I explore race plans to show you how to win races with race smarts based on your strengths, competitors, terrain, weather, and split-decisions.[buzzsprout episode=’93738′ player=’true’]
After watching Jens Voigt storm home to win the 5th stage of the TOC, which was part of a planned move, because of the course and his crosswind awareness, Radioshack are rasky little devils when it comes to crosswinds, no doubt Bruyneel’s influence. But anyway, it’s also a split-second decision to attack on instinct with 5 kms to go.
Van Garderen said this about the crosswind split that Radioshack initiated in the stage, which caught out some of the GC riders
“It was a split-second decision to go with it.”- TJ Van Garderen
It got me thinking about the scope of split-second decisions in racing. Race radios aren’t allowed at the TOC. So it’s more about your race plan and team leader or individual rider to make these decisions on the road.
Split second decisions like, do I sprint and try to make it or do I wait here and hope to catch them on the descent become crucial to doing well. Even the smallest of hesitations can cost you. Opportunities don’t tend to hang around long. You either take them, or someone else will.
A race plan is important, but so is knowing when you have to break the race plan. Sometimes the only way to survive a race is to be reactive. Reacting to the riders around you, reacting to a rider in need of a wheel or bike. What fuels reaction is split-second decision making.
Decisions in these cases are based on experience, discipline and a partnership between team members. You cannot plan that. You can only hope the fundamentals were learnt, the reaction was sound and the decision is a good one. In these cases it’s all about trusting your instincts?
I’m not sure of the moment that you instinctively know what to do in a race. I’m not sure if you can get it right every time either. So a race plan will guide your decisions in a fatigued state when your brain starts to play tricks on you.
Making these decisions in races is something that comes with time. A little awareness of what is happening around you can go a long way if you are just starting out, but if you’ve been riding for a while and still missing the important breaks or decisive moments a race plan will help your race chances and your split-second decision ability.
Races have an infinite combination of options for how they are run and won. So today I’m just going to stick some generalities that will give you an edge going into your next race.
Think of your race plan as a mental compass.
Plan your race plan ahead of time so you can memorise it. Initially you are going to write a long draft of notes. Once you completed your draft, then highlight what’s more important, which will only be the top 3 to 6 race points. The best race plan is the one that is easy to remember and actionable.
Here are some questions to get you thinking about what’s important in your next upcoming race.
How soon do the hard bits start?
Always make time to have a look at the race route by going around it in the car or on the bike, either the day before the race, or on the morning of the race if time allows. Look out for major climbs, bad corners, road conditions, prevailing winds, exposed sections where crosswinds could have a major impact and, naturally, have a good look at the finish. Is it uphill, downhill, bad corners etc.?
Riding the last part of the course in a pre-race warm-up can be the best way to learn what it will be like at speed. Making it easier to judge your sprint, attack, lead out etc.
What will be the pace at the start?
Working out the pace at the start is more for figuring out your warm-up and positioning. The first attack won’t get away in most races, so don’t go chasing, just be prepared when you hit the start line, know where you want to be in the bunch, and stick to it.
Is there a heart rate or power zone you want to average?
This is a little easier to do in a TT or XC race, and is linked to your overall pacing strategy. Knowing this will keep you in check when the pace is high at the start of the race, and hopefully keep you powering right through to the end of the race.
Who do you want to stick with, in front of or keep in your sights?
If it’s a big race where there might be unfamiliar riders, you’re going to have to do some homework to find out who the big guns are. If you don’t know who they are, or what they are capable of, trawlling through their club website to look for results, benching marking them off their TT times or other riders you may know will give you an idea if they are in it for the win.
If you don’t know what they look like, or the colours of their kit, write their numbers down on masking tape and put it on your stem. This is going to make it easier to pick them out during the race. Even if you can’t go with them during an attack for example, you can at least watch how they operate during the race, to try to learn something from them.
What are your strengths?
Further to the point above. It’s important to also know your competitors strengths. Even if you can’t get this information, knowing your own strengths is very important.
If you’re weak on the climbs then position yourself at the front of the bunch just as the climb is starting and slowly drift back in the peloton so that you use as little energy as possible. A good way to do this is to descend off the front to get a run into the hill. If you’re you a poor bunch sprinter then it’s best that you try to win from a small bunch. Find the the best place to attack, and try and stay away till the end. Or if you’re a good time trialist, then try and do this alone.
