Saturday, June 06, 2009

Racing - When Is Contact OK?

A while back someone on bikeforums mentioned something about contact in a race. A normal forum type pattern followed, with some suggesting pushing and shoving is normal. I feel the other extreme makes for good, long-term racing.

My rule is absolutely no intentional contact.

(Note: this applies to Cat 3s - 5s... in P123 races I've seen guys unclip and kick at other guys - meaning they are stomping at the side of the other rider's thigh with the cleat of their shoe - while the final leadout guys are winding it up, so they're crazy and don't count. Having said that, I've placed in such races without any contact so it's possible.)

Contact, in general, means you are in a weak position and are using force to try and mitigate the situation. If you are in good position, with good tactics, you won't need to contact another rider. Well, not unless they try to make up for their lack of tactical knowledge by reaching out to you.

An accidental nudge, that's fine, but if someone nudges me on purpose I won't let him in or by on principle alone. I'll let him by if it looks like I'll crash without taking him out - but if we'll both go down, then so be it. I've leaned super hard on a guy's bars at 35 mph inside the bell lap because they tried to push me aside. The move wasn't important (it wouldn't have made a difference in the race, illustrating that rider's lack of tactical sense) but I didn't let the guy go by just because he tried to make room when there was no room.

Note: it's hard to tell when someone is leaning on someone - the hard contact at 35 mph happened while I was wearing my helmet cam in the 2006 Nutmeg State Games and that part of the race is in the cam clip.

Also, I only crashed once (just as the sprint was getting wound up) with a guy who was being a jerk, it wasn't intentional but I was laughing when I got up. Definitely worth the crash to see him mad for taking himself out - he was in the weak position and tried to force the situation. He failed.

The key is moving up in such a way that there is no contact. You may come close to someone but you shouldn't contact them. Nothing wrong with that.

If you think that you may contact someone, don't do it. You are holding a weak card. Get better position and try again. You'll find an opening shortly if you're doing things right. If you're doing things wrong then you'll never see an opening - that's when you will figure out that you're doing something wrong, and hopefully figure out what it is exactly. Work on rectifying the problem and try again.

As a primer, watch my helmet cam clips (YouTube Sprinterdellacasa). You can see I can move up within the field if I want to (outside of the field doesn't count since that just takes strength and no finesse). I recall one contact when a guy to my inside forgot to turn for just a second. I initiate no contact, even when guys are piling up beside me or bunny hopping into the flowers or other random things. On some clips guys push me, sometimes hard, but it's hard to tell since those are out of camera sight.

Moving up within the field is a great skill and I practice it whenever I can.
You can practice this skill on group rides and races (especially those less important to you).

Focus on a few things.
For example, I almost always spend some time focusing on getting as close as possible to the rider in front of me. Don't zone out to the point that you don't see what's going on around you, but definitely focus on reducing the distance between your tires. Overlap to the side slightly if you must, but keep pushing that mental comfort level. You'll find yourself so close your hands may get intimate with the rider in front of you, and they'll be on your levers!

You can also work on lateral distance - side to side. Ride just a tad closer to the rider next to you, or discretely slide in between two guys (who aren't really interacting - interrupting a conversation would be rude). Understanding the rules of the sphere, know that your hands and bars are extremely vulnerable. So protect them by making sure that they are not the first thing to contact those next to you.

Taller and shorter riders require you adjust your position slightly - for example, a tall rider next to me will hit my tricep with his forearm, so I have to expect that. I'm about as short as a guy gets on a bike so I don't deal with shorter riders, but if you're next to someone substantially shorter than you, your arm will hit a shoulder or tricep. Tall riders have to be extra careful since the forearm is a much better lever than a shoulder or tricep, and therefore will more readily cause some bar wagging.

You can also work on drafting closer to the rider in front. I mention this because being able to draft closer to the rider in front indicates your vulnerable sphere has shrunk. When your sphere comes down to a few inches in each direction, you'll be hard to fight off a wheel. Riders won't be able to slide over a few inches to intimidate you - they'll have to get into their sphere to force you to back off. I remember one race where a Junior literally cried out in frustration in the middle of the field, "Why can't I stay on a wheel!?"

The reason? He couldn't get closer than about three feet behind the next rider. Three feet is a huge gap in a Cat 3 crit, and other racers would readily fill it, squeezing the poor Junior back. He'd then ease up until he had his comfortable three feet in front of him, at which point another racer would notice the gap and fill it.

If this Junior worked on dealing with field/peloton situations as much as he trained, he'd have been much, much stronger in the race. I felt a bit fortunate he was unable to draft any closer because he was obviously very strong - even with this huge handicap he was able to hang in during the race. Just imagine how well he could race if his sphere extended only three inches, not three feet.

Now, the folks that have raced with me for a while know that I've sometimes contacted others. All accidental, or at least a response to contact initiated by the other racer, as far as I can recall. Anyone who thinks differently can pipe up since I honestly can't remember initiating any contact on purpose.

There was this one incident...

A few years ago I did slam into one guy with about 200 meters to go in a race - we both went for the same gap in the frenzy just before the sprint, and we both passed the same guy to get there. I came around the guy's left, the other guy slid up the right side.

We never saw each other.

