Sunday, November 29, 2009

Twenty Opportunities in the Winter

What exactly is competitive cycling?  In the broad sense, the term refers to any event in which participants are riding a bicycle to win a prize.  The word "athlete" comes from the Greek word "athlos", which means prize.  Those who competed in the pan hellenic games, our modern Olympics, were athletes because they threw down to win something.  In road racing, I have seen grown men almost kill themselves, risking injury, to win beef jerkey.  I guess that makes us "athletes."

In the actual race, there is absolutely no ambiguity.  Otherwise sane men and women, gather behind an imaginary line on a road and roll out.  Within the pack, the goal is clear - win the race.  Often, at some point wheels touch and riders almost or do go down.  The goal then becomes to stay upright.  By the last third of the race, as your heart pounds out of your chest, your goal too often is to just survive.  A few lucky ones have the chance to contest the sprint.  

What is clear during the races season becomes ambiguous during the off season.  In the cold and rain, sometimes snow of winter, the first race in March seems a long way away.  Personally, I struggle.  I hate riding a stationary bike.  Lifting weights is as bad.  This year, I have tried power cranks to break it up a bit. 

For me, the salvation is the team ride.  Our team meets at a coffee shop.  I bet every team meets at a coffee shop.  If the weather is good, we roll out fifteen minutes late.  If it is bad, 30 minutes late.  

Let me say for the record, I believe in base training.  I believe in going slow in the Winter to go fast in the Spring. At the same time, I value team rides because it is one of the few times the team is together.  Unlike the pros, amateur bike racers are distracted by full time jobs, family and life.  Race season runs from March to August.  There is essentially no opportunity to train together then - just race together.  Most serious racers are burnt out in September and focus on fun rides for themselves.  That leaves October through February to train.  That is about 20 weekend rides.  20 opportunities to bring a bunch of guys together to learn and practice the skills required to be a good road team.  While I like base training, wasting 10 of those opportunities in zone 2 double pacelines hour after hour seems inefficient.  I would propose that base training is for each rider during the week.  Base training is also appropriate for the first half of the team ride. The other half should be dedicated to skills development. 

This brings me back to the original questions:  what is competitive cycling?   Put differently, what skills must a good road racer possess that is different than a good recreational rider?  Recreational and competitive cyclists both need to be fit.  They both train hour after hour in zone 2.  Hopefully, both categories of riders can paceline without taking out the line.  Double paceline work is nice but still pretty basic. 

In my limited view, one of the most important skills of a bike racer is what I call "extraction." Extraction is particular to racing and it is extremely difficult to pull off in an amateur bike race.  It is difficult, in part, because amateur teams rarely if ever practice extraction in the winter.  

Extraction is my slang for the need to pull team mates out of the pack and execute as a unit for a particular purpose.  For example, often a break will occur in a road race. If it is large enough, chances are riders will attempt to sit on at the front of the pack to slow it down to the benefit of the break.  Packs can be large, say 30-40 racers.  The trick is to know where all of your team mates are in the pack and to get them out of the cluster that is sometimes the amateur pack and out in the front to chase.  Once "extracted," the chase will need, of course, good base fitness and pacelining experience.  I would not characterize these basic skills as particular to racing because fitness and paceling are also characteristic of a recreational cyclists.

I have seen extraction in amateur bike races.  Almost always it is accidental.  Occasionally, it is irrational.  A break goes and some super fit dude thinks he can bridge up to it. He jumps and a team mate is near and tries to go with him.  Problem is, other racers go too and they are not on your team.  More often, the entire pack goes, including those who are sitting on to help the break.  As such, the train doesn't leave the station.  

