Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tucson Bicycle Classic Road Race: Tips for Surviving when Outgunned

Tucson Bicycle Classic Road Race: Tips for Surviving when Outgunned

Joshua Liberles

I felt a mixture of pure joy and a touch of dread when I first learned that I'd won the prologue time trial at the Tucson Bicycle Classic. Of course, I experienced an amazing sense of accomplishment and was psyched that the work I'd put into my time trial position, my threshold workouts, and my attention to detail and pacing had paid off. But I knew that as a racer without a team going against some stacked pro and amateur squads, I was in for some pain in the coming days.
This stage race was an extreme example of what you can do when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. Since I was wearing the yellow jersey of race leader, I was an obvious target. But you can apply these same principles to one-day events or stage races where you might not be in the lead as well.

I'll start off by describing the specifics of the event, and then pull out some universal truths that you can apply to your racing.

The Race - Standings
Coming into the first road stage, I had a scant 3 second lead over Drew Miller of the Landis/Trek elite amateur team. Miller is a superstar climber who's won the Pro-level Tour of the Gila on several occasions. Miller also had two very strong teammates sitting in 6th and 7th places and three other strong riders who would be lending support.

David Salomon of the P&S Specialized Mexican pro team was sitting in 4th place, and had four teammates fighting on his behalf. Ride Clean, another very strong Arizona-based amateur team, had three guys within striking distance.

Although there were others in the race who could certainly play the role of spoiler, for the most part they were in the same boat as me: they were either racing without any teammates or without anyone who would be much help. Other teams had all of their riders far enough down that I didn't consider them a threat.

I knew that I would very likely be losing the leader's jersey. I made the decision to focus on a good overall G.C. and to choose my battles. The time trial was so short that any rider who got into a breakaway could take the lead - but I couldn't possibly cover every move. If I tried to, I would have eventually gotten dropped, plummeted in the standings, and been a puddle of sweat and drool by mid-race.

I decided to focus on the big teams. I did follow some attacks and initiate some myself, but the smartest tactic was to watch one team and try to cover their moves. I picked Landis because I was most familiar with their riders.

If an attack went up the road, and there were no green Landis kits in it, I knew that either one of their riders would try to bridge or that several riders would go to the front and work to close the gap. If a Landis rider jumped across, I had to die a thousand deaths to make sure I could go with him. If the strong teams all had racers in a move that I missed, the race was over!

If, on the other hand, Landis sent riders to the front to set tempo and reel the attackers back in, I got a (relatively) easy ride.

To some extent I would play both sides of the fence, too. If P&S Specialized missed a move off of the front, but Landis was in it, I would key off of their team.

How it Played Out
Frankly, I expected the entire peloton to gang up on me to strip me of my jersey. But there are always other dynamics at work. The big teams have to watch one another if they're going to win.

In the end, I couldn't keep the overall lead. A breakaway formed with four riders - three from P&S Specializied and one from Ride Clean. Two eventually came off and back into the pack, leaving two P&S riders up the road. These guys were off the front for more than half the race. Landis missed the move, as did some motivated riders who were inspired to do work on the front. I rotated at the front and covered the important attacks as well, but never panicked.

By the time we were coming into the finish, we'd brought the gap down from three minutes to within 30 seconds. I lost my jersey by 13 seconds (including time bonuses for Salomon's stage result), but held onto second place.

I won't say my race was easy by any means - and my power tap file proves it. I worked my ass off out there for 80 miles and dug super-deep to stay with a really strong group. But by using good tactics, I kept myself within striking distance and survived the race.

Take Aways - Tactical Lessons for Stage Racing

  • What are your goals? Have definite goals and develop a plan around them. Looking for a stage win? Unless the overall leader is head and shoulders above the pack, a break that he's in will likely not survive for long. Your best bet might be a move with strong riders who are lower down in the standings; the guys in the hunt for the overall are less likely to mark them since they too need to maximize their efforts and choose their battles..
  • Identify the strong teams and the strong individual players. If a good (and smart) team misses a break, expect one of their riders to try to jump across. When he goes, fight hard to get onto his wheel and get towed up to the break. Pull through and help to get across if you can, but don't do so much work that you come unglued!
  • There's a difference between racing smart and being a "wheel-sucker." If you're strong enough to get into a break, do enough work to help to keep it away, but not so much that you sacrifice your chance for the win. If you miss a break and can't get across to it, recruit help from other riders in the pack and get a chase organized.
  • Know your competition. The internet makes this easy - look up their results and the type of races where they've done well. Get scouting reports from other racers. Who likes to get into breaks, who looks strong out there? Also, pay attention to which riders seem to be helping one another. Alliances aren't limited by jerseys and teams, and the more you can read, the better you'll be prepared.

These are some of the tactics that went into play in my race, and you're likely to see similar scenarios come up in yours. It's all a learning process (I'm definitely still learning and need every tactical advantage I can get!). Remember to have a plan and then to reanalyze it after the race. What worked, what didn't, and why?

1 comment:

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