Cycling in bunches II

In the last article I talked about “getting the advantage” of drafting when riding in bunches. In this article I will continue on this subject with a little about tactics while riding in bunches.

Just to recap; when drafting behind someone else, and particularly when in a larger bunch, you may reduce effort by 40-60% than when riding by yourself at the same speed. Those at the front of the bunch are doing the ‘work’, for those drafting behind them, when they take their lap at the front of the bunch.

In a cycle racing situation, tactics are at least as important as riding ability. Often Triathletes and multisport athletes are beaten by athletes of a far lower fitness level when they enter cycling events. This is usually due to poor tactics and a lack of ability to tolerate changes in pace.

When in the bunch situation you need to think about what your objectives are:

Helping the bunch move along as much as possible.

Slowing the bunch down.

Making life more difficult for others (either individuals or the bunch as a whole).

Getting away from the bunch (or individuals in the bunch).

Saving your energy.

Or just surviving as best you can.

Helping the bunch along.

In an ideal world, everyone would do their lap, and the well-oiled group will move along smoothly. The pace would be even, and everyone would get the shelter they wanted after they had done their turn at the front. This is the least common scenario!

However, if you do want the bunch to move along, then you need to visit the front, and do your part to help. If everyone does do there turn at the front, it is surprising how fast you can go with relatively little effort individually.

Looking after yourself.

If you want to conserve as much energy as you can, then ideally you will sit in the middle of the bunch somewhere. You won’t want to get too close to the front, and risk having to take a lap, and you will hopefully be buffered a little from any surges that occur up front. You will get maximum draft advantage with minimal cost.

However, there are a few down sides to just ‘sitting’ in the bunch. If there is a split in the bunch or a break away, you will probably be in the wrong half of the bunch, and get dropped. If there is a crash within the bunch, you are more likely to be involved in that. The further back you are – the more likely you are to get dropped or be involved in an ‘incident’. You will also make no friends by just ‘sitting in’ – particularly if you are a strong rider. While there is usually no rule stating you must do your share of the work, those who are doing the work may resent your free riding and try to drop you. Sometimes you just have to do at least a few laps at the front so you are not attacked.

Making life difficult for the bunch.

Often the inexperienced rider makes life difficult for everyone else, without intending it, or even knowing it. The most common case is when the rider gets to the front of the bunch and is keen to move things along (eager to do his/her bit!). The rider hits the front and goes hard out, increasing his speed. This results in the eager rider either; riding off the front and giving no shelter to those behind him, or everyone else in the bunch has to exert extra energy to also increase their speed. The end result is everyone gets tired! Of course, if your aim is to ‘blow everyone’s legs to bits’ then this is a very good tactic. If you don’t want to make life unpleasant for everyone else, then when you do make it to the front, your speed should not increase at all. If you do have a habit of doing this, then you should watch your speedo when you do make it to the front, and make sure you do not speed up.

An alternative to this is getting to the front and slowing down. Perhaps you have a teammate in a bunch behind or ahead, and you want those behind to catch up or those ahead to stay ahead. In this scenario you do your laps quite regularly, and when you do get to the front you gradually slow down and just ride at a slower pace at the front of the bunch until someone takes over. In an inexperienced bunch this can work very effectively. Sometime when no one is willing to do laps at the front, the bunch ends up going along very slowly. In this case, when the bunch is quite ‘negative’, you may in fact be able to ride faster by yourself. Then it is time to attack the bunch.

Attacking the bunch

Depending on what your race tactics are, you may wish to get away from the bunch – either by yourself, or with a smaller group. Unless the bunch is very negative and no one is willing to do their laps at the front, it is usually faster and more energy efficient to stay in the bunch. However a small group working well together may be much faster than a large group of unorganised riders. This can sometimes be seen in ITU world cup events. A relatively small group of good swimmers work very well together and can stay away from a very large group of unorganised riders who are not willing to work together.

You have decided you need to get away from the bunch – what are you going to do? If you go to the front and go as hard as you can, chances are everyone else in the bunch is going to just jump on your wheel and follow you (getting a free ride). What you need to do is ‘attack’ or ‘jump’ away from the bunch. In this case you literally sprint as hard as you can to get a gap between you and the bunch. It needs to be a decisive sprint so that a reasonable gap can be established. Once you have made the gap you put your head down and time trial your little heart out to try and keep away!

A counter attack may be launched against your break away, either by those who do not want you to get away, or by some who are will to work with you in a small break (this may even be pre-planned!). This usually happens within the first 1-2 minutes of an attack. If you do counter attack and are aiming to work with the initial breakaway, then you need to be willing to work together as soon as you catch up. This is the time when a break succeeds or fails. If there is indecision in the breakaway group, it will usually be caught at this stage. A bunch will see a group of riders as a far greater threat than a lone rider, and there will usually be far more urgency to catch up.

An important point to note is that an attack will cost you a lot in terms of energy, and you will encounter lactic acid – both of which you may regret at a later stage in the race! You need to train specifically for this tactic, and be willing to commit a large amount of effort and energy. It is quite a risky tactic, as you may expend all that energy to no avail.

Surviving.

If all you want to do is survive, then there are a few points to note. If you are a significantly weaker rider than the others you are riding with, then the others will generally not worry about you getting a ‘free ride’ – as you are not a threat to them. In this case you just want to stay out of the way. Go to the back of the pack and just draft the second to last person! You don’t want to get mixed up in the riders lapping, as you will generally hinder their efforts if you get mixed up in their rotation. The only time you will want to get toward the front is at the bottom of a hill. If you start the climb close to the front, then as the stronger riders pass you on the climb, you will hopefully still be in contact with the tail end of the bunch at the top of the climb. Of course in this scenario you need to know the course, to know when the hills are coming up.

Enjoy your riding – and look after your selves.

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