The Week Before:
The week before is a good time to cut back on the volume, but keep up the intensity. Friel suggests doing short, race-intensity intervals, but not doing any longer rides. He suggests doing 5 intervals 5 days out, 4 intervals 4 days out, etc. Then two days out do nothing, or nearly nothing, and the day before do a (very!) short race-intensity interval session. All I can add to this is that you should listen to your body. For me, doing so many daily interval sessions was hard on my body. Thus I start out at 5 intervals 5 days out, then just play it by ear. Don’t be afraid to include some intensity, but also don’t bury yourself in the days before the race. Get to sleep at a reasonable time, and avoid alcohol! As much as I love beer (and oh boy do I love my craft beer!), drinking saps your power for the next day. Despite what it may feel like, you do not sleep as well after drinking because your body doesn’t enter the deeper sleep cycles. In the week before a race I always cut out all alcohol. Then after the race is done, stop by the liquor store on the way home and buy a bottle of the good stuff to congratulate yourself!
This is also the time to start doing some mental preparation. I’ve done an entire post on mental preparation, so I won’t rehash that. However that post was fairly “high-level”, in that I talked a lot about the big picture. Since this series of posts is meant to be more practical, I’ll offer up some practical tips.
Criterium: Course familiarity is less of an advantage in crits, simply because you ride the course so many times you’ll quickly gain familiarity. When you start to gain more experience you’ll want to spend a lot of planning time working out a strategy, which definitely involves knowledge of the course. But for a first or second-time racer we won’t go this deeply. What is important for crits is the weather (temperature and wind conditions). Wind conditions in particular can have a humongous effect on the outcome of the race. The first race I did well in (4th at Grinnell) was a very windy crit. I kept an eye on the wind conditions and figured that I could always move up the pack sheltered during a section with a strong crosswind. I used this knowledge to move from mid-pack to front of the pack every lap, and hardly expended any extra energy. So in the days leading up to the race, check the wind conditions and memorize what will be happening in each section. Then plan where (ideally) you’d like to be in each section. If you have a headwind you should obviously not be in the front. Conversely, if you have a tailwind in a technical section there is a good reason to be up front.
Road Races: For road races, course familiarity is key. You need to think it through and see where breaks might form; obvious places are big hills and rollers. Unlike crits, most road races don’t have many turns (you may only turn four to eight times the entire time!), so cornering ability isn’t as important. However, if a corner is leading up to a feature (a big hill, some rollers, etc.) then it is significant. This is because an accordion effect will likely happen and gaps will open. If there was no feature after the turn then things would probably group back up without too much fanfare. But if a hill is coming then small gaps can turn into big ones, and that’s when problems occur. Look for these on the course map (Google maps is your friend!) and memorize them. Before the turn you want to move up to near the front of the group.
Other Riders: If you’re new to racing you may not know the other racers. However by looking them up on Strava you can get some idea how much they ride, and at least an inkling of how strong they are. Once you have identified the stronger racers, a decent strategy is to simply stay close to them during the race. They may not necessarily be savvy racers, but in Cat 5 someone who is strong and has just enough knowledge to sit-in for most of the race can do very well. Thus is you can “ride their coat tails” for long enough you have a chance to do well.
Things to remember in the last week:
It’s easy to think that maybe if you do one more interval session, or borrow some deep section wheels, or take some special supplement, that you can give yourself a boost. But in the last week the best you can hope for is maintaining the level of fitness you have built up to that point. Very intense training at this point will likely only hurt, not help. However, this is the time where you can gain an advantage through mental preparation. Although it may seem otherwise, bike racing is not about being the strongest. Mental preparation plays a huge role, and racing smart starts with knowing what is a smart move and what isn’t.