Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tactics - Subtle vs Obvious

On bikeforums.net I'd gotten into a little thread about race tactics. I was trying to explain one of my subtle tricks in pack racing, how to take someone off of a wheel in a decisive but safe fashion. Unfortunately many racers interpreted my description differently - they were thinking that my subtle technique was similar to their less subtle techniques. As one guy put it, "I just grab the guy's elbow and pull him out of the way."

This was definitely NOT the racing I wanted to promote.

After a bit of discussion I managed to clear up that my tactics very rarely involve any kind of physical contact. I use the other racer's forces against them, sort of like Judo.

Except it's on bikes. And you don't throw your opponent to the floor. And you don't have to pin them.

But other than that, yes, it's like Judo.

Part of being a "good" racer is being discrete and subtle. The (tactically) obnoxious ones simply make enemies, pushing, shoving, pulling, tugging. Everyone remembers those racers, and in the very, very limited race community, such racers quickly gain a negative and somewhat permanent reputation for being a "dirty" racer. Unless about to move or go to jail for a decade or two, racers should avoid gaining this moniker.

That's not to say a soon-to-be incarcerated racer can go around knocking others down like bowling pins. It's just saying that such a racer might be less inclined to worry about his racing reputation and a little more worried about who his cellmate might be when he goes to the big house.

Anyway, these thoughts drifted across my mind when I was riding yesterday on my 25 km flat loop. It passes by a State Police shooting range. Next door is another shooting range, a private one. I guess that makes sense - if the town allows one big range in a particular location it would be hard for it to forbid another one a hundred yards down the road. Especially since it's in a flood zone that was under 10 feet of water last April.

But I digress.

And I'll digress a lot more. As a boy I grew up in the Netherlands (aka Holland, where they have windmills and canals and where most of the country as reclaimed from the sea), specifically near the Hague. Unlike the US, Europe has been the scene for numerous battles in the last century. Reminders of such battles remain scattered around the countryside. In particularly famous locations a restored tank or plane or field gun might greet tourists as they roll into town.

In my Dutch town, or the town next to it, there was a small zoo. Although seeing the animals was great and all, the playground held my attention. In it were two World War 2 weapons: a Sherman tank and a two man sub. In the woods nearby lay a long abandoned bunker. Even back in the 'hood, the kids in the neighborhood had huge cap gun battles, the biggest involving perhaps 50 or 60 kids running around a nearby park, "shooting" each other.

So I grew up fascinated with guns and weapons and things like that. Although I don't have a gun (except a pellet gun from 8th grade), I've read about them, practiced shooting them, studied tactics, and played shooting games where individual tactics make a difference in the game's outcome.

One thing I quickly learned was that subtle tactics typically worked better than overt ones. Running in a game (makes noise) makes sense in the initial stages of a round, but once it came down to a few guys, walking (silent) became the norm. In real life, even a gun nut is probably best off not slapping on those "Protected by Smith & Wesson" bumper stickers on their car.

More subtle to have a permit but no outward sign of a gun. Have you ever seen an off duty cop in public? Most of them are required to carry a firearm when off duty - they're "on call" even when not working. But you wouldn't know it because, well, you can't see their badge or their gun.

Subtle, not overt.

I've also shot a few guns. I rented all of them at a nearby range, with one notable exception that I'll describe later. The nearby range has a wall of handguns so I tried various different ones. One constant was that they were loud. Even with ear protection it was loud, so I went and bought the best ear protection I could find.

The notable exception (i.e. a gun I didn't rent in Connecticut) was the first real gun I'd ever fired. It was a full automatic Uzi at a range in Nevada and it was a blast, so to speak. I wanted to shoot a silenced gun but the guy at the counter recommended against it.

"Doesn't make a lot of noise and most people are disappointed with it."

I chose the Uzi and blew a big hole in the middle of a target with 120 bullets. As the guy who helped me shoot the thing told me afterwards, I had gone out and shot the crack-cocaine of guns. It would be hard for me to go to single shot guns after that.

