Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Racing - When Not A Winner

One of the things necessary to appreciate a book like Joe Parkin's is the will to race when not going for the win. I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by a culture that didn't emphasize winning. I mean, yeah, it was great if you won, but it was just as important that you tried, and tried hard.

Although I may practice victory salutes (or bike throws) on the bike, deep down I have a different dream. And, unfortunately, I can't practice it very well.

I've always, always wanted to be a strong domestique.

Riding for others frees me in many ways. It relieves me of any pressure to "do well" because, frankly, I'm not expected to do well at all. It also motivates me because I get a lot of motivation from wanting to help others. A great example is George Hincapie. It seems that when he races for others, he'll ride himself so far into the ground it's hard to believe he can get on the bike again.

Need someone to pull the field over the high mountains in the Tour? No problem. George will do it, and do it with such class that he inadvertently might end up strong enough to win a mountain stage (!?).

But when he rides for himself, for that elusive win in Paris Roubaix for example, it seems that something always happens. His form or will or desire lacks just that special touch that makes huge wins possible. I think, unfortunately for his Classics win count, that he's a racer that works best when working for someone else.

A lot of my better rides came because of altruistic motivations - one of my better races was the time I gave a huge leadout for a Cat 4 that had never even contemplated being a team leader. I told him before the race that I'd work for him totally and completely. This promise motivated to hold field position with him (instead of drifting to the back), got me to talk to him during the race (instead of groveling in silent pain), and brought me to the front of the field just after the bell, to lead him out. I did the hardest, fastest lap I've ever done in the wind to drag him to the line. I relished letting someone else feel a bit spoiled during a race, to have someone else be the protected one. The fact that he didn't win, or even place, didn't bother me.

Another time I was totally demoralized in a relatively big race (a target one for me), expecting not even to finish. But somehow I made it to the closing laps, and, like a sprinter, got that welcome rush of adrenaline that would make it virtually impossible for me to get dropped. I decided that helping a friend, even though he rode on a different team, would be better than finishing mid-field. Since I was buried deep in the field, mid-field would have been realistic.

Instead, in order to help my friend, I made a supreme effort to move up to him, reaching him with half a lap to go. When he suddenly went backwards and lanes opened up for me, I seized the opportunity and went for it. I lost by a narrow margin, but I'd won the Connecticut Crit Championships for Cat 3s.

The irony is that if I hadn't been motivated to help my friend John, I wouldn't have done all that hard work to move up.

This leads me into something I wrote regarding a racer who wanted to know how he could do better if he can't do well in any particular discipline - he can't sprint, can't time trial, and can't climb.

My thought?

Winning is relative.

I would say that a racer (not a rider) who doesn't have a winning sprint or winning form or winning climbing legs who truly wants to help their team should never be finishing races or rides with the group. They should be annihilating themselves before the end in order to help their teammates and then should roll in 1 or 10 or 30 minutes down.

To such a racer, I'd say that it is not a poor performance to ride like that. When a football team scores a touchdown, is the offensive guy laying on the field at the line of scrimmage "a loser"? No, because without that guy making a crucial block, the scoring teammate wouldn't have been able to get down field.

In fact, in all probability, the guy laying on the ground was a much better choice for throwing that crucial block. Just like you wouldn't expect the quarterback to be charging the big dudes on the line, you also wouldn't expect the team leaders to be chasing down breaks willy-nilly.

If you are perhaps a moderately gifted racer and you decide that you have no chance in an upcoming race, you can still help decide the outcome. You may end up at the figurative line of scrimmage as your team leader scores that figurative touchdown, but you can help. That score will be part yours.

Figure out who is strong on the team and do your utmost to whittle down the group until that strong racer/leader/s is/are in the select few. Ideally you should be isolating your opponents so your teammate is matched up to his advantage. For example, if your leader can't sprint as well as Mr Sprinter, make sure that when Mr Sprinter is gasping for air at the back that you launch at least 5 or 10 sharp attacks to permanently rid the field of Mr Sprinter. If Mr Climber is suffering in the severely windy section, start leaving gaps behind your team leader that others have to close. Repeat ad nauseum. When the boys start picking up on your tactics, start launching attacks instead. When they get tired of that, start leaving gaps again.

When there is a gap between you and a select group that includes your team leader, don't close it, never close it, even if it'll take just a tiny little pedal stroke. Let others close it. If it's 100 meters or more (10-ish seconds), let others close most of it, then, when it's down to 50-80 meters, launch a sharp attack so only you bridge. Then push the pace in that select front group until you come off again. When the chase group overhauls you, sit in. Let them get agonizingly close to the break. Bridge when you can bridge solo. Repeat. Repeat again.

Piss off those chasing eff'ers. I know I'd be mad at you if I were your opponent because you are doing exactly what you need to do to help your team leader without riding unclean - no shoving, no pushing, just simple pedaling, riding smart, using my situation against me. I'd be like "eff that break, I'm going to break this guy in the sprint". And then guess what? You've won.

You're going to a race in which you have no hope of even finishing with the field? You should be chasing down every break that gains 10 seconds that doesn't have a teammate in it. When there is no break you should be launching attacks, getting into breaks, and then not pulling.

