“Winter is coming”. Well, that’s what they’re saying on Game of Thrones, but in the world of Bike Racing, we try not to think of such things until we really have to. Late July and August have been blessed with a pretty busy race calendar, and a great chance to learn some new things. While the first half of the season was mostly about hanging on for dear life, these later races have given us the opportunity to learn some of the dark arts of bike racing. So, without further ado, here’s a few tips we’ve picked up!
Lesson 1: Work out who to follow. And more importantly, who not to follow.
Having avoided a road-trip race since Killington, Stan, Thomas, Mike and myself decided it was time to find something fast and flat, so we headed to Pedricktown, in deepest, darkest Southern Jersey. We’ll forgive you if you can’t find it on a map… we couldn’t either. Stan and Thomas lined up in the Cat 4 race, which was also the NJ State Championship Road Race, whilst Mike and I had a late start at 10:30 in the Cat 5 race. The course was, as promised, fast, and flat, with the biggest “feature” being a road bridge over the I-295. Alas, fast and flat was also coupled with weird cross-winds and way, way too much sprinting out of turns. With a less experienced field in the 5s, I found myself getting stuck behind some pretty slow corner-ers, who strangely couldn’t negotiate a 90-degree bend at any more than 7mph. Which would have been fine, if (a) there wasn’t a line of people on the outside going round at a healthier 18-22mph, and (b) the rest of the peloton had thought the same way. So I found myself having to get out from behind them on the exit, and laying down 600W for a few seconds to catch back on. And each time I got caught out, I made a mental note of “don’t let him slip past me on the straights”. Alas, my strategy failed a couple of times, so then I changed my strategy to “lay down 900W and leave them behind so they can’t get back on” each time I had to sprint. Fortunately, that approach worked better, but it didn’t do much good for my legs…
Lesson 2: Don’t get out of bed unless you really have to
After a couple of lighter weeks, we returned in early August to our regularly scheduled local race season. Except, well, it was going to be one of those mornings. The kind of morning where the weather plays havoc with everything. You’re probably thinking “these damn brits just love talking about the weather”, and, well, you’d be right. But in this case, it was the strategically brilliant choice. My alarm was set for an unhealthy 4AM, with a plan to meet Jared and Ethan at 5AM for the short hop to Prospect Park. Ethan started rolling down from Washington Heights at a few minutes after 4AM, whilst I did something different at that first beep of the alarm. I rolled over, and checked the weather. Good job I did, because it told me “rain starts at 5:15AM”. Three minutes later, it became 4:20AM, and three minutes after that, it became “Weather Alert: Thunderstorm starting at 5:15AM”. And then, five minutes after that, it became a flash flood warning. And at that point, I put the phone down, rolled over, and fell back to sleep. In the meantime, Ethan having failed on the “check the weather” rule, rode under a comedy rain cloud that tracked him all the way from Washington Heights to Prospect Park and back. And he didn’t get to race.
Lesson 3: Positioning, positioning, positioning
Last week’s CRCA club race was a small affair in the 5s, with about 16 starters, 8 of whom came from Team Fire. Despite my protestations, it became an all-out battle, with Team Fire playing strategic games with the rest of us. Their somewhat well-executed strategy was simple: have four riders up front, let two roll of the front and build a gap, forcing the other teams to chase. With no other team having more than two riders in the race, it became a one-sided war of attrition; Fire would hold pace whilst the rest of us burnt matches to close gaps. This would be the pattern for first half of the race, till there were just nine or ten of us in it… half of whom wore the red, white and black of Fire. Still, I’d love to tell you what happened in the end, but coming into Cat’s Paw at the start of lap 4, Fire played the game again, and yours truly was poorly positioned in last wheel when a gap opened-up mid-pack. I attempted to close the 12 or so bike lengths between myself and the lead pack, pushing more than a few watts on Cat’s Paw, but, well, they had five lengths over the top, saw me coming, and took off. Bye bye. And despite trying to organize a chase, they weren’t going to be seen again. And all because I was sat in the wrong wheel. If I’d been closer up front at that strategic point, I’d have made the selection. Grr…
Lesson 4: If you’re outnumbered, make friends
This week’s CRCA race had promised something similar, but with better weather we had more defense. We had the same eight or nine racers from Team Fire, but the field was a more useful 30-35 riders. And of those, half-a-dozen of us wore the battle scars of Team Fire’s attack drill. Recognizing some familiar faces, we started talking long before a pedal was turned in competitive anger, and before we knew it, we had the makings of a race plan. Between ourselves, RBNY, NYCC and a couple of friendly faces from CRCA, we knew what we were going to do, and it didn’t involve pulling the peloton or attacking at all. We were going to leave that to Team Fire, and the other teamless riders who didn’t know any better. The first lap was relatively tame, with Fire having one rider on patrol up front, and a few foolhardy solo souls making the pace up front. But the entente cordiale was broken on lap 2, as Team Fire moved up en masse down the outside in formation. Learning lessons from last week, I knew that positioning would be crucial, so I quickly moved into their line in third wheel, and recruited my new found friends into some disruptive tactics as we moved up the outside. This didn’t stop their all-out attack, but this time we had numbers to chase and control. As they rotated riders in and out of the front, we made sure to be sitting there, no more than 2 or 3 riders back, so they couldn’t go that far. And every time they tried to let a gap grow, we pushed them out of the way and kept the group together as long as we could. By the end of lap 2 we’d dropped half the peloton, and with the selection made, it was time to eat, drink and get ready for the finish… which brings us to our final strategic lesson of the day…
Lesson 5: To finish first, first you have to finish
So my plan with 1 lap to go was simple: stay up front in the top 10 wheels, and pilot Ethan up to the top 5 coming into Cat’s Paw. By this point we had a selection of 15-16 racers, half from team Fire, and the rest of us. With about 3 miles to go, we were neutralized as the A-field break came past us, pushing us over onto the right side of the road. I found myself riding in the gutter, where the overnight rains had washed all the grit and dirt. After what felt like a really long neutral section, we were finally allowed to race again. So time to execute my plan… move up, pick up Ethan along the way, then… bang, bang, bang, bang, argh, f*!&, s%$#. Time to cue the Geico Gecko. Yup. I had a flat tire. As I pulled up, I saw two other guys with exactly the same predicament… yup, there was glass in the gutter, and we’d been the unlucky ones. No sprint finish for me, instead it would be the long walk across the park to pick up my flat kit and change the tube. And final strategic lesson of the day learnt… the gutter is a bad, bad, bad place to be.
And with that, we roll on to the last two races of the season. So two more chances to learn some more of the dark art of bike racing before the season ends. Bring it on!