Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tactics - The Sphere and Three Scenarios

What is okay to do in a race? Is it okay to block? Elbow someone? Close the door on them? It can be a tough call since there is a very big grey area between what the rules state and interpretations of said rules.

Working within the rules and trying to win, that's fine. Breaking them is not. That's pretty simple. But there are a lot of unwritten rules. Sure it's illegal to impede someone's progress. But isn't that blocking, sort of? And blocking, at some level, is okay.

Ultimately it comes down to sensing what's right and what's wrong.

Think about what racing means to you. Is it your livelihood? Are you relying on getting $20 so you can get gas for your drive home (or food for the day?). Although I've known people in this situation, I don't fall into that category of racer. You probably don't either. Remember we're all doing this for fun. If it becomes not fun consistently, you may need either an attitude check or a new sport (or a job).

Let's take a scenario unrelated to racing but one you probably run into virtually every time you drive on a highway. Say you're driving on the highway in the left lane and you're about to pass a truck traveling slowly in the right lane. There's a guy behind you. He pulls right to pass you. It'll be very tight if he tries to pass you and then move back into the left lane without hitting either you or the truck. Your judgment says that it's better that the car passes after both of you pass the truck.

What do you do?

1. Swerve right and hit him.
2. Accelerate to beat him past the truck.
3. Slow down, let him in.
4. Stay next to him until the truck forces him to slow down.

I hope it's pretty obvious that #1 is not the answer - the police would have a great time learning about your rationale for ramming a guy next to you. However, I see the equivalent in bike racing all the time - someone goes to pass in what will be a dead end lane and the guy they're passing moves over into them. If you wouldn't do it in "real life", don't do it in a race. If you do stuff like this in real life you have problems that this blog can't come close to helping.

#2 is a great idea but maybe you don't have the power or speed to do this. In a bike race, you rarely have the luxury of flagrantly wasting energy like this. The only time this isn't true is if you are in a critical point of a race - leading up to a critical climb or the sprint. In these cases it's important to maintain position and you may find yourself willing spend a bit of muscle money in order to maintain even one or two spots. Choose this option if you have a vested interest in guaranteeing your position - and if making an effort will have the proper result.

#3 is nice if position is not important to you - and often, even in a race, it really isn't that important. Letting a guy move up 3 laps into a 30 lap race is not a terrible thing. Early in the 2007 Nutmeg Classic, I asked someone to let me go to the outside. I was trying to position myself for a photographer (but the reason really doesn't matter). It was early and not a decisive part of the race. The other guy let me out, I moved left, the photographer (hopefully) got his shot.

#4 would be a viable option in virtually all situations, real or in a race. In the driving example, it does not impede on the car to your right while at the same time it lets you meet your tactical goal of protecting your position. The best thing about it is that, on the bike, you end up spending no energy. And you make the other guy spend a lot for nothing in return.

Your judgment and that of those around you determine what happens in a bike race. It's a complicated balance of aggression and understanding. When done in a fair and reasonable way, things tend to be a bit safer than not. When someone tries something unfair or unreasonable, it's up to the bike handling skills of those around to stay upright. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, skills are not enough to overcome poor judgment. Crashes ensue.

There's one thing that determines what you can do and what is safe to do around you. I call it the sphere of safety.

This sphere encompasses your front wheel and handlebars. Violating this sphere causes the sphere-owner mental discomfort. Violations typically results in either fear, panic, or a crash. An experienced racer's sphere might be as small as 0-10 cm away from different parts of that area. A new racer's sphere might be as large as a couple feet.

The sphere is the key to all close quarters cycling tactics.

I saw three different scenarios at the Nutmeg Classic when racers might violate this sphere:
1. Bends, where riders on the outside moved towards the inside with no regard for those just behind them and to their inside.
2. Moving up, when a line of racers move up the side, and someone tries to pop into that stream of racers moving up.
3. Closing doors, i.e. shifting over to physically impede an attack or surge.


In the course of your racing and riding career, at some point you'll end up on a curve that straightens out a bit before curving back in again. The natural tendency is for people on the outside (who don't see the minute change in curb angle) to keep turning in. The riders on the inside can't follow the same arc because the curb is there - they have to move out. The two end up meeting, and, as they say, "your results may vary."

If you're on the outside of a turn, your guiding line should be a combination of the riders in front of you as well as the rider to your inside. You should pay close attention to the rider inside if they drift out towards you - it indicates that either they see something which makes them want to move out or that they're simply drifting a bit. Either way, you should move out in a parallel and controlled manner. Not doing so could result in some painful consequences.