Understanding yourself as a rider is only one part of the equation, finding the spots on the course that support this are important in every major race you enter.
How will you react to being overtaken?
Keeping your mental game sharp while being beaten down by your rivals is tough. But knowing you can make time up in the next section can stop you from wasting mental energy by beating yourself up when you drop a wheel, or get passed during the race.
Which techniques need your focus?
Relaxing shoulders on climbs, moving from the hips down in time trials, not getting pushed off a wheel. All these are techniques that you can work on during a race. Like I said at the start-you will want to choose 3-6 race points to focus on. These might not be that important for the big races, but you can bump them up in priority in smaller races.
Where can you use your skills to your advantage?
Descending, single track, mental toughness – skills can give you an edge on certain courses. This is another variation of playing to your strengths, but without the fitness element. Something to consider if you are going into a race undercooked and need to make up time somewhere other than the hills.
Where do you need to be alert, what are the pinch-points?
Bike races often come down to only three, four or five big efforts. Including closing a gap, making the break, holding the wheel up the climb, responding to that attack or nailing the bunch sprint. That’s it. Those critical moments are going to require the effort of your life though.
Don’t waste your energy on the things that don’t matter. Which brings up a general point about conserving energy. Always check your spot and ask, Why am I in the wind? What am I doing here? Is there a reason I’m doing all the work? During a race, question every move you make. Do this so that you are always aware of what you’re doing and why. Are you chasing someone down? No. Are you setting tempo for a teammate? No. Then get out of the wind.
And talking about wind, knowing the wind conditions in relation to the course can be one of the best pre-race time investments. By studying the course map before the race and knowing the direction the wind is blowing can give you an edge later on so you don’t get caught sleeping.
Crosswinds can split the bunch and turn the race around. Also, corners into strong headwinds or tailwinds can also help or hurt your chances of winning. Get to the front of the bunch before the turn because this means the crosswinds are coming. Work hard to avoid the gutter because being in the gutter is ultimately going to be harder.
Where are the recovery points?
Is there a place where no one will attack so you can take a pisso or find team mates, or just take a moment to yourself?
What words will keep you positive?
What’s your mantra or song chorus that will keep you focused yet relaxed.
What finish time are you aiming for?
Again, what’s your pacing strategy, what do you need to do achive this time?
How can you minimise fatigue?
Avoid fatigue by constantly asking yourself these questions. Am I drinking enough? Am I eating enough? Am I too far to the front? Am I too far to the back? Why am I on the left side of the road? Why am I on the right side of the road? Why am I in the big chain ring? Why am I in the little chain ring? Asking yourself these questions keeps you fueled and alert, which minimises fatigue.
Now that is a lot of questions, that will produce a lot of information. It’s all important to you racing your best in the terrain and weather handed to you. So review the information and choose 3-6 main points that will be crucial in the race.
You can go one step further though, and this is where the race plan can guide you in your split-second decisions.
Now that you have 3-6 points set out in a race plan you can look at the likely decisions you will have to make in a race. It’s not foolproof but it will go a long way to making you understand how to sit in the centre of the terrain, other riders and your strengths. Knowing your strengths, your rivals, the hard bits, and the course will help you make those decisions.
So here’s an example:
Damian’s Race Plan
120 km Road Race
Strengths: Climbing and descending
5 Major Climbs – Set own pace on climbs.
Watch wind on 2nd climb.
If passed on climb, don’t go into red, make up time on decent.
Focus on drinking and eating every hour.
Sit behind someone on flat sections.
So if I get into trouble on a climb I will set my own tempo and not put myself in the hurtbox unless it’s on the second climb where it may be worth fighting for a wheel. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there and after all that leave you with this quote from Jens Voigt from an interview with Anthony Tan
“I have a big engine; I can handle a big work load. I’m willing to work hard. I think this instinct is just part of who I am. It’s hard to teach because the decision-making is done in just a split second. It’s like a voice talking in your head, saying, ‘Go now! Go now! Go now!’ And then listening to the voice. I try to teach the boys to be brave, be courageous. On Sunday night if you have some energy left, it’s too late. There is no stage on Monday. Get it all out now. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be intimidated.” – Jens Voigt
Photo Credit: Coda2 on Flickr