Bike Racing: Multiple Teams on One Field

In my book, “Roadie – The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer”, I point out the fact that bike racing is one of the only sports in which you will find more than two teams on the field of play at one time.

Also, bike racing is one of the only sports on the planet in which you will see opposing teams working TOGETHER. And in that same best-seller, I toy briefly with the idea of having four teams in a baseball game at the same time. I don’t know HOW it would happen. Surely, someone would get beaned.

While announcing at a recent race, I once again blurted out the idea of multiple teams taking part in one game. I suggested a football game involving four teams.
Well, during a slow day at work today, I put designed the field.

Now all we need is a rule book and a brief explanation of how it works. Feel free to offer up your own rules of play.
One team kicks off to the other.

The receiving team can return the kick-off in one of three directions.

Let’s imagine that a Tarheels player receives the kick-off and turns North and heads into the Goobers’ territory. He gets tackled by, say, a Goober. Now, would the first play from scrimmage see the Tarheels vs all three teams? If so, it would be a low scoring game.

In cycling, teams will form alliances while the race is underway, and those alliances aren’t easily nullified. In this form of football, I’m sure alliances would form. I just don’ know how.

It would be a fun experiment.

I need 43 volunteers to meet me at the high school field next Tuesday night.

Any marching band directors reading this: you are free to design a halftime show using this configuration. However, don’t take this to band camp in August. The stadium has not yet been built. We’re still waiting for a land purchase to be approved on the Detroit waterfront before we break ground.

Feel free to speculate in the comments box on the rules of the New NFLx4

And I don’t actually expect anyone to show up on a Tuesday night. I’m not crazy.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

VeloPress.com
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore

Cycling really hasn’t changed much in 26 years.

Here are two photos taken 26 years apart just moments before the start of a race. Note the similarities:

The most obvious is Ray, the subject of the photos. He’s still on the same team, and he’s still racing the Pro-1-2. And still starting near the back despite his own advice to start on the front line.

(He’s the guy I reference on p.161 of Reading the Race. Go read it now.)

RAYAGAIN

The scary-weird not-so-obvious similarities in this photo:
1. Someone’s helmet near Ray’s right ear.
2. The rider standing in the same pose with his right leg up and his right hand on his saddle.
3. The rider just to the right of Ray with his right arm extended.
4. The back of a rider on the far right.

Yeah, it’s not the most groundbreaking blog post, but curious nonetheless.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

VeloPress.com
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore

 

Old School meets New School. Old school wins.

I said I had more to say about the Herman Miller Brickyard Criterium in Grand Rapids, and here it is. Make of it what you will.

As you should have read in the previous post, Bissell-ABG had a rider ‘up the road’ with a good-sized lead. They also had a posse at the front of the field mucking up any chase efforts.

At one point, the other teams got their collective shit together, went to the front, took over the first seven spots, and began a concerted and organized chase effort. The gap started to fall.

So now, at this point, if you’re on the Bissell-ABG team, what do you do? Do you…
A. go up to the front and actively/forcibly get in their way? Or…
B. sit in and allow the other teams to work without interruption?

And if you choose Option A, how active/forced do you get?

Opinions vary. I think the answer comes down to which school you come from: Old School or New School.

Classic old school tactics would have Bissell-ABG riders going to the front throwing elbows and jabbing their brakes to intimidate the other teams. They would pinch riders into the curb to slow them down. They would get verbally abusive. They would take scary lines through the turns to discourage other riders from overtaking them.

That’s what Eddie B. taught us. That’s what everyone did back in the day. It was considered normal. Ask Jonas. Ask Thurlow. Ask Frankie.

(I remember a time when the rider next to me reached over and squeezed my brake lever to slow me down. I won’t name names.)
(I remember a time when a rider grabbed my jersey as I started to accelerate to chase his teammate.)
(I remember having a rider stick his shoulder into my ribs and push me off the road when I tried to pass.)

More modern tactics (not necessarily New School) would see Bissell-ABG mixing things up at the front of the pack. Not in a physical way, but in a passive “get-in-the-way” way, which is what B-ABG was doing until the other teams took over control of the front.

But something changed about the time that Lance Armstrong was “winning” his 7 Tours de France. In a nutshell, more people watched the Tour on TV, got interested in racing, took notes while watching the Tour, and then brought those tactics to an American bike race.

Today’s generation of bike racers thinks Eddie B is just a lame store at the outlet mall.

In the TdF, there is no ‘blocking’ to speak of. When it’s time to reel in the breakaway, the sprinters’ teams go to the front and bring back the breakaway unimpeded by blocking tactics. The breakaway riders’ teams get out of the way and give the chasers a free reign at the front.

That’s what these New School cretins have brought to American criteriums: the lameness of Eddie Bauer.