If you help your team and explode yourself doing that, there is no disappointment possible. You think Cancellara felt disappointed after detonating the Tour in the mountains? Voight? They may not have finished in the lead group, or even in the second or third groups, but after "their" stages, the other guys weren't talking about Evans or Schleck or any of the other contenders. They were talking about the ultimate supremo insane riding of guys like Cancellara, Voight, guys who put it all down on the road for their team.


If you claim to be contributing to the team and you are finishing in the front group, unless you are doing a massive leadout (and thereby finishing off the back so you aren't finishing in the front group so scratch that) then you are contributing nothing. Say that like DeNiro would say it, nasal like, Capone like.



If you don't want to contribute to the team then that's fine. Ride towards your goals, ride for yourself.

But think about the alternative. How many target races do you have marked on your calender? Okay, that's fine.

Now, how many races are you entering "just because", to get some racing in, to see how your legs are, to see how those wheels are in a crit?

A lot, right?

Why waste all that time? Why not just go for a training ride?

Because racing is fun.

And what could be more fun than helping a teammate in one of those races?

Those "just because" races are all events where you can work for the team. See how your legs are, but do it while at the front of the field. See how those wheels corner, sure, but do it by blasting into Turn Three 50 meters clear of the field, with 15 laps to go. Then repeat, 14 laps later, but this time with your team leader glued to your wheel.

I even help my teammates get ready for the race - put their bikes together, inflate their tires, check their skewers, make sure there are plenty of drinks close at hand. I don't want them to worry about a thing.

Okay, I admit that I let them dress themselves. But after that anything is fair game.

Let's take a racer I know pretty well: me.

I can't climb but I used to be able to pull on the flats. I'm also reasonable at navigating through a field of racers. These were my strengths. I could get to the front and I could go sort of fast on flat roads for a short time.

I used to enter road races simply to bring my teammates to the base of the first climb in good position. Chasing the stupid early breaks at 35 mph is fun. It's also sort of funny to look around and see all the obviously sprinter type guys doing exactly what you're doing - helping out their much lighter teammates before the sprinter types get shelled.

I drove to 3+ hours Jiminy Peak, chased down the stupid effer who attacked in the neutralized dirt parking lot, and helped drive the field at 35 mph in pouring rain until, suddenly, unexpectedly, we passed by him, standing on the side of the road, holding a wheel in the air. All us flatlanders sat up and drifted back, exhausted from the effort. The field took it easy until the climb at the end of the lap, and I did my part, got my guys to the front before the right turn, and then hung on for dear life. I made it maybe 1/2 way up and then exploded spectacularly. 40 miles to go and I packed it in.

But it was a success, at least for me. After I changed I warmed up the car so my teammates, as they trickled into the parking lot, had a warm place to change, dry, out of the cold, damp rain. And, if I recall correctly, one of them actually did sort of well.

On the other hand, if there is a 20 rider break up the road in the P123s at Prospect and my piddling Cat 3 teammates bring back the break and lead out the sprint and I manage 6th against some very tough P12s, then that's great for everyone, including the guys who did that massive work to bring back the break. And my teammates can pat themselves on the back for years afterwards.

Only the ones that tried to do something for themselves and instead lost the race for their team ought be feel disappointment. Unfortunately that's really the leader's weight to carry. If I get a massive team support, guys chasing down everything, guys not working in breaks, then they do a huge leadout for me, and I get third (and asking myself what the heck just happened) in a Cat 3 race, well, that totally sucks. It sucks for me. It sucks for the boys. And I've done that and it totally, completely sucked. It was like being at a funeral right after that race. And I was responsible. It was the worst.

But when teamwork works?

That is what bike racing is all about.


Chris Bagg said...

Marvelous, Aki. Another lovely post. I, as a really strong Cat 2 flats guy, can't climb and can't sprint, but boy, can I drag along my teammates. All I want is some of those teammates to pull along to the finish. I've moved to Oregon, recently, and am now looking around for people to help, but I feel what you're saying. My best races have meshed with those during which I've been trying to help someone other than myself. Who cares about me? I'll be fried at the end and will know that I gave my all. What if I try all for myself and pull off nothing? Boo. But what if I give all for someone else and he comes up a bit short? No worries for me, as I did my all. Another great observation about cycling's best man. Thanks.

No One Line said...

One of the frustrations of my first season racing - mostly track with a handful of road races - is the extent to which cat 5 and 4 is about individuals, and not teams. With time, effort, and commitment, I will be placing in these races - this I know - but, impatient, I'd rather be working with a team and getting my racing experience while being involved in more interesting field dynamics.

I don't expect to develop an extremely close crew, or find my best man among my teammates as you have, but I would like to be riding with people better than me who can strategize together, whom I can help out, so that I can race knowing full well that there's way more to it than being the person in front of everybody else when the race is over.

In my limited experience my best times racing have been executing a good strategy with others - a friend and I punishing the field during a miss-and-out, attacking and counterattacking with another friend (and eventually giving him a bit of a leadout) at my first crit. It relieves the burden of having to win in order to feel like the race went well, and it always makes me feel that no matter how I finish, well, at least I was involved in a really good race where I could be a player, take control here and there and affect how the race unfolds.