What is fast? We think we know it when we see it. It’s that guy or gal who can pull the group ride for an hour. It’s the person who wins every stop sign sprint. Or maybe it’s the person who flies up every hill, leaving us double-checking that our brakes aren’t rubbing. When we see that kind of person winning a race we think “of course they won, they’re fast!” But the big dirty secret of bike racing is that “fast” might not be what you think it is.
The Myth of “Fast”
In my experience, the people we label “fast” are the people who are good at precisely what we are bad at. I can’t motor on the flats, so when I see someone pulling the group at a high pace for miles on end I instantly label them as “fast.” For people who can’t sprint, they tend to look at sprinters and see “fast.” This is because their talent in that area is no much higher than ours that we don’t believe it’s possible to close that gap. But the key is that we don’t need to be fast in every aspect of cycling; no one is. Even celebrated all-around riders like Peter Sagan still routinely get beat in the sprints, dropped on the climbs, and out-motored on the flats. The key is to beat the competition with your brain, not your body.
Being “Fast Enough”
It’s my experience that many racers tend to focus too much on getting stronger. This may seem like a silly statement, because clearly it is beneficial to be a stronger bike rider. However, having an FTP that is 10 watts higher than the next guy or gal in the race probably isn’t going to allow you to solo away and win. To do that you’d maybe need an extra 40 or 50 watts to hold off the peloton, and those kind of advantages almost never exist thanks to the category system. Additionally, training enough to gain these kinds of advantages is hard work! And while I’m not averse to hard work, if there’s a simpler way which gives the same result, why not take it? Bike racing isn’t running, it’s not about who exercises best.
So instead of simply focusing on getting stronger, you should focus on getting “strong enough”, and then finding that winning edge by racing smarter than your opponents. How strong is strong enough? “Strong enough” is when you can hang with the peloton without worrying about getting dropped, it’s when you can stick with the surges, and when you consistently find yourself with the peloton at the end of the race.
Planning to Win
So suppose you’re “fast enough” and are consistently finishing races with the peloton, what next? How do you go from mid-pack to podium? The key is preparation. Below are what I consider to be the four key topics (in no particular order):
- (You) Do you know your own strengths and weaknesses? How are you going to utilize/avoid them during the race?
- (Course) Do you know the demands of the course? Have you trained accordingly?
- (Others) Do you know your opponents? At the very least, do you know how well teams will be represented?
- (Plan) How are you planning to win? Sprint? Breakaway? Teamwork?
All four of these topics work together. You can’t fully understand one without knowing all the others. Let’s look at each one a little closer.
In my opinion, this is the most important. You absolutely must know yourself in order to win. Far and away the best way to do this is with a power meter. The key is to have as many reference points as possible. How does my max power compare to others in my category? 15 second? 2 minute? 20 minute? Simply by virtue of genetics, there will undoubtedly be some areas where you are naturally better than others, and some areas that are lagging and simply refuse to improve. Having those “peaks and valleys” are okay, you just have to know what they are. My FTP is terrible for my category. Because of that I’m careful to always be sheltered, and I don’t bother trying to go solo off the front with 20 miles to go. Heck, I don’t go off the front with one mile to go! There’s nothing wrong with trying something just for the fun of it, but you can’t expect to win by utilizing your weaknesses and avoiding your strengths.
Strava and Google Maps are the two greatest tools for bike racers. You can easily find the key features of the course, and check how fast others are taking them. When I was planning for a particular 40 mile road race I knew that the decisive hill was going to take me one minute to climb, with a sprint at the end. Because of that I spent a month working on my one minute power, followed by a sprint. That kind of specificity is incredibly important. If you’re planning to win the race on the last hill, it makes a huge difference if the hill is 30 seconds or two minutes, if it’s a 3% grade of a 7% grade. Strava can give you this information and you can train accordingly.
It’s obvious that it would be useful to know everyone else’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. Assuming you don’t have this kind of in-depth knowledge, you at least need to know how well teams are represented. As you progress in the categories, team tactics become more and more important. But even without a team you can still succeed.
This is what ties all the others together. Once you know yourself, the course and your opponents, you can figure out how you can win. Your plan should center around applying your strength and avoiding your weakness. Below I’ve linked to several posts where I’ve planned out my races. You can look at those posts for real-world examples of how I plan to race.
Posts detailing my race planning
I firmly believe that most racers focus too much on the fitness aspect of racing, thinking that winning is simply about bludgeoning your opponents with watts. If you’re not one of the (very few) naturally super-talented cyclists, this approach isn’t going to work for you. I would never consider myself “fast”, and yet I am regularly finishing near the front of each race. This is only because I realize that racing well isn’t about being the strongest, it’s about being strong enough and preparing to win.
Finally, I have a YouTube video about how to use Golden Cheetah to help you go through these steps.