Controlling the Race



Originally published at:

Racing is not about who is the fastest rider. Managing a race and how a rider behaves in a race is just as important as having strong legs.  Races evolve, and riders have to learn to make it evolve in their favor, rather than simply reacting. Even without teammates, a rider can make decisions that give him or her a better chance of winning rather than just finishing in the pack.  

It’s a Group Thing, Baby The first skill necessary to controlling the race is the ability to ride in the group in a good position.  Too often in e-races and real life (IRL) races, riders find themselves in one of two positions, on the front or off the back. Those are the two worst places you can be, as you have to work so much harder than everyone else.  That begs the magic question.  Why do we always sit in the positions that make us work more instead of relaxing in the bunch?  During IRL races, many riders have a degree of discomfort and insecurity riding in the middle of a bunch, rubbing elbows and trying not to crash.  In e-racing, though, this makes no sense.  It’s just a little harder to manage due to the fact that avatars can ride through each other.  Because of this difficulty, riders need to practice positioning often both at pace and during controlled efforts.  If there are any doubts about the importance of being able to sit in the group, please watch any bike race ever.  The winner spends a good portion of the race in the draft, protected by teammates.  The only time the winner goes to the front is when it is necessary.  Part of this skill involves learning how to control your position when the group’s speed changes.  Riders need to learn quickly how to look up towards the front of the group to anticipate these changes before or as they begin to happen.  Waiting for the wheel in front of you to change speed is a recipe for disaster and can lead to an unnecessary energy expenditure or a crash.   The key is to focus on the group rather than only on the rider or wheel in front of you. Think of it as the same as driving by only focusing on the vehicle in front of you and not all of those around you.  It is imperative to keep an open aperture to see the group as a whole.  If the front is bunched up, three or four riders across, it is better to position yourself right in the center of the group a few rows back.  The draft zone is bigger, and you get caught up in the group.  Sitting just on the one wheel, stretched out in a long line, leaves you dependent on that one rider.  If he/she accelerates or sits up, you will likely find yourself out of the group before you realize what has happened.  That’s not a good end to the day.  

Find Your Inner Control Freak The second skill that riders need to practice is controlling an attack or break.  More often than not, an acceleration on Zwift leads to a bunch of individuals sprinting to cover the attack.  Sometimes, that is necessary, and normally that is how most Zwift races start.  Again, this begs the question of why.  If you are in a group of 30 with teammates, is there a need for everyone to burn matches to cover an attack by a single rider if that rider is not known to be one of the strongest riders?  Absolutely not.  Refer back to the first skill about riding in the group.  The bigger group, with very few exceptions, will move faster at a similar effort of the solo rider or small group.  Thus, if a rider attacks, taking one or two others in tow, a sound strategy is to have the group elevate its pace (much easier to do with teammates) to match the effort of the breakaway riders once they drop out of attack mode.  Sure, the attacker(s) may get a small advantage, and you as the group may even ease off a little bit to give the break some rope.  As long as you pay close attention, the big group can manage the gap to keep it small enough to close down at will.  The break will have to burn significantly more energy to gain the advantage and maintain gains than the much bigger group of chasers who can take turns working.  If you are lucky enough to have a group of teammates in the chase pack, figure out who the expendable riders are and put them on the front.  At some point, the chasers will have to decide when to shut the break down.  It may be due to the end of the race approaching or the break having too much time.  Whatever the reason, do it as a group.  Again, use teammates if you can, or share the load with other riders if you do not have teammates.

Cast Judgement On Your Fellow Riders The last, and most difficult skill to learn is the ability to judge the threat from an attacking rider.  Some riders should never be allowed to go up the road solo, as they won’t be seen again until the finish line where he or she might be waiting with an adult beverage.  This was the problem Fabian Cancellara had in the latter years of his career during the cobbled classics.  Everyone knew that if Fabian went up the road alone, the rest of the riders would be racing for second place.  Thus, teams did their best to not let that happen, or at least stave it off until later in the race in hopes that their riders could go with him.  Other riders can be given a leash on flat courses but not on hilly courses or vice versa.  Most of it depends on your knowledge of the riders from past experience or how the rider behaves.  If a skinny-looking rider takes off on the climb, it’s probably best to not give that rider much space.  Likewise, I wouldn’t give a heavier rider an inch on a flat or downhill run in to the finish.  Understanding your competition will help you determine who goes and who is not allowed to go, assuming that the attacking rider is not simply able to ride the whole group off his or her wheel.  

Keys to success. All else being equal, the most important thing is being smarter than the other racers.  To help you with that, remember the four steps to controlling the race: 1) Identify who is attacking. Is it a dangerous rider or someone you know is not that strong? 2) Determine if you can let him or her go. Once you have identified who is attacking, you will quickly know whether that person is a threat to win the day. 3) Chase or control as a group. Making a bunch of solo efforts is pretty pointless unless you want to lose the race.  Use the strength of the group to pull back the attack or control the gap.  Keep the pace where it needs to be, but don’t spend the whole time on the front, if others are willing to share the workload. 4) Shut it down. Once you have decided to end the break’s freedom, shut it down in a controlled manner.  Determine the minimum pace you need to ride to pull the break back in a timely manner.  Don’t exceed that average effort unless the gap doesn’t close.  Like in the chase/control phase, work together to spread the effort across as many riders as possible. If you follow these simple steps, your group should be able to control any race where riders are evenly matched.  Again, if Julian Alaphillipe joins your race and decides to put the screws to you and attack, there is not much that you will be able to do.  Well, you can race for second place, I guess.