for this is that riders are paid and thus expected to do what they are told. Teams ride with agendas defined by a team director who gives very specific directions on when and how to perform. This is why local amateur racers should not take their macro tactical cues from pros. It’s rare that an amateur team has the necessary fire-power, and more importantly, the will to implement them (money is a big motivator, bigger than you think). That doesn’t mean amateur teams shouldn’t try; it’s just that history has shown limited success. Any amateur team that succeeds in employing macro tactics has something to be proud of though. Without the incentive of being paid, it is a genuine show of unity and selflessness that is rare in sport.
Indeed, the number one key to successful team and individual tactics is selflessness. The best teams are ones whose members have thrown their egos aside. This is a far more difficult thing than most like to admit. After all, we all race because its fun and a big part of the fun is the chance that we might win or do well. So, in the back of our minds we often hold something back when we’re all at the front chasing, and a lot of chases and other operations fail because of this tiny piece of selfishness. The only thing is to have everyone on the same page and work effectively together without regard to individual results. It’s a very difficult thing to establish. I have been on several teams where we tried it, but there always seemed to be one or two people not on the same page, or who knowingly took advantage of everyone else’s good nature. If, however, you can get a group who can conquer their selfishness, and understand how to help each other get results, its amazing how things come together.
The basic macro tactics:
Macro tactics require a point person to make the decisions to do them. When you pick someone, you need to respect their decisions. Certainly you can question them, but after discussing it, you have to accept whatever decision is made, and do it.
1. Chasing a break down - The simplest and most common form of team level tactics. Very simple and easy to implement; just put your team on the front, and ride. You do a basic rotating paceline and keep it fast. The decision to chase needs to be made fairly quickly. If its let go too long, the job can be quite daunting, and the longer the chase, the more likely the team will be unable to cover the counter-attacks.
2. “Guttering” the field - You need two things: a crosswind, and a group of strong guys. We don’t see this too often in the Northwest, because wind is rarely a factor in a race. When you know a crosswind is coming up, you line up the team and start winding up the pace. When you turn into the crosswind, you get an echelon going very fast, leaving the rest of the field with no shelter. The form of the echelon is a staggered line from one road edge to the other (one of which, in most cases will be the yellow line). Gaps will form, and your team gets the easiest ride. This is relatively simple in concept but difficult to do in practice. To get the maximum effect, the team or group of riders riding in the echelon has to go very fast in order to crack the riders strung out in the gutter. If the echelon is too slow, the guttered riders will be able to get just enough draft to hang on. It can often be the case that another team (or simply the collection of riders at the front at that moment) takes the initiative and gutters the bunch. In this case, you have to give everything to get to the front, and pick up teammates on the way up. If you pick up all your ‘mates, you should be able to protect yourselves with your own echelon. Just roll up and park right behind the front echelon.
3. Leading out a sprinter - You all know how to do it, but actually doing it is very difficult. The only way to do it effectively is to ride fast enough that no one else can come around, and keeps the field strung out. That takes a great deal of dedication and speed. It’s tough to find 5 or 6 people with that kind of strength locally. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though.
4. The early break – The overriding theory here is that if you put a representative of your team in the early move, teams without riders in that move will have to chase, and therefore tire themselves out. This is a fine theory, but in practice doesn’t usually work out at the local or regional level of racing. Further, a lot of people have the completely wrong idea how to implement this. Teams will often put their weakest rider in the early break, or an individual rider will assume that since he isn’t riding well, should take it upon himself to make himself the sacrificial lamb in the early move. The assumption is that since the break will get chased down, you don’t want to waste your on form riders. In practice, it very rarely works that way, and this reasoning makes little sense and there are a couple of key reasons why:
a. If the entire break is full of weak and off form riders, it will crack on its own with little or no organized chasing from the field
b. If a team has a weak rider in the break, and other teams have viable race winners, the weak rider will likely get dropped and his team will have to chase a break in which their dropped rider helped contribute.
Moral of the story: never make an off form rider your choice for a break. The team’s representative in the early break needs to be a viable threat of winning the race. Fact is, local races, and even regional races rarely see teams ever conduct a chase to run down a break. This is the reason why early breaks more often than not work in local racing. Therefore, the early move has to have a quality guy in it, who can win.