Well, it became an issue in Grand Rapids when Bissell-ABG decided to get a little more assertive in their blocking efforts. They moved to the front, barged into the line, bumped a few elbows, and made a lot of riders angry.

The other teams felt that since they had control of the front, Bissell-ABG should back off. (This was actually verbalized by a rider later.)

Things got argy bargy after that. Riders began chopping each other and brake checking each other. It was awesome. Even the spectators noticed what was going on. It was old school.

For a minute there, I thought I caught a whiff of wool.

Things finally settled down. No one got hurt in the exchanges. But there was a decided rift between the two styles of riding and which one was thought to be more acceptable.

And of course, we can blame Lance. For making cycling popular and therefore influencing the modern bike racer with a kinder and gentler set of tactics. Or maybe we can just blame society, come to think of it.

My advice to new riders is to go find a quiet grassy area in a shady park somewhere, ride back and forth together, and beat the hell out of each other until you are completely unfazed by bodily contact.

It’s going to happen; there are a lot of Old School guys still racing their bikes.

To learn more drills and skills, there’s a book I want you to read…

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

VeloPress.com
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore

When it’s your turn to attack.

Bissell-ABG brought numbers to the Herman Miller Brickyard Criterium in Grand Rapids, Michigan last week. It’s the hometown of their title sponsor, and they wanted to win one for the gipper. OK, no problem. You’ll still need a plan.

Their plan was to launch one attack after the next and force the other teams to respond to each one. By doing so enough times, they would soften up the field sufficiently to launch a winning move later in the race. Classic team maneuver.

The attacks began on the first lap. Two Bissell-ABG riders went clear. All the other teams chased like hell. When those two Bissell riders got reeled in, another Bissell rider attacked. Nate Williams, who had spent the morning on his feet as the volunteer coordinator for this event, didn’t really intend to stay away. He only wanted to make life hard for the other teams. And that’s what happened. He stayed away for about 4 laps before getting reeled in.

Mac Brennan was the next to attack. Same plan: just go out there and ride tempo for as long as you can and make the other teams do the work to bring you back. With 54 laps to go, no one expects you to stay out there all day, Mac.

Ha.

With his Bissell-ABG teammates stationed at the front of the pack, his lead grew steadily.

The Herman Miller Brickyard course is, for the most part, a wide and flat 4-corner loop with a good long stretch of cobbles between turns 1 and 2. But there was a challenging chicane located between turns 3 and 4 that forced riders to handle their bikes.

That chicane was challenging enough to create solo winners in three of the previous races that day. It wasn’t as bad as the “Ann Arbor Meat Grinder” that I wrote about in Reading the Race, the greatest book ever written (on bike racing strategy). But this one did have an effect. A solo rider could fly through it, but a field could get clogged up in it.

Mac languished out in front for several laps. Other teams tried to mount a counter offensive, but Bissell-ABG had the numbers to really control the effort. The word ‘throttle’ can be used as a replacement for accelerator or to choke.

In this story, it means choke. The field was throttled.

So let’s think of Mac’s effort for a minute. He attacked with the idea that either a few riders would bridge across to him, or that he would wear down the other teams until he was caught. He never intended to stay clear for 54 laps. Solo.

At some point, his solo breakaway reached a turning point. He had to decide whether to let himself get caught or commit to going the distance. And if he commits, the pressure to succeed is immense. The weight of his entire team and sponsor rides on his shoulders. And if he does fail, he knows it would be disaster to get caught too late. If he gets caught within the last ten laps, his team won’t have time to get another breakaway started. They’ll have to sprint against everyone else, and there were some notoriously fast sprinters in the field who were not wearing Bissell jerseys.

Well, it ended up being a monumental effort. He stayed away for 54 laps. By himself. He won the race. It all worked out in the end. (I have more to say about this race, but I’ll save it for another time.)

But I want you to know that this is what you sign up for when you attack in a bike race. If you find yourself in this position, whether you’re on a solo breakaway or in a small group, you have to know that your teammates are now betting all their money on your horse. And that your game plan that you agreed to in the pre-race meeting can get tossed out the window when the race starts.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

VeloPress.com
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore

 

The Most Exciting Race (that nobody saw)

West Branch Road Race, West Branch, Michigan  June 15th

You know those volunteers who drive the wheel truck at small road races? They ride behind the main pack all day waiting for someone to get a flat tire so that they can dig through the tangle of wheels in the bed of their truck to hopefully find the right one. Well, I was that driver for this race because I’m trying to see the sport from as many angles as possible. And that means doing some of the thankless jobs that we leave to unknown volunteers who never get thanked but without them we’d have no races.

The course is, in a word, national caliber. OK, that’s two words. Here are a couple more: Hard. Brutal. And somewhat scenic. Hills and wind that would grind the pack down to a nub.  We’re doing 4 laps of this meat-grinder 22-mile loop.

The Pro-1-2- field was small. Only 18 riders signed up for this race, so the odds of me seeing any wheel-changing action was pretty small. As it turns out, I didn’t change one wheel all day. Instead, I sat alone in the truck playing Maynard Ferguson really loudly. But I saw awesome racing.

I’ll try to keep this from rambling, but there’s a lot of nuance in what I saw:

We lost a handful of riders on the first lap, so the field was down to about 14. On the second lap, five more riders fell off the pace on one hard climb (Campbell Road). When they lost enough ground, I passed them and continued to stay with the leaders. The rule in driving follow vehicles like this is “Follow the money”, so because today’s prize list pays to 10 places, I needed to stay with the riders who are in contention for prizes. I watched in my rearview mirror as the small group fell further and further behind. I could feel their pain. With fewer numbers they would be fighting a losing battle in this wind on these hills.

Meanwhile, the racing continue at the front of the field. Two riders broke away. Two more riders were chasing. The field was struggling in the wind, but they were still fighting. So you have a picture of this, we have a lead group of two, a chase group of two, and the main field is now five riders. 9/10s of the prize money are in front of me. Far behind me, the chasers were fighting for 10th place.

Looking in my rearview mirror, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of the small group behind. Amazingly, they were hanging on at the same distance to the rear: roughly a minute. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. For the entire 3rd lap, they were still within sight.

Nuance: Every now and then, out of curiosity, some of the riders in the main field took a look over their shoulder to see if anyone was catching back up. This is an interesting sign of respect. They aren’t counting out those who got dropped. Mainly because one is Adam McClounie, a very strong Canadian rider, and Ben Whitehead, a very strong Grand Rapids rider. It was strange to see them get dropped.

But whenever a rider looked over their shoulder, they did it at a time when trees or terrain hid the chasers from sight. Because of the hilly terrain, there were places where you could look behind and see 3 miles of empty roadway. But not ALL of the roadway.  It was a game of peek-a-boo taking place for the entire 3rd lap. Eventually, the riders in the main field forgot about it and stopped looking over their shoulder. Bad idea.

The chasers were gaining.

With less than a lap to go, the main field was slowing down. Almost imperceivably, but it was obvious that they were pooped. And the chasers kept coming. They had been languishing at more than a minute behind as mere specks in the distance, but they had never quit. When we made the turn onto Campbell Road for the last time, the gap was down to 30 seconds. Campbell Road was into a fierce headwind. Campbell Road is hilly. We were going 12mph.

With about 8 miles to go, the chase group of four had been whittled down to just two riders: Adam and Ben. They had been chasing for almost 50 miles. For what? 9th place? Yep. 9th freakin’ place. Don’t you love that?

15 seconds.

10 seconds.

Oh man, I thought, are these guys going to be totally shocked when they get caught. They haven’t looked over their shoulder in more than an hour.

I pulled off to the side of the road to let Adam and Ben pass me. Adam smiled as they rolled by.

The reaction was priceless among the main field. It was Double-take City, and these guys were running for Mayor.

Now we have seven riders in contention for six remaining ‘paying’ places. I could see that every one of the riders in this group was fighting off cramps. When they rotated to the back of the group, I watched as they each shook, rubbed, stretched, and coaxed their legs out of sight from the others. On the final brutal climb, they sorted everything out. The fresher guys went to the fore. The dead guys struggled.

The two riders who chased for more than half the race finished in 9th and 10th place. I don’t know how much money they won for that gargantuan effort. But that’s clearly not the point. They could have easily ridden out the last half of that race at an easy pace, but they raced the whole damn race. If I were them, I would frame the check and hang it somewhere in their house. The reminder is more important than the gas they could buy with it.

I’m sorry you didn’t get to see that epic battle taking place in the back of the Pro-1-2 field.

Maybe you should volunteer to drive the wheel truck sometime.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore
TriSports
VeloGear

You’ve Been Doing It Wrong All This Time, or How to Avoid a Bike Crash with Countersteering

Here’s a simple question: how do you negotiate a turn on a bicycle? Specifically, how do you initiate one?

  1. Lean in the direction you want to go.
  2. Turn the handlebars in the direction you want to go.
  3. A and B
  4. None of the above

Ask 100 cyclists, and you’ll find that ‘A’ is a very popular answer.

This may come as a complete shock to you, but the correct answer is D. None of the above.

If that shock was big, this next one will be bigger:  In order to turn a bicycle to the right, you must first turn the handlebars to the left. And vice versa. This is the simple act that initiates the turn. Without it, you will continue in a straight line.

So why is ‘A’ such a popular answer? Because leaning in one direction will indeed move the bike in that direction. But what’s happening when you lean is that you’re actually putting forward pressure on the handlebar on one side. In essence, you’re turning it away from the lean.

For example, when you lean to the right, you unwittingly put pressure on the right handlebar which will cause your bike to ever-so-briefly hint at a motion to the left before laying over into a right hand lean.

So why is this a big deal? Who cares how a turn happens as long as it happens? And how can this make you a better rider and help you avoid crashes?

That’s easy.

Of the two methods I’ve given you for turning your bike, one (turning the bars the opposite way) is direct while the other (leaning) is indirect. Providing direct input into the handlebars gives you much greater control over the bike. You aren’t reliant upon your weight distribution. You aren’t affected by the lag time to get your weight into position. You therefore experience no hesitation when changing course. Your control is much more precise.

And it’s very easy to reprogram yourself: Push on the right to go right. Push on the left to go left.

I’ll wait here while you go out and try it. Take your time.

With greater control of the bike, you will increase your reaction time to events that happen in front of you. Your evasive action will be more immediate. Your evasive action will also be less dramatic which will prevent a chain reaction of crashes.

(If you see a crash occur in a Category 1-2 race, you will likely see one or two riders collide and fall to the ground. In a category 4 race, the same scenario will see a much larger number of riders on the ground, sidewalk, front yard, and storefronts. This is because the Category 1-2 riders see the crash before it happens, make a slight adjustment, and continue on their way while Category 4 riders fail to see it materialize, make abrupt and dramatic adjustments, and fall like dominoes. Cat 1-2 have tremendous control over their bikes while Cat 4 riders are still learning how to handle things like steering, braking, and holding a straight line. That’s not to say that Pro-1-2 riders aren’t capable of big crashes, but they happen with much less frequency.)

Changing direction by leaning the bike is a case of the tale wagging the dog. It relies on the weight of the rider’s body being in the proper position. Shifting your weight on a moving bicycle chews up valuable time when you’re hurtling down the road at 36 feet per second. As such, indirect and imprecise input is not what you want to use when riding elbow to elbow with other cyclists.  

Here’s an example of how a crash occurs: two riders in front of you tangle handlebars and begin to swerve uncontrollably. You have about .5 seconds to make a decision and alter your course. You try to lean to the left to avoid the imminent crash, but your weight is too far to the right. You stare at the crashing riders unable to change course. Moments later, you’re cartwheeling over the two riders. Your imprecise steering took too long. Down you go. (The second problem here is target fixation. Never look at the crash. Look for your escape route. We’ll cover this topic some other time.)

This counter-steering technique that I’ve described should eliminate the mystery of cornering for you altogether. With experimentation and practice, you will be able to handle any corner that race promoters throw at you. You will also find it possible, even in mid-turn, to change the arc of your turn by simply making a micro-adjustment to the pressure on your handlebars. Applying more pressure on the inside bar makes your turn tighter. A little more pressure on the outside bar makes your turn wider. Steady pressure on the inside bar allows you to carve a nice, smooth, predictable and continuous arc through the turns.

When is that next criterium race scheduled? I think you have time to go out and find an empty parking lot and practice this new technique until it becomes second nature.

Whether you’re a road racer or just a recreational cyclist, this technique will make you a better and safer rider.  Go practice right now.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore
TriSports
VeloGear

Cycling Is Not the Worst Spectator Sport

The question was raised: Is Cycling the Worst Spectator Sport in the World?

In that article, the author missed the point entirely, of course. They always do. But who has time to explain it to him? And would he listen, anyway?

In that article, he laments having spent hours waiting by the road for the Whoosh to go by.  He also asks the popular ‘Why would anyone ever get on a bike – when there are cars, buses and trams?’ He also goes into great detail about how unpleasant the act of riding a bike is.

He’s wrong, of course. Horribly. And I’m only going to address one aspect of his wrongesse: the part about waiting for hours for a 47-second blur.
Dude, the anticipation is the event. The blur is the exclamation mark.

When the entire town of Dawson, GA (population 5,058) turned out to watch the Tour de Georgia roll through their village, that was the point. Not for them to watch the tactics of racing. Not for them to see the then-famous and then-revered Lance goddam Armstrong. It was all designed to bring them out of their houses for a few hours, let them mingle with their neighbors, buy hot dogs from the Rotary Club, spend a few dollars in their convenience stores, make a sign that reads, “go USA”, wave the flag of their home country, and then feel the slow build of anticipation for the 30 minutes prior to the arrival of the first rider, and MAYBE pick up a packet of Jelly Bellys (depending on how many fell out of the Mobile PA car on its way through town).

That’s the event. That’s what an Amgen Tour of California can do that an NHL game can’t.

The NBA will never play a game in Silverton, Colorado. I doubt any NFL superstar will ever visit Woodland, CA. But the people of those towns shared a moment when the guy who won the Tour de France rode down their Main Street.

Whoosh.

So the answer is no. Cycling isn’t the worst spectator sport in the world.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:

Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
Chapters/Indigo
your local bookstore
TriSports
VeloGear