The downside of good fitness is that it can lead to an over-inflated sense of control. Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I tell athletes "Don't force it. You can't impose your will on the race single-handedly. Keep your head up. Look for opportunities and do your best to take advantage of them." When we feel good we are excited to translate that fitness into results. Blinded by our own desire to succeed, we don't always pay attention to what is actually going on in the race. This is like an investor dumping all their money into stocks that they like without any regard to the movements of the market. Now, Warren Buffet or George Soros can probably dump millions of dollars into a stock and make it's value go up... but then again, they didn't get to be where they are by being reckless.
Don't Force It
The peloton is like the ocean. A surfer doesn't know exactly when the next wave will come or how big it will be, but he knows that it will come. If he is patient and pays attention to the tide and the rhythms or the ocean, he will be able to time it right and ride the wave. Just like the ocean, the peloton has it's own rhythms. Hills, tight turns, attacks and riders pushing the pace cause the pack to string out. Non technical downhills, wide open flat roads and riders deciding to sit up have the opposite effect: the pack bunches up. No race stays strung out or bunched up forever. Riders that understand and predict the "waves" of the peloton can use it's energy to move up to the front when it's bunched up instead of fighting the tide and use much more energy to move up when the field is strung out . This principle can also be used to time attacks. Smart riders move up when it's bunched up and attack when it's strung out but just about to bunch up again. The result is that a small gap quickly turns into a large gap and by the the time the field picks up the pace again they are out of sight. Dumb riders attack when it's easy, which means that the field will catch them as soon as the pace picks up again. The first step to being a smart peloton surfer is realizing that the ocean is more powerful than you are.
You can't impose your will on the race single-handedly
A dominant team is different from a single rider or even a small team because the dominant team has a lot more bullets to fire. They can afford to sacrifice riders for the sake of imposing their will on a race and making sure that it plays out the way that they want it to. If they want a breakaway to work, they can sacrifice riders to make the initial attack(s) so that they can have their strongest rider(s) counter attack and get into the winning move. If they want the race to come down to a sprint, they can afford to sacrifice riders to chase down breakaways and lead out their sprinter. If they want to split up the field, they can sacrifice riders to drive the pace and keep it fast enough to rip apart the field. All too often, though, solo riders or small, less powerful teams try to implement these tactics and all of their hard work only serves to set other riders up.
I am sure that some of you are thinking of times when you or someone you know did actually single-handedly dominate a race and impose their will on it, so let me say first of all: yes, there are exceptions. Most of those exceptions however, are when riders are far stronger than anyone else in their race (aka sandbagging). Most of the time though, even when a pro cyclist comes out to the Tuesday night training ride, they can't expect to just sit at the front and ride away from the field on strength alone even if they are twice as strong as the second strongest rider. It should be noted that for the most part when they do this, their intent is to get a good workout, not to "win".
In last month's Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali was head and shoulders stronger than all the other [surviving] contenders, yet many fans thought this year's edition of "Le Grand Boucle" was the most exciting in recent memory because it was so aggressive. Nibali did not have a dominant team in the likes of Froome and Wiggins' Team Sky that could keep the pace so high as to discourage any of these attacks. Although Nibali was left without any teammates by then end of most of the mountain stages, he patiently let the others put in their attacks, following the ones he needed to and letting his competitors tire themselves out. When at last they had nothing more to give, he would go his own, gaining time on almost every decisive stage. In other words, he didn't win by beating everyone into submission, he won by taking advantage of every opportunity.
Keep your head up
The first thing my father ever taught me about riding a bike on the road was "Keep your head up", and to this day it's the best piece of advice I've ever received. He said this because he wanted me to recognize what was coming up ahead. If my head was down, looking at my front wheel, my bike computer or my legs, I might get caught off guard by a turn in the road, a pothole, a stop sign, a patch of gravel, a car, or any number of things. Keeping my head up allowed me to work out how I needed to react (if at all) well in advance. It also meant that I kept a straighter line and a smoother pedal stroke.
When we start to suffer from a hard effort, when we get nervous about road conditions or sketchy riders or when we get demoralized because we feel like we're not performing well, many of us react by lowering our heads. Some riders with limited neck flexibility or back/shoulder issues may have a difficult time keeping their heads up as well In an age where many of us have speed, cadence, heart rate, power, altitude, gradient, temperature and GPS measurements available, I see more and more riders that have trouble looking away from their bike computers. The bottom line is this: if your head is down, you aren't part of the race. Not only can this be dangerous, it can also lead you to make decisions based on the wrong information. With regard to attacking, too many riders attack because they feel good. Smart riders attack when they see a good opportunity to do so and more often than not, it's when the race is hard (which means they probably don't feel good).
Keeping your head up is the also the first step in getting out of your own head. If you can do this, you stop worrying about how much your suffering or how nervous you are about crashing or under-performing. You just figure out what needs to be done and you do your best to make it happen. The other upside to this kind of mentality is that when you are not able to make it happen (which, to be honest, for most racers is most of the time), there's no mental anguish. It's a lot easier to accept when you fail because you asked your body to do something and it refused than because you just didn't know what you needed to do. You only have so much effort to give (so many matches to burn, bullets to fire, whatever metaphor you like best). The trick is to learn to focus your effort at the times it really matters.
Look for opportunities and do your best to take advantage of them
Someone once told me that if you are in a breakaway and you have to go harder than everyone else in the break for it to survive, it's not the right break to be in. Those of us that are not field sprinters recognize that getting in the break is probably our only chance of winning. We may want so badly for the break to work that we are willing to work harder than anyone else in the break to ensure it's success. The thought of having to go back to the pack and either try to attack again or duke it out in a dangerous field sprint may seem unbearable. Here's the thing though: if we are working harder than everyone else in the break, we're not racing to win, we're racing for a top 5.
This doesn't mean that if you think the race will probably end in a field sprint your only option is to sit and wait for a sprint, it just means that there may be fewer opportunities for breaks to get away, so you really have to pay attention to see them. It's also important to realize that "the odds" aren't everything. When you think about it, bike racing odds are almost never in your favor. In a field of 100 racers, there are 99 losers and only 1 winner. To be a bike racer is to never stop believing that you could be the 1 winner if you are smart and a little lucky, but also to have the ability to get over it when most of the time, you are in the 99. Being a smart racer isn't about choosing the strategy with the most likely odds of winning, it's about picking the strategy with the most likely odds of you winning.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!