5. Blocking - We do not do this. I repeat: we do not do this. Blocking is cheap, weak, and we don’t condone it. Let people race and expect that they’ll let you race. You can certainly sit on a chase, but don’t actively get into an echelon to disrupt a chase. When a rider drops back from a pull, let them back in. If someone wants in the line to pull, let them in. Clogging up the road or corners just isn’t racing. It is instead plain bad form. Do not even let the fact that other teams employ it justify its use to you; two wrongs don’t make a right.
Micro Level: Thought processes for racing
There are no absolute answers to questions like “when is the best time to attack”, or “how do you know which break will be the one”. When you make a move, it’s rare that you know it will be successful. Again, the best way to make a successful move is to remove your personal ambitions, and transfer them into motivations to represent the team. In short, this attitude encourages everyone to seek the front, and get their noses in the action. If you don’t make the break in one race, be assured that if you keep trying, you will get in one. The big incentive to get up in the action is that it is the only real way to gain the experience you need to someday be able “read” races. To help with that concept, I’m going to run through the various possible stages of a road race, and talk about various tactical considerations.
- The start – The bunch rolls out and you find out the “temper” of the bunch. Sometimes the pace stays mellow for a long time and sometimes the attacks start immediately, while other times there will be a single attack, a few bridges, and the early break goes away uncontested. We’ll concentrate here on when there are a lot of attacks and counter-attacks. How, you might ask, do you know which move to go with? Obviously, you can’t go with them all, and going with one that gets run down may result in you missing the successful move. Here, the rule of selflessness comes into play right away. When lots of moves are going and coming back, the whole team needs to be working on getting to the front and covering moves. It does not matter who you are, if you were “saving” yourself for later, or anything like that. If there are only 2 guys of a 9-member team up on front early covering moves, the chances of missing the break are greatly increased. If all 9 are in the action, someone from the team will most likely make it.
- The start aftermath – Several possibilities:
- A break has gone; the team has one or more members in it. This is good, but is it good enough? An assessment needs to be made as to the team’s chances of winning the race. If the team has two climbers in a flat race representing in the break, while other teams have sprinters up there, the team needs to do better. There are a couple of things the team can do. One is to chase the break down and start over. There are two parts to this: the climbers in the break should realize that they don’t stand a chance of winning, and should sit on and not help the break succeed. The rest of the team back in the bunch of course also needs to chase. Another way to deal with the situation is to watch for other riders trying to bridge to the break. A “race winner” caliber of rider needs to be ready to jump on these attempts and get across. If the riders you jumped on to get across are riding strongly, you may be able to use the excuse that you have ‘mates up there, and sit on. If he/they are faltering, though, you have to decide whether to help pull, or jump them and bridge the rest by yourself. Sometimes the bunch rolls over and plays dead. The team can then try to spring someone across. That rider needs to be able to attack fast enough that no one else will consider chasing. Otherwise, the team needs to set up an attack and counter-attack situation that will result in getting the rider they want across to the break. Often, when the break reaches a certain gap, the bunch will settle down because individuals believe the gap is too far to bridge in one big effort. This is an excellent time to bridge yourself; provided you actually have the prowess to do it.
- Sometimes, nothing can get away despite numerous attacks and counter-attacks. There’s no telling if this will continue to be the case. You might decide nothing is going to get away and sit back to wait for the sprint. Suddenly, the bunch lets something go while you were napping. The team has to stay vigilant.
- Sometimes again, and believe me, this happens at the Elite level, you just plain, flat-out get overpowered. Sorry, nothing to do about this. Hang on, soak it in, hope for luck.
- The break – what to look out for
- Let’s assume now that we have a break and we have a rider or riders capable of winning in that break. The rest of the team back in the bunch can sit back but needs to remain watchful. Your job now is to jump on moves that go off the front of the bunch. Simply sit on these moves and don’t work, you have the excuse that you a teammate in the break that can win. The only time you might consider working with a bridging attempt like this is if adding yourself to the break adds to the chances of the team winning vs. the additions of the other riders. This assessment requires a lot of honesty (see the bit on honesty near the end). If you’re in doubt, just go for the free ride.
