Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Tactics - How to Race Your First Bethel

I posted this as an example of a "plan of attack" for a new racer.

It can be overwhelming, the whole "first race" thing. You have to remember all sorts of stuff for you, your bike, and even for "the race" (like your license).

So, if Bethel is the first race you've ever done, what should you do?

For a new racer at Bethel, a course that doesn't emphasize cornering at all and one that allows riders to move up quickly, I'd tell a new racer to take the following approach.

First, divide the race up into different sections. I'd classify them as Start, First Half, Halfway Check, Second Half.

The Start is critical because it's the only time you have to get into the pedals quickly, the only time you go from basically a rest state.

The First Half will illustrate to you vividly if you'll be a player in the race. An obvious clue that you won't be one is if you get dropped. Less obvious ones will be a struggle just to stay in the field. On the other hand, if you're chomping at the bit, you should feel better about your conditioning.

At the Halfway Check be brutally honest with yourself. Are you feeling strong? Are you hanging on by your pinkie? Do you feel like you're soft pedaling the whole time?

If you feel like things aren't going well, you should approach the second half of the race in survival mode. Sit on wheels, draft, ride safely. Focus on keeping the gaps to a minimum, turning a good gear at a good cadence, and try not to get caught out in one of the many accelerations you'll witness.

If you feel good about things, start thinking about the end of the race. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Can you go really hard for two minutes? Can you go really hard for five? Or is it 20 seconds and poof, you're done?

Most riders will not be in the form needed to do a big solo. It's your first race after all. So what should you do? Well, when all else fails, bank on the sprint. Most Cat 5 races end in one anyway, so you're banking on a pretty safe bet.

Sprints happen in two ways - acceleration and speed. If you have a good jump, good acceleration, you can afford to sit in until the very end. You'll know if you have a good jump because whenever you jump you think the other riders aren't trying very hard. If you have a less-than-good jump, i.e. you struggle when someone accelerates away from you, then you fall into the speed category.

I don't know if you've ever played chess, but the game opens somewhat predictably. Over the years many chess gurus have tried different opening moves. The rules state that White plays the opening move. There are basically two moves you can play as White that don't get you annihilated.

As the second mover, Black can respond to the two opening moves in a variety of different ways, perhaps three or four standard responses.

All normal chess games open this way. If you don't follow the script, you run the risk of abject humiliation. It's kind of like attacking 100% at the start of a 100 mile road race. It's an extremely unconventional move and probably won't work. But because it's so dumb, you just might be able to pull it off.

Just like in chess, you have certain givens in sprints. The non-jumpers have to start from far out, hoping to ramp up the speed to an extent that jumps don't matter. The jumpers sit on, pray that they have a jump left.

In the Cat 5s it's usually easier to be the jumper because that requires less fitness, and Cat 5s tend to be less fit. In the Cat 3s, the non-jumper rules the roost, because overall the racers have a much higher fitness level.

Sprints that start "far out" start about 300-500 meters from the line. Short sprints may be as short as 100 meters.

So, with this in mind, here's a generic approach to your first Bethel Spring Series race:

1. START: Get in the frickin' pedals at the start. Don't lose the wheels.
Goal: don't embarrass yourself.
Tip: no one cares if you think you embarrassed yourself, so just go for it.

2. FIRST HALF OF RACE: Sit back a bit, maybe at the back, watch what the other riders do gear wise, position (standing/sitting), etc, esp on the short hill to the finish. In general you should keep your bike in the big ring - it reduces the possibility of dropping the chain because you leave the front derailleur alone. That wide ratio cassette suddenly doesn't seem too bad (I have a 23 or 25 at Bethel and rarely climb the hill in anything easier than a 53x17 or 19 - but when we go slow I can still keep it in the big ring, twiddling the 53x23 or something like that).
Goal: Stay with the race.
Tip: This is the time to find your "pack legs", i.e. get comfortable in the field. Sit on wheels, draft, move up a bit, drift back a bit. This is excellent group riding time.

3. HALFWAY POINT: If you feel kind of comfortable sitting behind the other riders, try moving up a bit. Try moving up on the hill, on the first stretch, or on the back stretch. Follow your lane in turns, meaning don't follow that "optimal line" that so many riders tell you to follow (out in out). The "optimal line" is one where everyone stays upright, and in most cases that means simply following the rider in front of you.
Goal: Assess yourself. Be honest.
Tip: You're not on a schedule to enter the Tour this summer. You can admit that you're not going well. You don't have to win this race or die trying. However, if you don't feel great, don't give up. Work on what you did during the first half of the race. If you feel good, consider attempting something for the finish.

