Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tactics - Wheel Sucker

As a kid, for a long time, I was taught that "wheel sucking" was dishonorable. I should pull through as much as everyone else, share the workload, and see what happens.

The problem was that I was never really that good at steady state efforts. I could rarely sustain over 23 mph, even aided with now-illegal time trial equipment. I could go great for a short anaerobic burst, but ask me to meter out that energy over 10 or 15 minutes? Suffice it to say that other than an exceptional year or two I'd almost always get dropped if I pulled in a small group.

Eventually practicality won over honor. Sure it's honorable to pull through. But if you get dropped every time you do this, well, that's just plain stupid. So I stopped pulling through in breaks. It's hard though, breaking the stuff you grew up with, and so every now and then I'd think, "Well, maybe this time I can pull just a teensy weensy bit."


Off the back.

Last summer I watched the finishing sprint between two breakaway riders. The field had been out of contention long ago so as long as the two racers did not do any trackstands they would both win. The two disagreed at some level who ought to do how much work. One was clearly unwilling to work and the other got frustrated. The frustrated one swerved a bit to try and cut off the other rider. He repeated this a few times, each swerve harder than the next, the last couple right in front of the judges. You can imagine he got disqualified.

An "honorable" cyclist might question whether the wheel sucker should have taken a pull or two at the end. He won anyway, so maybe a less vigorous version of "not working" would have sufficed. It's hard to tell though, because with a lap to go, maybe that wheel sucker guy didn't feel too well.

Remember that this is bike racing. Your goal is to win the race, or, if you're thinking a bit bigger, your goal might be to gain support so you can win something bigger than just the race. Think Yellow Jersey allowing the rider with him to win the stage so this other rider will help Yellow Jersey chase things down in the upcoming days.

There are all sorts of reasons why a racer won't work in a break. If they're working for someone else on the team, they may have tagged along on the break simply to mark it. If his break companions drag him to the finish, well, his job will have changed to winning the race.

Is that wheel sucking?

In my book it isn't. The break riders knew he'd go for it and they made the choice to bring him to the line, fresh and relatively rested.

Is it honorable to sprint?

Again, in my book, it is. The break riders know that if they bring the guy sitting on all the time to the finish, he'll try and out jump them all. If they bring him to the line, it was their choice.

If you are stuck with one of these bad apples in a break, you have to decide what you're going to do - drag him to the line or let both of you get caught.

It might be that the apple is simply spoiled or not ripe or in some way not edible. In other words, the "bad apple" may literally be at the limit simply holding onto your wheel.

In an earlier stage of my cycling career, at the famous Bethel Spring Series (hehe), I launched customary suicidal first lap attacks. The I did the same thing each time - attacked at the start (to warm up my legs - I typically did a warmup measured in seconds, not minutes), got into a small break of much more ambitious racers (they wanted to win the race, not just warm up), pulled through once, and promptly got shelled. The second week I delayed my pull for a lap or two but when I finally did a short, steady pull, my body went over its limits and I came off shortly afterwards.

Nothing happens without consequences and unfortunately, I did not pay for my shelling, my loyal teammates did. They had to chase like mad after I got dropped and I can't recall if they were successful both times. I was disappointed in myself, they were tired, and no one was too pleased with the tactical scenario. The teammates who were close to me advised me that if I got into such a break again, I should simply refuse to pull. From a self preservation view, they couldn't afford to lead such hard chases too much more.

So, with their advice ringing in my ears, I did my customary first lap attack on that third week. A few riders, including one that was on incredible form, went with me. And, for the first time, I flat out refused to pull. A few guys got pretty vocal with me about not pulling, yelling obscenities or vulgar names as they rode by me. The strongest (and apparently most savy) racer in the break yelled at the yellers.

"If he pulls we'll drop him like we did for the last two weeks. If we drop him, we'll have 10 guys chasing us. If he stays here they'll block. Don't worry about it until 5 to go."

The others thought about it, grumbled, but relented. I was left alone at the back, behind four hard working guys. Mister Savy actually dropped back a couple times to see how I was doing, and although I was questioning my sanity for trying to stay in this break, I managed to stay on wheels, sometimes with a helpful little nudge from Mister Savy. He kept the pace noticeably steady on the hill and made sure I didn't get sawed off, accidentally or on purpose.

In this manner the break stayed away for the entire 30+ mile race.

The break roared down the road, cohesive until 5 to go. Then the attacks came rapid fire like a machine gun, blam-blam-blam, and the break disintegrated. I desperately hung on to the leading two racers - it would be too much to not pull for an hour and then promptly get dropped - and killed myself to hang on. Two guys, probably those with the worst sprints, had annihilated themselves trying to get away. Collectively blown, they dropped back to positions they would have taken had they waited for the sprint.

The other two, with me tagging along, met the bell together. And although I was part of the three man group that made it to the finish, I got third. I simply couldn't sprint against them. My legs were cooked and a small part of me didn't feel like sprinting. The stuff I heard as a kid percolated up and I didn't feel honorable sprinting too hard, no matter what I felt was tactically acceptable.

The savy racer had gambled on my team helping with shutting down any chasers. He balanced that out with my only threat, my sprint. He felt confident that a long break would dull my sprint, and he also felt confident he could sustain such an effort himself. He looked at his other break companions, figured out that they'd be strong enough to drive the break, and decided to go for it.

Mister Savy, the racer who protected me?

He won.


Anonymous said...

I have and never will be a wheel sucker. But what I have learned in my many years, is how to play the break a bit more intelligently. No need to drive the pedals, if others can't play at that pace. Get the most out of the other guys by backing off a little. If that is not fast enough to stay away, so be it. You can't force a breakaway to stick, without at the same time, dragging a couple guys to the sprint.

On the other hand, when I was racing in Belgium or doing some P12 race with studs, I'd do the minimum if that's what it took to stay with a small group. Never be afraid to get yelled at. You deserve it, but in the end, if you drop from the break, your teammates will have even worse things to say.

Aki said...

I tried to be some kind of contributor in the prior two weeks of that series, going through as easy as possible, pulling right off, but that was enough to pop me off the back. Although I was convinced I was doing something wrong, my friends and teammates watching me pointed out that I was at my limits. Apparently it was obvious that doing a pull just long enough to clear the guy who just pulled off was enough to blow me up. Ah well.

In another break (different race) that lasted perhaps 10-15 miles, I pulled perhaps twice (very short) and ended up about 8th out of 12 or so break members. I simply had nothing left at the end of the race. When you have it, you have it, and when you don't, you don't.