- Up in the break, a similar assessment must take place (and let’s assume for the moment that you have no teammates with you in the break). Note who all is in the break and assess their abilities vs. yours. If you feel you are clearly the strongest rider you can ride with confidence, but be wary of other riders making the same conclusion and dodging pulls. You never want to be the guy who pulls the hardest in a break, you want at most to pull even with everyone else, or at best, to pull the least hard. On the opposite extreme, if you feel you are the weakest, you need to find ways to ease your work load: shorter pulls, softer pulls, finding excuses to sit out turns…whatever it takes to try to even the playing field. The other alternative is to sit on. This will provoke a reaction from everyone else. When they come back to yell at you, just explain that you don’t fancy your chances of winning if you pull, and if they don’t like it, then everyone should just sit up and go back to the bunch. If you’re somewhere in the middle, again, you may need to find ways to try and lessen your workload and increase the workload of others. When you’re in a break with no teammates, you should always think about how you’re going to win the race. As always, experience will broaden your knowledge about how to go about this.
- In the break with teammates – Now the assessment has to be made with respect to teammates with you in the break, and this will guide you in how to ride throughout the rest of the race. If you have the best sprinter in the break, things are very easy. The “non sprinters” can try for solo moves (within striking distance of the finish), and if they’re not successful, the sprinter, who would have been able to sit on the chases, should be able to finish off the sprint. If another team has the best sprinter in the break, then you can’t let it come down to a sprint. Let’s say we have a break of 8 riders, 3 of them are teammates. One of those 3 should go for a solo move from a long way out, and commit to making a strong move. Its likely this rider will get run down, but then one of his teammates (who of course, have been sitting on now) can counter, etc. In smaller group situations, supposing you have a break of 5, with 2 of them teammates. Again, one rider should attack solo from a fair distance out. The teammate will sit on the chase, and should look for opportunities to attack the chasers and bridge to his teammate. These opportunities may take time to come, be patient.
- When you have teammates in the break (and this goes for late attacks from an en-masse bunch as well), you need to consider your move not necessarily as a bid for victory. The move is every bit as much making yourself a carrot to make the other individuals/teams chase. The efforts they make can be exploited by your teammates. Have a look back once in a while. If you see your teammate bridging clear of the rest, back off your pace and let him catch up.
- What to do if someone else in the break is sitting on – Analyze the situation. Figure out why the rider is sitting on. Is it a good sensible tactical reason? If so, you can’t fault them. Is the rider tired, or just lazy? If in doubt, just ask, and then analyze the truthfulness of their answer. Usually that answer (unless tactical) is tiredness. Now you have a decision to make: If the rider is really honestly tired, the rest of you should be able to continue and not worry about that rider. If you decide the rider is lying, or you have someone sitting on for tactical reasons, you need to decide whether you can still win if you keep pulling, or if you should stop pulling yourself and either let the break die or force the rider sitting on to start pulling again (calling their bluff). One common thing that you should never do is try to take the rider sitting on “off the back.” What some guys will do is sit up in front of the rider sitting on, taking the both of them off the back of the break. Then the guy will attack the sitting on rider, thinking he will drop the sitting on rider. It rarely works that way. First, it’s very difficult to drop someone when they have your draft. Usually then, the guy trying to drop the sitting on guy just brings him back to the fold. If the sitting on guy was genuinely tired, and does get dropped by the action, then the break didn’t have to worry about him anyway. In short, trying to take someone off the back of a break is huge waste of energy.
- Down to the end – If you managed to break free of the rest of the break, and you’re solo, no worries. Often though, good opportunities to get away didn’t present themselves, or everyone else was too vigilant, and it comes down to a sprint. If you’re not the best sprinter, you need to try and find the best sprinter’s wheel. Note which direction the wind is coming from. Others may make a mistake and come around on the windward side, giving you shelter. General things to note about sprinting: Downhill and Tailwinds go for a longer sprint. Others may not have given it thought and you might get away with it. On uphill and headwind sprints you need to go for a shorter sprint. If the wind is coming from the right, hug the left side of the road so no can get shelter. If the wind is coming from the left, go for the right side.
