By PCG Founder & Coach Hunter Allen
The season awaits! After a long, hard winter, it’s finally time to get outside. Whether this is your first year racing or your twentieth, preparation and planning is key to success. Let’s take a few minutes and go over the strategies and tactics you might utilize in your events this season.
These courses feature undulating hills that seem to go on forever, constantly up and down. A good example of this type of course is the Jefferson Cup races. Races like these usually come down to two different finishes: a sprint finish or a breakaway, either a small group or fairly large one.
Strategy: Position someone for the sprint or make sure to have someone in the break. Easier said than done, right? The main things to consider are the other riders and teams and your own team riders and their strengths and weaknesses.
Always cover the stronger riders’ attacks so you will always have someone in the break. Also, make sure to pay attention to the combination of teams in the attack and see if they contain the strongest teams. If no one gets away and the race comes down to a sprint, your strategy must be to get one of two of the strongest sprinters to the front and lead them out. Do your best to contain late race attacks and then play your cards correctly, so your best guy will have a chance at the win!
These are very similar to hilly courses in strategy, but they almost always come down to a sprint finish. Only if the course has an exposed windy side or several strong riders can get together will there be a breakaway.
Strategy: Flat-course strategy is similar to hilly strategy, but make sure to save a bit more energy this time for the sprint finish, as it has a high probability of taking place. If it is a windy day, make sure to use that to your advantage by always being in the front and on the shielded or leeward side. This way you will waste little to no energy and be stronger when the attack comes. In the final sprint, be mindful of the wind and how the course comes into the finishing straight. Make sure to station yourself on the leeward side again and sprint from a sheltered position if possible.
Climbing races are pretty easy to race in, because everyone waits for the climb and then goes absolutely berserk on it, and the race is determined.
Strategy: Train your climbing abilities! In the race, save energy until the climb and then, like everyone else, go for it. Make sure to pace yourself, though, and don’t blow up!
Another strategy is to try to get away before the climb and then meet the climbers at the top so you’ll already be in the break after the climb. This is a great strategy for a non-climber or someone who isn’t a top climber.
These crits usually come down to a field sprint, nine times out of ten.
Strategy: Win some primes to see how the final sprint will play out and then make sure to be at the front (or very near it) with ten laps to go. Make sure you know what place you need to be in around the final turn in order to win the race. If it’s a wide road, most of the time it is a crap shoot in terms of holding your position and staying in the front at the finish. You need to pay attention to the course and see where the holes are opening up throughout the race, then move up through those. Force yourself to stay in the pack if you’re a good sprinter and save your energy for the finish. The start doesn’t matter quite so much.
Lots of turns
This type of crit usually involves a breakaway or field sprint, usually with a break near the end if there is one.
Strategy: The start is usually very crucial! Be near the front at the start and stay up there for the race; you will save so much energy! Make sure to find the lines through the turns, and use them. Try to get a small break going if you can, but don’t kill yourself to keep it going if it isn’t working. Focus on looking farther in front of you than normal and not on the rider’s back wheel directly in front of you. Make sure you know exactly which position to be in before the last turn heading into the finish. Make sure to warm-up extremely well before the race to make sure your body doesn’t have to go through that “shock” period that’s normal at the beginning of a race.
Turns and a hill
A breakaway usually wins this one!
Strategy: Like the crit with lots of turns, your warm-up and start here are super important. Make sure to be thoroughly ready for the race and also near the front of the race.
The main thing is to be strong and fit for this type of race. The course dictates the tactics, and the important thing is to be strong enough to be in the lead group and go from there.
Get in a very intense warm-up and go from the start to the finish as hard as you can, while making sure not to blow up.
Like in the uphill time trial, you’ll need a good warm-up, and be mindful of the wind. If there’s a headwind on the way out, make sure to go pretty hard, because you’ll have a tailwind to help you on the way back. And if there’s a tailwind on the way out, be careful to save some energy for the ride back in.
Focus on your breathing rhythm and the feeling in your legs. Don’t think about the bills you have to pay, the nice trees along the route, etc. Concentration is the key to this race.
You’re in the break; great! Now what? If you’re one of the weaker riders or feeling weaker, do one of two things: (1) sit on, rest, and maybe you’ll come around, or (2) pull but not super hard; just keep the pace going. Many times when the break is getting established, you have no choice; pull or get caught. Once it’s established, however, it’s easier to rest.
If you’re the strongest rider, motor the break but make sure to keep it consistent at the front and smooth. Do not go so hard that you do 80% of the work. If you’re doing 80% of the work, sit up and try for a different combination of riders. The original break probably would not have worked anyway, and you would have ended up getting tired in the process.
Do ride hard and make sure you’re confident of being able to jump away toward the end or win the sprint. Don’t get fouled by other riders who may be bluffing about their weakness. Don’t be too eager to drive the break, but make sure to be vocal and encourage the break to work together and go fast.
Be careful and assess your breakaway companions’ strengths and weaknesses. Make sure to eat and drink at the back of the break or shake out your legs at the back so others won’t see you.
If your jump is slow and the finish is coming up, you might want to drop off the back a bit and then attack (slingshot) around the rest of the break. This is a great tactic because you pass the rest of the break at max speed; they can’t get your wheel and must make a major effort to get you back.
Blocking is done subtly and smoothly. Do not go to the front of the pack and slow down; other riders will recognize this and just go around you. Go to the front and ride at tempo, a fast pace but slower than you know the break will be going.
Another good technique is to lead into the turns, slow down a lot for each one, and then sprint hard out of each. This creates an accordion effect and makes it very hard for a chase to develop. Your speed will be fast on the straights but slow through the turns, and this will allow the break to get away.
Attack at every lull you can, especially in criteriums. Don’t attack when the pace is 35+ mph! Attack from farther back in the pack and get the jump on the other riders. Attack going into turns to get a gap. Attack on hills or at the top of the hill. But make your attacks count! Don’t just attack every other chance you get; attack with purpose and commitment. A good place to attack in a road race is on the up side of a long downhill (use your momentum). Also, attack in the crosswinds and ride on the side of the road that will not allow anyone to draft until you get someone to help you. Save your energy and attack on the part of the course that will give you the most advantage.
Good luck out there!
Hunter Allen is a is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” and “Cutting-Edge Cycling,” co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes.