In the second instalment of Lessons from the Saddle, a series of posts from 2010, I write about pacing, patience and restraint. I’ve done a whole lot of races during the five years since I wrote this, but the lesson remains the same: wait until it’s time to go. The trick is in knowing when that is! I ended up going virtually off the gun during a lot of races in 2015, after getting left out of the winning break at the GP St. Agathe because I thought it was going too early. After that I decided to be really aggressive and ride in breaks all season, and that strategy worked well almost every time, with the exception of the Preston St. Criterium and Elite Road Nationals. Other times, like at the Criterium Nationale, all I could do was try to hold on! Bike racing’s dynamism and the gambles racers take are what make it what it is: compelling, exciting and fascinating.
I don’t profess to be a guru of cycling wisdom, so I won’t pretend I’m going to provide a definitive exposition on tactics here. I’m merely going to convey what I’ve learned, or at least, how I’ve interpreted my experience over the last year of racing bikes across a few disciplines. I welcome other perspectives on this topic.
As some already know, I used to race downhill, and before that I raced a good bit of cross country. Back then, in the early and mid 1990s, I was a typical junior racer. I went for it 100%, all the time. In my first xc race in Brockville some time around 1992 I took the hole shot down an industrial park road, pulling ahead of all but the elite field, who would start later. ‘Oh yeah baby, I’m in the lead!’ I blew to smithereens within about 4 minutes, walked for a bit, then started riding again, finishing 6th in the open Sport category, right behind my older brother. I showed all my cards right off the gun, and I paid for it.
Before I had a chance to really learn what pacing meant, gain any real sense of nutrition (let alone fueling on the bike), any sort of nuanced training or sense of moderation, I put all my energy into downhill in 1998. To this point, I’d been going out hard off the gun every time I raced; it worked out pretty well sometimes, and now I was into a discipline where you HAD to do that, always. I went for it, all the time, 100%, crash and burn or podium. I was a mess, I’d hyperventilate all the time during race runs, which obviously isn’t conducive to peak performance. I was pinning it without much of a plan. There was always the option of easing up on the start, but in races that were under three minutes long, and not much longer than 6, every split second mattered. All I could do was go for it, and this applied to training too. I’d ride practice runs full speed most of the time, try my lines without a care about who saw. I’d literally take turns full speed and see whether I crashed. If so, I’d brake a bit the next time. Others didn’t matter, I wasn’t racing them; I was racing myself. The challenge was to put as close to a perfect run together when it really mattered, on the clock. Showing my cards didn’t matter; because it was up to me, only me, to make it happen.
Zoom ahead to the near past, and road racing, xc and cyclocross are now part of my yearly ‘program.’ Old habits die hard, and being among a new cadre of riders tends to bring the ego out. I recall my first A loop I did on the Parkway on a Tuesday night. I eagerly moved through the pack up the Pink Lake climb. I like this climb, it suits me; I can ride up it reasonably well. So I showed my cards: ‘look, this is what I’ve got, lets do this thing.’ Stupid. A loop of the parkway isn’t about Pink Lake. No, its about the whole loop, how you measure your effort the whole way around, hopefully delivering yourself to the sprint feeling ready, not crushed. [Update: Lately, it’s more about not getting dropped up Fortune or Blacks]. But its not as simple as that. One can’t sit in, avoid pulling, and preserve, preserve, preserve until the end. In my mind that’s unethical. If one wants to contest the sprint, one should do their fair share of the work over the whole loop; its a training ride not a race. But there is a fine line between doing your work and showing your cards. Its not about flaunting ‘good legs,’ but putting in honest effort – not too short, not too long. Knowing how to put this ethos into action requires practice, and I’m not going to say I’m the model rider in this regard.
When it comes to actually racing on the road, the rules of the game shift a bit. In theory, one wants to absolutely hide over the course of a race and deliver oneself to the finish fresher than the rest (of course, I’m not talking about domestiques here). In theory. The missing premise here is that one is on equal footing with the contenders. If this is the case, one must work less than them if one hopes to take the win in the final moments, or have enough to break away and make it stick late in the game. I learned a valuable lesson about showing cards at Battenkill in April 2010. Feeling pretty good that day, I climbed at the front early in the race, trying to gauge the effort of my competitors; none of them were familiar to me since they were all American. I was sensible enough to avoid doing much actual work at the front, but I’d already shown my ability on the climbs, not to mention burned a bit more energy than I needed to. On the second last series of stepping climbs I went with the lead three guys. The pace was violent, but I took this to be ‘the move.’ Unable to recover after the climbing, I ultimately let them drift away as I saw a chase group bridging, and Rob Parniak was one of them. I’d burned almost all my matches, so I was unable to do much from there, though Rob and I sure tried to break off the rest. Looking back, I see how it made sense to go when I did, but I should have known there would be another series of climbs later that would do damage. I should have waited for those. Yes, one has to take chances in races, but they should be well informed risks, and I didn’t play my hand well.
Mountain bike racing is a different beast, but I think the same rule applies. However, its application is trickier. There is no hiding in xc racing, at least, not the technical, punchy courses I seem to find myself doing most of the time. Drafting is rarely a factor, and passing is generally difficult. I tend to handle the technical stuff well, but don’t tend to be a climbing wizard, so I tend to have to get into technical sections in front of others in order to gain time in the gnar. This requires a fast start, but the trick is to avoid starting at 100%. I guess I’m talking about just coming shy of showing the cards. I let the hammers go, maintain contact, monitor the lead position, and make a move to go with the leader if he starts to pull away. Sometimes the leader will blow up, other times they will truly be the strongest rider, and they will motor on. Then it comes down to how much you want to suffer, and whether winning is still the goal. That’s a tough call to make under a lot of physical stress, and I have to admit, I’ve convinced myself that 2nd was pretty darn good more than once. I suspect the best racers don’t settle for 2nd when they still have a shot at 1st.
Regular ol’ xc racing is one thing, but enduro xc racing is another animal. I took on the 100km Paul’s Dirty Enduro this year for the first time after hearing its praises sung for years. I knew it would be twisty and long. I felt ready, knew who to follow (Ben Dawson, the reigning King), so I was pretty relaxed. The start was not hard by xc racing standards, and I rode in the front of the pack without much fuss. Once we got into singletrack I found myself having and taking opportunities to move up, and before long I was in the lead. I put on the gas and opened a gap, and decided to hold it. Mistake. Showing my cards didn’t really matter from a tactical perspective in relation to the other racers. They’d either bridge up because they were faster, or they wouldn’t. Pack dynamics wouldn’t matter much. Instead, I wound up slogging through kilometers of loose sand, effectively breaking trail. Eventually, a group of five caught me, and when I missed a turn, I found myself on the back. Wow, riding the sand was far easier following their tracks! I’d just been slogging away for nothing. I’m pretty certain the bulk of them knew about the sand effect; they were smart to let me go. I eventually wound up catching Dawson late in the race (I kept pedaling though I was suffering a good deal), and the prospect of catching the leader drove me to push very hard for the last 20k. If I’d been more sensible earlier in the race I might have been sharper and avoided the crash that broke me off them in the first place. Patience, wait for the right moment.
Cyclocross presents a problem when it comes to gauging how to play one’s hand. There are so many factors at play in cross, from the competition to the course, mechanicals, crashes, and odd happenings. Knowing the course is vital, because without this information one can’t judge where opportunities to pass will be, where recovery will come, where crashes might occur…. Knowing your competition is vital; do you have a mark, a rider who tends to be about your speed or perhaps a bit faster? If so, you might want to follow them for the first lap to avoid going too hard. If you are going for a podium spot who will you have to battle? Do they tend to start fast and fade, slow and ramp up? Will you be faster than most on particular sections? These are some of the things I think about before the races start, but as a general rule, I try to start at about 95% intensity. That tends to be enough to get into the lead group of the race, and from there its a matter of feeling it out and getting a sense of where my competition is. Going 100% out of the gate can only lead to an implosion, but if one doesn’t start fast, one will have to make up gaps while passing, and perhaps being stuck behind crashes and slower riders. I prefer to go hard and leave it up to faster riders to pass me. Once settled into the race it can become difficult to get a clear sense of whether the speed is high enough, or whether I should go harder, because at this point the pace has leveled off into a rhythm. If riding with a rival, road race tactics can apply if its windy, but the question will come: are we going fast enough, or are we losing ground? There are times when one must go all in, put the cards on the table, and drop the hammer. If a gap is created and you think your rival has given up chasing, you can ease up and maintain a gap. Or perhaps you’ve bridged to another group. If possible, the same process might be repeated. Sit in, recover, monitor, plan, attack. On fast courses I can see the attack coming late, but for the courses I’ve raced, it seems to be more a matter of making multiple attacks over the course of the race, showing the cards a number of times. So the lesson here is: don’t show your cards until its time. Be patient.
Outside of racing, its not uncommon to see less seasoned riders go too hard early in group rides. This isn’t so much a tactical blunder, as they don’t tend to have a plan at all. Rather, they act on the impulse to show their ability. On the Parkway, this sort of error isn’t really a big deal. When I attacked Pink on the A loop I didn’t wreck myself, but I did have less to give on Fortune later on. Worst case scenario there would be getting spit out. I’d make it home. Longer rides, those of the 150k and up variety, are a different beast. They need to be respected, which means being careful about going too hard early on. While most people’s legs will feel good over the first 40k, this does not mean its a good idea to attack the climbs if the full route, lets say, 170k is a question mark. Conserve, conserve, conserve. If you are not certain you are good for the whole ride at the group’s pace, don’t attack anything. The reveal will come at the end of the ride, when you complete the route with the group in one piece and looking forward to riding again soon.
Learning when and how to show your cards in cycling helps us judge situations off the bike too. On wheels, we have to make split second decisions about whether the time to reveal our intentions has come. In order to do this we must tap into our experience and intuition. When we make split second decisions we utilize infraperception, a process that bypasses conscious thought. We act in direct response to our situation, thus the reference to ‘instincts’ commentators often refer to. Sometimes these acts are preconceived and planned, other times they come about spontaneously within a general plan, like ‘go with a break if it looks good.’ Whether the decisions we make prove fruitful or not doesn’t just depend on the choice itself; there are always wild-cards in play, such as crashes ahead and flat tires, that we simply cannot control. When things don’t unfold as hoped, we cannot reduce the outcome to a product of our decision alone. On the flip side, when we succeed, we will tend to think we can take full responsibility for the victory, but again, we cannot. Results are always dialectic, the culmination of a constellation of factors, some of which we control, most of which we do not. This is not a tacit suggestion that we ought not to take responsibility for our choices. No, we must own them. However, we must also understand that once choices are made, we cannot control outcomes.
‘Making things happen’ is very much about exuding the sort of positivity that attracts others to one’s side, to seeing the world as a place of possibility, not impediments. In this sense, one can ‘make one’s own luck,’ that is, bolster opportunities to reach a desired outcome, perhaps via a path and/or with the help of others previously unknown. If we make decisions to the best of our ability with the information at hand, regret for outcomes undesired is unfounded. Save regret for those decisions you know you should have made differently at the time; second guessing is just that, guessing.