After last weekend, I knew I needed a mental break from anything involving the word “racing.” Thankfully, my coach has done a good job of steering me clear of overtraining, which means that physically I’ve stayed a step ahead of the brutal beat-downs that regular racing can bring. And so this past weekend, instead of competing or doing structured training on the road, I took my excess energy out on my mountain bike. And I have to say, the fall foliage is best experienced in the woods.
As I don’t have racing to write about this week, and as I refuse to bore you with my mountain-biking exploits, which, realistically, are limited to my first Strava KOM on fat tires, let’s talk a little bit about tactics.
From the outside looking in, a cyclocross race might look like a contest of sheer brute force. Pedal as hard as you can for an hour; if you pedal harder than everyone else, you’ll win. Well, this used to be my view of cyclocross tactics, back when I was a category-three roadie. I’d go for the holeshot, then just ride as hard as I could to the finish. But in reality, that works only up to a point.
The better you get at cyclocross, the better the competition you have to race against becomes, and the more group racing you’ll do. At the most elementary level, tactics can be boiled down to a couple of basic questions: Where on this course am I strongest? Where am I weakest? The same questions go for the riders in your group. And based on the answers, you can begin to figure out what you need to do to beat your rivals.
Let me use Adam Myerson as an example, because I’ve raced in groups with him on several occasions. Adam is very good technically, and he’s one of the best sprinters on the New England cyclocross circuit. So I have to race my race knowing that I can’t go to the line with him unless I want to get beat in the sprint. That usually leads me—and anyone else in that group who isn’t delusional about their sprinting abilities—to attack the shit out of the last lap in hopes of shaking Adam before a drag race to the line.
Sometimes, though, you don’t have the luxury of racing against familiar faces. This is when you have to use your powers of observation—that is, watching your opponents for where they struggle. Where are they losing ground, and where are they making up for it? Where do they make mistakes? Are they relying on their fitness or their technical ability to stay in this group? Thinking about all this, and making decisions based on the info in order to increase your chances of winning, is my definition of tactics.
But wait—there’s more!
Occasionally, the rare beast of team tactics emerges. This really only happens at the highest level of the sport, where there are so many good riders that occasionally a few of them end up wearing the same jersey. One fairly recent example on the U.S. scene is Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld. A few years ago, the team had on its roster the powerful trio of Jeremy Powers, Tim Johnson, and Jamey Driscoll. We’d routinely watch these three take turns attacking Ryan Trebon, who was riding for Kona. These days, Ryan and Tim are teammates, and they’re ganging up on Jeremy, who today rides for Rapha.
Team tactics are, of course, prevalent in European cyclocross, where powerhouse squads like Telenet-Fidea and BKCP-Powerplus try to use their numbers to win races. Usually, this is done by having certain teammates sacrifice themselves by driving the pace or by taking turns attacking their rivals. Teammates will often block for one another, too. For instance, when one rider attacks, his teammates behind will deliberately ride a slower line through a tight section of a course, thereby preventing a good chase and helping to create a gap that gives the attacking teammate an advantage.
In sum, individual tactics are something we see in just about every elite-level race, if we know what to look for. And team tactics, which require a few stars to align, can be very effective. When it comes to tactics, course design, weather, course conditions, and fitness levels are also important considerations that have to be factored in.
You don’t have to be racing elites, or even racing for the win, to use your brain to your advantage. Brute force works to a point. When you’re racing someone who can pedal just as hard as you, you have to try to outsmart them. Knowing how tactics can work to your advantage is key to success in cyclocross.
Oh, and the next time you hear someone say bike racing is boring, ask if they know the tactics being used. Chances are, they don’t even know there are tactics in bike racing. It’s a great opportunity to explain the fundamentals. Hopefully they’ll gain a new appreciation of racing.
Finally, here’s this week’s grab bag of questions and answers, culled from my Blog.
cargo1234 asked: Do you ever take your CX bike on aggressive trails? Finding the smooth lines and maneuvering the bike is a blast.
I used to do it all the time before I got a mountain bike. It’s a great way to hone basic skills. But now riding the same trails on a cyclocross bike feels like slow motion compared to the mountain bike, so that’s generally what I opt for these days.
Anonymous asked: I’m thinking about getting a coach next season. Do you think it’s wise to get started with one as early as December?
I think working with a coach gets better over time. The more you work with them, the more they know about you as an athlete, and therefore the more they can help you.
Anonymous asked: What fenders do you use on your road bike? I’m getting tired of the skunk stripe.
Nothing fancy: SKS race blades, usually zip-tied on for winter.
Anonymous asked: Do you do any base training? Doesn’t cyclocross interfere with it?
I start my road season in mid-March, so I won’t get into solid base riding until late January. Cyclocross is my focus now, so it doesn’t interfere with anything.
Anonymous asked: As a messenger in NYC, how did you dress for snowy, subfreezing conditions?
I got a pair of boots that I could fit in to my clips and straps. Fleece tights under my pants and a good jacket with several layers underneath.