4. 4 LAPS TO GO: If you feel pretty good physically you can start thinking of the finish. You should be closer to the front - maybe 10th-20th - at 2 to go. You should hold that position at the bell. The last lap is very fluid. The field shuffles around rapidly. This does NOT give you free license to move around willy nilly. Don't swerve across the road to respond to any moves. Go with every surge directly in front of you, go with side surges if there's a gap you can fill safely without cutting anyone off. Resist getting into the wind too much. Hint: Look down to check your six, you don't have to turn your head to look back.
Goal: Assuming a positive assessment in #3 above, you want to move up into a competitive position in the field for the last 2-4 laps of the race.
Tip: EVERYONE else wants to move up to the same positions. Since not everyone can be in the same spot at the same time, you'll need to judge if you feel comfortable fighting for position. Remember, you're not a pro. Fight fairly, smoothly, and safely. There's always next week if things don't work out.

5. LAST LAP: With half a lap to go, you can eat wind to maintain or improve position. Remember that you're going to sprint in a bit, so don't kill your legs before you get to the sprint.
Goal: Maintain a good position.
Tip: You'll learn there's a balance between shelter and expending reserves. Start learning how much is too much of each. It's a forever process; you'll never master it, but this is what makes racing so challenging.

6. SPRINT: Lay it on the line up the hill in the sprint. Follow a path parallel to the curb - if you jump on the right side, stay more to the right. Move left only if you've verified that there's no one there. If you jump on the left, follow the curb, and watch for guys coming in from the right. (The finish curves right then left at Bethel). Look down to check if things are clear, and move if the road is clear. Remember that as fast as you think you are going, there will be guys going way faster.
Goal: Stay upright, try to place.
Tip: You have to stay upright to place. Don't do anything unsafe - no sudden swerves, no cutting off other riders. If they're beating you fairly, you've lost. Work on it for next week.

The sections can be adjusted for the rider's strengths and weaknesses. This works even for Cat 3s and 1s and whoever. For example, for a good "One Minute Man" (OMM), I may put in something like "Hide" for 20 of 25 laps of the race. Then "move up" from 20-23 laps. Then "Get ready" for lap 24. "Attack" at the beginning of lap 25.

If I was a teammate setting up for OMM, my schedule would look more like "Launch a bazillion attacks that don't gain too much time, don't work with anyone who bridges, and try to get caught by 23 laps into the race".

By thinking about my role as a teammate to OMM, you can see how teams work together. Each rider has a goal, a purpose, for each part of the race. My goal would be to soften up the field so that when my teammate OMM take off, guys look around at each other and pretend no just launched a blistering attack off the front of the field.

With a plan or goal for each teammate for a given race, things become much more simple for each team member. Experience comes into play when an unexpected thing happens and the team has to adjust the play.

Huge tip: I think sitting at/near the front is extremely overvalued in most races, at least for the first 80% of the race. This is especially true at Bethel.

I also think that attacking, although good for the soul, is best experienced after the first race. Second race, sure, first race, maybe not.

In Cat 5 races breaks rarely succeed, and if they do, it's more a reflection on the rider's strength, not tactical savvy or field handling skills. Both of them (savvy, skills) are what you want riders to learn in the 5s.

It's much better to learn those skills early on, not find yourself a Cat 2 who can't handle a bike. And there are those riders, trust me.

So race in the field, break away if you must, but remember that at some point you're going to have to learn to handle that uncomfortable feeling of sitting in the middle of a pack of racers. Things only get tighter as you advance in category.


AbdoujaparovFan said...

Great post. Especially liked your tip to point #5 - so true.

Ron said...

Always good stuff.

I'm getting back into cycling and I'm looking for some tips on how to advance position during a crit and, specifically, how not to get forced into the corner while on the inside of the front train (at the front of the pack.)

I was wondering if you might happen to know of someone who might be writing a good article on this type of stuff anytime soon, particularly, someone who has a practical viewpoint. And who happens to write on this blog. And maybe who uses a helmet cam a lot.

(It'd be really valuable. Can't find one anywhere online.)

Ron said...

I guess disregard my last. I think I found your article that's close enough. "Sphere and 3 scenarios."

Thanks. Another good article.

Aki said...

I'm "allowing" the two comments because I have something extra to offer.

First, if you're going to move up on the inside, you need to be in charge, i.e. decisively get past everyone. At the very least you need to get into the stratosphere, the very tip of the pack where the rider density is really low. I'm talking the first 4-6 riders here. When you're up there riders tend to let you in because you actually help them out (by providing more draft).

If you don't make it there, then you need to cuddle up to someone to your outside. Stay just ahead of them (i.e. out of your sphere but in theirs) as you enter the turn. No one will have to make an abrupt movement if you take this approach.

Hope this helps.