Bart Haynes here in sunny San Diego, here to talk about strategies for racing. One of the reasons I love cycling races is because there is so much strategy in how you do it. You can dramatically – and I mean dramatically – improve your racing times simply by adopting a good strategy.
For me, the biggest improvements come with good strategies in:
- Hopping up from group to group
- Identifying good groups to ride with
- Knowing when to jump and when to stay put
- Managing energy output (conservation!)
- Leeching, which is a practice I know is extremely effective, but generally don’t practice
Here are my strategies.
1 – Group Hopping
Your group is going to dictate the pace at which you ride. Over the journey of your ride, you will be passed by many groups and in turn pass many of your own. A strategy I use is what I call group hopping.
Grouping hopping is starting off in a group, and continually jumping up groups until I find a group that is going at a good pace that I’m comfortable with. I will then either:
- Stay with this group as long as it’s available, or
- Jump up to a new group if I feel I can go a little faster
- Jump up to a new group if they are a little tighter (more experienced)
Finding a “good” group, not just a fast one, is really important.
2 – Group Searching
The things I look for in a group are:
- I see people rotating up front
- Everyone is riding tight (closely)
- The group “feels” driven – i.e. they appear to be there to ride
- The group is reasonably large (6-10 is great)
- Everyone in the line responds quickly to the person in front of them, a sign of experience
Identifying these groups is critical, especially as the race nears the finish. If I see a group like this riding past, I’ll usually try and hop in unless I’m spent.
3 – When to Jump
Jumping is when you have to pull away from your group, which usually means forging ahead to try and find another group ahead of you. Knowing when to jump is important because it involves knowing when to spend energy, or knowing when not to wasteenergy.
Jumping is a requirement in the following circumstances, all of which usually apply:
- Usually in the middle and middle-late parts of the race
- When no groups are close (or even in site!) in front of you
- When no faster moving groups are behind you
- When you are in a group that is either:
- Bad, where people start to leech
- Slow, where the group is cycling much slower than you can either because the group is spent or you are a faster rider
In short, you have to jump ahead and take on the wind in order to not get bogged down in a slow group. It’s a gamble though, because you could try and jump but then tire out and have to fall back into the group you are trying to jump out of, which is a huge waste of energy.
Tips for jumping:
- Ask if anyone in the group is willing to jump with you. Jumping with one or even two others is better than alone
- Try and jump at a good part of the course – wind not in your face, flat ground, a spot where you are comfortable, etc.
- If you see a lone rider or two passing the group you want to jump away from, join the lone rider
4 – Don’t Burn Too Much Early
I’ve made this mistake countless times. It’s easy to let nerves or overconfidence get the best of you and push too hard to early. The result: you feel great until about 2/3 of the way through the race when your energy crashes and burns.
I’ve learned to be a patient rider. Some days you will over-perform and some days you will under-perform. Every day is different. On race day, you need to tease out what kind of day it is for you, and you won’t know this until a ways into the race. Feeling good before the race is no indication that you will feel good half way through.
So here are my guidelines:
- Start conservative, riding a bit below your average riding speed
- Slowly group hop as the race progresses until you have established, usually about half way through the race, how you feel
- If you feel strong half way through the race, keep group hopping to notch up your speed until you are going above average speed
- If you feel okay half way through the race, try and keep the current pace
- If you are feeling tired half way through the race, dial it back a bit, maybe group hop back
A critical part of not burning too much too early involves knowing what your average riding speed is. Which means you should have been paying attention to how fast you ride while training.
5a – Bad Leeching (Bad But Effective)
Many riders do this – I don’t. I call it leeching. Leeching is simply refusing to take your turn out front, meaning that you always draft. Personally, I’m of the opinion that we are not professional riders and so we should all do our fair share. You gain nothing by leeching except a false sense of what you can accomplish in terms of riding speed.
None the less, I recognize how effective this is for going quickly and saving energy. If I’m in a group with a leecher I will tell them to pick up the slack. Or, if they won’t, I’ll get in front of them, slow way down, and then jump back to the group I was in. Sometiems the whole group will aid in trying to drop the leecher.
5b – Good Leeching (Arranged, and Effective)
If you have a partner, you can prearrange leeching. This is a great way to get a boost. It involves someone willing to take the lead for you out front for a long time during a race. It allows you to conserve energy without actively being a nuisance to others in your group. Case in point, a good friend of mine and I will try this strategy this year during the Tour de Tucson.