If you're on the inside and suddenly you have to straighten up unexpectedly, you should do so in as smooth a manner as possible. Don't jerk the bars unless you're about to crash - but then you've already made some kind of cornering error. Follow the curb or edge of the road. The rider to your outside should (hopefully) do the same.

New Britain has a lot of curves where the outside riders can squeeze the inside riders inadvertently. Respectful/polite/knowledgeable racers will hold a slightly wider line to avoid potential problems inside but you'll find racers squeezing the inside all the time - on the first long bend and the top of the hill. Look on the first lap of my cam clip - the light blue guy to my outside moved in a lot. He moved back out as soon as he realized it so it wasn't necessarily intentional, just a mistake.

Moving up (Stream of Riders):

If there is a line of riders moving up on your left much faster than you, unless you can jump really, really hard, you move sideways will force the rider just behind you to brake, possibly firmly. Not good. If you can get into that line without causing anyone in that line to brake, you're fine. I'd recommend looking first before moving. That look will let the others know what you're thinking.

A quick judge of whether your move is okay or not is to think about if your move will cause someone to put their brakes on hard. If so, it's not a good move - and if you pull a move like that, you're riding poorly and unsafely.

If the line of riders is not moving very quickly, there is a way to check the reaction of the stream without doing much of anything. Slide over perhaps 3-6 inches, less than a quarter of your bike's width. This will let you put your "curb feelers" out. If the guy rushes by you, get back onto your line - he's looking to get by you and he's willing to burn the gas to do it. Let him burn the gas. If he slows, it's your spot. Take it right away.

Either way, you have given the other racer the option to pass or not. It's not a "force" thing. You present the option and take it if it's possible.

The "stream of cars" example comes to mind.

Think of a highway where one lane stopped due to traffic and the other lane is humming along at 30 mph. Is it okay to pull out from the stopped lane because "there's a gap"?. Not unless you can get to 30 mph before cars behind you get to you - otherwise you'll force a whole line of cars to slam on their brakes (and possibly cause one to hit you). If the two lane speeds differ by 5 mph, it's a different story - moving over quickly and decisively into a clear spot will usually be safe.

Closing Doors:

Closing doors refers to physically moving over to block a free "lane", i.e. "you're closing the door". It is almost never a violent move - if you have to lean the bike or steer to close the door, you're actually just swerving across the road. If you slightly adjust your angle of travel (say less than 5 degrees) and it takes you a few pedal strokes to move over one bike lane (the width of one bike, perhaps 2 feet), then you're "drifting" at a reasonably safe rate. If this drifting happens to close the door on a surge coming up the side, well, then your drift also closed the door.

If you're shutting doors hard (i.e. you're doing things you shouldn't be doing) it's an indication that you're not following the guy in front of you in an ideal way. Any sketchy moves like that means you're making up for tactical mistakes and/or lack of fitness. Back off on the moves and accept that, without endangering those around you, you're unable to compete in the present race situation in your current fitness/mindset.

Shutting doors correctly is a quiet, subtle thing. No slamming. You can move very slightly to dissuade someone from passing you. The idea is you penetrate their sphere and they back off. Yet you are still pretty far away from the rider (say a foot). Variations of this include using another rider as a "mobile curb" (our truck example at the beginning would apply here - use slower riders as "trucks" and make sure you don't let a gap go big enough for someone to enter), using the wind as a deterrent (if he really wants to go out in the wind, let him), and use road conditions (wheel-eating potholes can deter even the most aggressive riders).

Remember that even a subtle door closing can cause a ripple effect through the field, magnifying the effect further back in the field. I eased when some friends went off the front in one race. The field was storming behind, eased also, but someone at the back ended up crashing in a moment of inattentiveness. My easing of pace, and those who did the same around me, was not violent. In the back though there were riders not focused on what was going on and they ended up on the ground.

I see the same situation played out in rush hour traffic every day. I see a few people slow, perhaps for a bunch of merging cars, maybe because there's a general slow down in front. The drivers who pay attention, they seem to slow based on the car that's two or three in front of them. The ones that accelerate and brake based on the car just in front? They tend to have to slam on the brakes. Although they may get away with it, it makes things exciting for those just behind them.

Although I touched on just three scenarios, I hope you get the idea of what makes good tactics, good skills. Just like in life, it's not necessarily the aggressive moves that get you what you want. Sometimes a little bit of subtlety is what you need.


Suitcase of Courage said...

Really glad you linked to this post from your latest post. I must've missed it first time around. GREAT advice.

(dunno whether you'll even see this comment on such an old post, but that's ok)

Aki said...

I see them all :)