I collided with him so hard that I bounced off of him into the guy to my left. The other guy decided I wanted the spot badly (I did) and he backed off. Ultimately I didn't win the race, and on top of that, I felt really bad I slammed this guy (even if it was accidental). After the race I went looking for him so I could apologize to him. We started talking. Ends up the guy was a new-to-the-area Cat 4, looking for a team, and would you believe it?

A week later he was a teammate.

So, remember, no contact at all. But if you make contact, fess up to it and explain what happened. Who knows, you may be recruiting a new teammate based on your open and honest ways.


Anonymous said...

great post. since i have started to race i am reviewing your videos in a new light. i see little tactics i would never have caught had i not raced. it is key to keep close contact, like you say, and show no intention of losing your spot. im in love with crit racing! and it is damn hard ;)


Aki said...

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. I've had this post brewing for over a year and for some reason never got around to finish/post it.

Also, as you point out, racing tactics can be very subtle. I don't even realize some of what I do until someone asks me about certain situations etc.

Brian said...

Hmmm... so, just to clarify, you claim a wheel and move someone off of it through the simple fact that IF there was contact, they'd be in trouble - correct?

However, if we were to assume that everyone read your blog, followed your advice and acted civilized, should we find ourselves in the weaker position and our "sphere" about to be influenced, we could always just hold our line without fear of being contacted - right? ;-)

Sigberto Garcia said...

very relevant for my race today... luckily didn't involve me, but i was a first hand witness. (read my race report and the guy's retort too, haha)

No One Line said...

I see a lot of riders in cat 4 touching each other. My read on it is, they're doing it so that they can feel advanced (or PRO, or studly, or comfortable, or whatever). That kind of dismays me, or at least makes me roll my eyes. Pushing somebody into a gap, touching somebody's arm as an I'm-here... it's adding an element of risk solely for the sake of a quiet show-off.

While I'm comfortable with contact among my friends and teammates while we're riding together, if a stranger touches me, I'll almost immediately tell him not to do that to me.

There's no reason for it, and using one's words can accomplish the same goal.

Aki said...

Brian - I think in a semi-perfect world, riders would take advantage of gaps presented to them without having to resort to any pushing or shoving. Since riders inevitably leave gaps, they leave themselves vulnerable to getting their spot taken.

I recently tried out ProCyclingManager 2008's demo, and you can race the track (which they don't say in their site). In the track stuff you can't merge into another rider like you can on the road, so it's hard to move up, you get boxed in, etc. With a computer churning through various algorithms, it makes bike racing both predictable and challenging - you can't just push someone out of the way, but if you move over an extra foot, someone immediate naps your spot. Unlike humans, the computer follows its algorithms properly and things are relatively predictable. In real life it's not quite the same.

Sig - I just read your post before I ran out of time, but wow, what a cluster-eff. I'll read more, but the rules state that if the bell is rung on the wrong lap, the next lap is scored as the finish. Then the officials have the option to run/re-run the rest of the race. Typically they let the results stand.

Rulebook, page 56.

NOL - I didn't even think of the words or murmurs riders use when dealing with close quarter racing, but that's a good point. Saying "Here" or "Hey" in a quiet, non-confrontational way works wonders in keeping a race safe/r.

No One Line said...

Yeah, somebody once identified me after a race as being "the guy who spent the whole race saying 'hup hup hup hup!'"

I was going to post a link to sigberto's recent and relevant blog post, but was beaten to the punch...

Aki said...

I once yelled "UP!!!!" and someone nearby goes, "Oh, that's Aki, don't worry about it." hahaha. I stopped yelling for a while, but I do it if it's a critical point and no one's moving. Usually someone does because the cry is enough to put them over the "should I go or should I stay" cusp.

Brian - thinking more about the racing, yes, I think that in reality the sphere rules how we ride. If someone gets into my sphere, i.e. very close to my bars, I'll move over or back off. Sometimes I stay in the "yellow zone" and feel nervous, on the edge, but then eventually, a few seconds later, things space out a bit and I'm okay.

On the other hand, because my sphere is relatively compact, I'll pass by others and hear a quick intake of breath, or "whoa", or whatever. I've even gotten yelled at, by other racers, for "almost" taking them out, when in fact I was "just passing" them, albeit a bit close for them.

I realized while I was driving around today that with different size spheres for different rider skill levels, the field won't be uniformly spaced. The unevenly spaced traffic made me think of this. Instead, there'll be gaps here and there as riders with large spheres leave gaps (like me at the track) or there's just a lull and the rider doesn't feel like filling it (like me in crits).

Michael said...

I saw some intentional contact in NC RR Championship Cat 5. First one resulted in several guys going down. Second one was just before the left turn into the home stretch when a guy pulls up to the front and squeezes in between two guys and elbows both of them hard. Crazy for cat 5. No points and no money at stake.

The day before in the 50-54 race I had my wheel stolen constantly. I got bumped, wobbled, and recovered. After the race a guy comes up to my son and I and starts whining about my bumping him. I had no recollection of it and referred the matter to an official when I understood that we weren't going to have a discussion.

I'd say I went to "sphere" and "contact" school this weekend. You answered a bunch of questions that I was going to ask on BF. Thanks for the post.