Interbike is good for more than just bikes :)

Anyway, back to my ride. When I was maybe half a mile from the aforementioned shooting ranges near my apartment, I heard the distinct crackle of automatic fire. It sounded like a game of mine or like parts of "Blackhawk Down". The boy in me smiled - automatic weapons in Connecticut are very hard to come by, unlike the much more liberal Nevada. Obviously someone at the range had whatever licenses it takes to own one of those guns here.

As I got closer to the range, I realized that under the ripple of gunfire I could pick out a more muted version of it, sort of like a stuttering car kind of noise.

Someone was shooting a silenced automatic weapon.

Now if automatic weapons in Connecticut are tough to come by, silencers are tougher. Well, maybe not technically, but I've seen a lot of automatics for sale but not a lot of silencers.

From about 150 yards away the silenced gun sounded like a hand slapping a thigh. Like "Oh, man, that is so funny, you're killing me!" slap slap slap. Those slaps at the end are the gun shooting.

In contrast, the "full noise" version was pretty loud, louder than the cars going by me.

In a battle, which do you think would be better? Subtle or obvious?

Although I've never been in a real shooting battle (and I hope I never am, contrary to what most people think about those who play shooting games), I'm sure that the first thing you do if you're caught up in such a thing (after you dive to the ground/floor) is you turn your head around to try and figure out the location of the shooter.

With the normal gun, its location would be apparent from literally hundreds of yards away. It might be echoing off of nearby hillsides or buildings but it'll be very apparent that someone is shooting a firearm. With a silenced gun, I would have to get within about 200 yards to even hear it, and if it was a busier road (say a bustling city street) I'd probably have to be inside of 50 yards to pick it out.

So what's this all got to do with cycling?

Let's put it simply. If you were to attack in a race, would you use a "silenced" attack or a "normal" attack. Which would garner the quickest response? Which would be more likely to succeed?

In a long standing traditional February ride in Connecticut, the Shartkozawa Classic, I found myself riding with a guy named Charlie. We had been dropped by a few riders (there were only 8 or so on the "ride"). The ones in front of us included three extremely strong racers (a Pro, a Cat 1, and a strong Cat 3). We were chasing, unsuccessfully, another Cat 3 named Ian who'd just gotten back into racing. He's a talented racer, a former Cat 2, a former professional inline skater.

Ian attacked us (or maybe we just blew) on a very steep dirt hill at about the halfway point. Charlie and I regrouped and started chasing together. We didn't get very far initially since we were trying to recover from the hill while we were trying to chase.

We eased a bit and rode some fast tempo. We got to my favorite sections, the long stretches of road leading back to the finish. These roads were slightly downhill with little rolling bumps thrown in here and there. Great for speed work, great for two riders to catch one.

I told Charlie that since much of the route is downhill towards the end, two riders working together could close huge gaps on a solo rider. He started working with me, his steady pulls balancing out my slightly hyper, faster, but shorter pulls.

Sure enough, although Ian was out of sight on some very long stretches (well over a minute in front of us), we started catching glimpses of him after a couple miles of steady time trialing.

After about about 20 minutes of intense effort, we reeled him in. We pulled within 30 or 40 meters of Ian, but, incredibly, by hiding among passing cars and around some curves, he never saw us approaching. We had caught him about a kilometer from the "finishline", just after a turn, just before two short rises. I turned to Charlie and quietly told him to be very, very quiet, to shift quietly, to breathe quietly.

You know, like when you hunt the rabbit. Of course, at this point, the hunter had become the hunted.

And we smoothly and silently rode up to Ian's wheel.

Ian had no idea we'd bridged the gap and plugged away for a few hundred meters. Each time he looked down or blew his nose or did anything other than look forward, I moved my bike away from his view.

I was struggling not to draw in big, gasping breaths, and I'd ease up on the pedals to shift gears to keep them quiet. But even so I could feel my body easing up, my legs starting to recover just a bit.

Finally, at the top of the first rise (only one to go), a car approaching from behind made Ian turn around.

He almost crashed when he realized we were about six inches behind him.

We started laughing as he swore up and down in shock and surprise.

He no longer plugged away. He knew of my finishing speed, I knew of his, and we both respected each other. We rode up the second rise and at some point Ian took off. I jumped after him and managed to pip him at the line (as he reminded me during a race last year, many, many years later).

