…or, “how to use that big team to your advantage.”
Most beginning racers are not on club teams, or if they are on one, then it’s very likely that the team has only minimal coordination/participation. The next race you line up at, count how many teams have three or more people on them. Of those, count how many you can see talking in hushed tones about strategy. Unless you are on one of those teams that you just counted, you are essentially racing solo.
So let’s suppose that you are racing solo. It’s common knowledge that a coordinated team has more “cards to play” than an individual racer. If you (the solo racer) want to initiate a breakaway, your only choice is to launch off the front and hope it sticks. But a team can first send someone out to soften up the group, and then counter-attack with the person they really wanted to be in a breakaway. I was once in a race with about ten starters, roughly five of which were from a single team. They would simply send one guy up the road, and then sit and wait. If the rest of us chased him down, then that team got a free ride. If we didn’t chase him down, the team just kept the pace low and let that person get away. If no one gets away, then they simply let their (well-rested) sprinter go for the win! This clearly illustrates the power that a team has.
But it also illustrates something else. What is it that the team is really doing? They’re recognizing when they should work, and when they shouldn’t. They don’t send three guys up the road, because that’s two more than you need. Also, when one of their guys is up the road, they don’t sit at the front and pull, because that effort only hurts them. This idea of appropriate and minimal energy expenditure is key. Let me talk about each of those separately.
By “appropriate energy expenditure” I mean using energy only when it is to your advantage. In my Spring Race Experiment post I talked about a situation very similar to what I described above. This time the field was large (about 20-30 guys), and one team had five or six guys (we’ll call them the “green team”). My decision making process in that race was follows: once someone went up the road, I would look and see who it was. If no one from the “green team” was up the road, then I didn’t need to chase. The fact that the green team had a solid presence means that they would be disappointed with anything less than a win. Therefore, they had the impetus to chase down any breaks, and so I could just sit in and let them do the work. The point is, I only expended energy when it was appropriate for me to do so.
Now, suppose instead that the person off the front was from the green team. Your first thought in that situation might be to go chase that person down. But the better idea is to get someone else to chase that person down! In that race this exact situation happened, and I was ready to go chase the green team guy down. However, I was boxed in, and couldn’t easily get out. The guy next to me was a younger college guy, and I told him that the people off the front were strong, and that we needed to chase them down. In his enthusiasm he shot off and closed the gap. My plan initially had been to do exactly what I said I was going to do. But once the college kid closed the gap, there was no longer any need for me personally to work! As the saying goes, bike racing means licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own. This perfectly illustrates the idea of minimal energy expenditure.
In both of these situations we are simply assessing if we personally need to work, or if someone else can reliably do it. A large team can usually be relied on to chase down breaks in which they’re not represented. Additionally, other racers can often be relied on to do work for you, usually out of impatience or nervous energy. A question that I always ask myself during the middle of a race is, “does it need to be me?” Does it need to be me who chases down that break? Does it need to be me who closes the gap in front of me? Does it need to be me who’s pulling? Sometimes the answer is yes! But most of the time the answer is “no”, and in those times you are preserving your own plate, and eating off your competitors’. When the answer finally is “yes,” you’ll be more likely to have the energy to do it.