- All this assessment! When do you attack? – Patience grasshopper…attacking is best done when opportunities present themselves. The difficulty is identifying these opportunities. There are a few I can mention, but by and large you just have to go out and gain experience. Eventually, as you gain race experience and get to know your competition, you’ll gain a sense of when it’s a good time to attack. That said, some opportune moments include:
- When a lot of attacks and counter-attacks have gone, the pressure will start to crack apart the front end of the field. When there are a lot of gaps between wheels and from riders side to side, it’s hard to get together a cohesive chase. This is a good opportunity to attack.
- When a long chase is near completion and the break is coming back, attack before the job is finished. Most people will assume you’re bridging to a sinking ship and let you go. Go right past the doomed break (maybe a few will tag on) and continue.
- Using the terrain – hills, wind, curvy-rolling sections, these are all good places to attack but they’re also quite obvious. A lot of people who feel they’re stronger than everyone else will look to attack here. It’s often better to follow these attacks, and counter-attack from there. For instance, on hilly courses, breaks don’t usually go on the hill so much as they do after the hill.
- The soft attack – Only useful in very special conditions. In long distance breaks, guys will often start sitting on because they’re cracking. This in turn causes other riders to sit on, until finally, only 2 or 3 guys are pulling. Assuming one of these is you, just keep pulling (at about 75% of your capacity) and at some point pull through “too hard”. You’ll get a gap and the guy you pulled through on will look to someone else to close the gap. Meanwhile, you increase your speed gradually and begin walking away. When/if your gap reaches a couple of seconds, step on the gas. All the guys who had been sitting on will usually wait long enough for someone else to close the gap, that eventually, will be too late.
- No opportunities – Sometimes, opportunities to attack don’t present themselves. Unless you have a lightening-fast move that rips everyone’s legs off, you just have to prepare for a sprint.
There are a lot of situations where I call for an assessment of the situation. Many of you won’t have the experience or information to make these assessments. In these cases, you merely have to guess based on how you feel at the moment, and how your form is going. You have to be honest with yourself, and your teammates about your abilities. If you go around telling your ‘mates you can win, you’d better eventually back that up if you have opportunities to win. As was mentioned earlier, egos need to be in check. If you’re hopelessly outclassed in a break, you should sit on and hope the break dies, rather than pull and get 6th place, or worse, get dropped. If you worry about people yelling at you for sitting on, just explain that you know you won’t win, so you want the bunch to catch. If they don’t leave you alone, this will disrupt the pace, which is good because they’ll fritter their lead away not getting down to business.
There are a million scenarios for tactical nuances, and a million more possible outcomes to your reactions. There are no pat answers or guaranteed results for what you should do for any given situation. A team can come up with a solid game plan only for it to go to hell in a hand basket. There is constant improvisation, which is part of what makes bike racing so much fun. Sometimes you will make the right decisions and win, or make the right decisions and still lose. Other times you’ll make the wrong decisions and lose, but sometimes make the wrong decision and still somehow win. There will sometimes be disagreements among the team about how things should have been handled. You will make mistakes just as your teammates will make mistakes. There will also be successes. It is important to learn from failures and successes. Be sure to go over the race afterward with your teammates and discuss the critical moments when things went right or wrong. Sometimes things could have been going very right, and suddenly they go very wrong; how did that happen? Be sure to talk about it, and learn from it.
Here’s a quick checklist of things to think about tactically in a race:
b. Assess situation
c. Is the current situation the team’s best situation/reasonable situation/poor situation? (And many degrees in between)
d. Act accordingly in the team’s best interest for the moment
e. Note the result of your actions (did you win, almost win, get run down (like you did or did not want it to), make a good go of it but lose out, lose utterly, crack yourself, just plain flat out lucky, etc.)
f. Analyze why the result of your actions occurred, and this include how your actions affected the actions of other people in your move.
g. Most Important: Learn from your successes and your mistakes.