I acknowledge that extraction may not be a necessary skill in my hypothetical because, even in amateur races, breaks rarely succeed.  But, what of the attack?  In 2005, a pod of 4 racers from Byrnes Specialty Glass Team dominated that Cat 4 Tuesday Night races at PIR in Kent.  Race after race, they schooled us on extraction.  A surge would occur, and the Byrnes pod would extract when the pack sputtered.  As we gasped, they attacked.  Four of them would catapult out of the pack but the last of them would fade.  This fourth man would allow himself to become absorbed by the front of the chase in order to slow it down.  They operated as one unit. They always knew where each other sat in the pack.  They were good enough that they always moved within the pack as one unit. 

This is winter.  Extraction should be practiced now.   Training rides should dedicate the first hour to the mob.  Free and easy. Everyone chatting and warming up.  The second part of the ride should have a particular purpose.  No missed training opportunities to build a strong road team.  

My call for extraction practice pre-supposes that the team knows itself.  On my team, I know that I can race in either the Masters C/D or Cat 4 category.  I am new to the team and do not know everyone yet.  In fact, I know about one third of the team.  Some of the guys I know will race in a different category.  It is not terribly productive to practice extraction with a guy who will not be in my races.  Assuming that you can dialogue about who is who and what categories will be filled, team rides should be organized around those categories.  On my team, I can think of 4-5 guys who are roughly my peers in terms of fitness and experience. Half of those guys can not race in Masters.  Assuming we all agreed to discuss this and agreed to race in Cat 4, then we should become extraction experts.  On group rides, we should move as a unit - always together.  We should tell the Cat 3s to attack and we should practice extracting from the pack.  Out from the others and, in our case, occasional recreational rider who have invited themselves along.  Then, we should go.  

This brings me to the other competitive cycling skill - "exclusion."  Recreational riding is about having fun.  Everyone pulls.  Hand and arm signals at every rock and twig.  On and on.  Exclusion is a skill particular to road racing.  When chasing, you often DO NOT want help.  The guy on your wheel has a team mate in the break.  If he gets into the rotation, he will break your momentum and sit on.  In other situations, exclusion comes into play when you come off the rotation and are gassed.  You look back and the rotation is 20 guys long.  Hangers on.  But, your team has the first five places.  Exclusion is the most common skill required for racing and it is about stopping someone from taking a wheel or forcing yourself onto a wheel.  It some cases, it takes nerves of steel.  In the chase scenario, it takes practice.

Back to the winter ride.  Practice this. A pod of guys attack.  The team lingers for a moment, and your pod extracts. A glance, a yelp, a scream.  Whatever it takes to get your pod motivated.  Route selection is key.  Unlike recreational rides, in races, you are often looking for a path upon which to extract that is shoulder to the right but imperfectly paved. To say the least.  Or, you might have to go up the middle between lines.  As you clear the front of the pack, your pod of extractors must surge to clear the pack without an unwanted guest latching on.   Then, go like you stole it. 

Practice communicating.  If you look back and see an adversary trying to hook, tell your pod.  If you hear it, repeat it so the guy at the front knows.  If you come off the rotation and feel gassed and notice a wheel sucker, it is a perfectly sound exclusion tactic for you, the last man, to detach from the pod so that the wheel sucker can not be a part of the attack.   

I also envision but have never seen a “reverse rotation.”  A reverse rotation benefits the team mate who has just rotated off but finds no opening because an aggressive wheel sucker is on the last friendly wheel.  He lingers out in the wind trying to rehook a friendly wheel.  One easy solution is to move up and your team mate pauses to let you in.  A better tactic is to yell “left” to your team mate (assuming you are to the left).  Your well trained team mate communicates that command up to all of the team mates.  Each moves to the left.  The end result is that your team mates have all moved so that they are in front of you and have re-formed a paceline.  Best of all, the wheel sucker suddenly finds himself in the wind wondering what just happened.  This clearly takes some practice.

Competitive cycling is a different and unique style of riding.  Many athletes can win a road race on individual fitness.  Many more can be dropped due to a lack of fitness.  For the rest of the pack, being part of a well organized and coordinated team can sometimes make the difference between just one team mate finishing well and most of the team finishing in the top twenty.  Or, in my wildest dreams, sweeping!

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