If we'd come barreling up to him when we caught him, it would have been a totally different finish. We had been at our maximum for 20 minutes, swapping pulls, going ballistic down the short descents, pulling like madmen in the flatter sections. We needed a minute or so to recover for the finishing kick.

Sprinting up to Ian noisily would have ruined it. He could have attacked, he could have eased; he definitely had options. We would have had none.

But we caught him so quietly he didn't know we were there for 20 or 30 seconds. The shock of his discovery bought us another 15 or 20 seconds of recovery, because as he was swearing up and down, I was gulping down huge breaths of air. This let me finish paying off my oxygen debt and prepared me for the sprint.

Subtle or obvious. Think about it next time you're thinking about race strategy.


Mini sprinter said...

Another great story, Aki. I tried looking on Bikeforums but couldn't find the thread you referred to. Could you add a link in the comments?


Aki said...

Thanks for the comment.

Thread titles have little to do with the topic as I've come to realize over time. Everyone meanders topically speaking, me included.

Here's the thread.

Incidentally on Bikeforums I post as carpediemracing, signed cdr.

ltc tim said...


Very interesting analogy. As the guy who's come out w/ the upper hand in more firefights than I can remember, you are exactly correct. One of the most difficult things is to identify the source of the gunfire, especially in built up areas (towns and cities). The crack is usually followed by the sound of the bullet breaking the sound barrier in close vicinity. Unit discipline in not shooting back at unidentified gunfire is key to not only identify the source, and minimizing collateral damage.

BTW, is the police range you describe in Simsbury, adjacent to the Farmington River. It sounds familiar as a West Hartford native. Lastly...are you referring to airsoft or milsim games?

Aki said...

The range is the one in Simsbury, recently condemned (the building at least) due to the extensive flooding in April 2007.

I forgot about the sound barrier bit. I guess the most silent guns have sub-sonic rounds as well as silencers.

Games refer to online games (all virtual) rather than "real life" games or even paintball. I suppose the same would apply in real life, but I think with unsilenced weapons it would be hard to hear virtually anything once the shooting started. I'm only a pretend shooter, not a real one (except in a range).

ltc tim said...


Ideally you use subsonic bullets, but these are not standard issue to regular troops...in fact never encountered it in 19+ years. Can't speak for the spec ops guys as i'm not one.

Lets just say that once the shooting starts, all your senses are essential to identifying the enemy. The Army has fielded a system known as boomerang that can detectthe location of a fired bullet. It is quite effective but is most often used in detecting single shots such as a sniper.

Used to love the route cirlcling Avon Mountain and going up to Tariffville, or through Granby to the state line. Do you ever mtb Penwood?

Aki said...

I'm still fascinated (apparent by my studying of combat tactics at some level) by principles of battle, especially at the troop level. It's easy to imagine saying "Okay, such and such Division will attack here". It's another thing to look at Avon Mountain and say "Okay, if there was an artillery observation post up there what would have to happen to take it out, or, from the other side, how would you defend yourself". I look up at the side of the mountain and think "Thank God I don't have to worry about this in real life".

I haven't ridden a mountain bike off road in about 10 years, maybe a bit more. I'll have to explore around here a bit. I'm too much a city boy, hate bugs and grass brushing my ankles. My "mtb season" is very short, usually when it's cold but there's not that much snow on the ground.

R. Zach Thomas said...

What a great entry. It's funny - the element of surprise seems so much more essential in endurance sports such as cycling, running, sailing than in team or field play. Endurance athletes aren't able to utilize a playbook or set plan to annihilate the opposition – rather, they must take advantage of the terrain and use their intellect and wit to gain the advantage, no matter how small, over the competitor, especially when physically, the competition is all on an even keel.

Cyclists love to bring up the time when Armstrong played "dead" and gained the upper-hand in the '01 TdF, but moments such as that are hardly rare – that's just a prime example. I've had my moments when I would let a "rabbit" go ahead and then hang back, letting him keep pace, while I worked with a teammate to conserve energy, only to fly by in the last several hundred meters with reasonably fresh legs. Pure strength and agility up the hills aren't all-important in cycling – brains and a willingness to strategize is key, too.

But you knew all that already. Sorry I just reiterated all that.

Anyway, great blog! I've added you to my list of must-reads.