Tips for a Struggling Cat 4

In my previous post I answered a question from Rob, a self described struggling Cat 4, in regards to his test data (VO2 Max, FTP, etc) and if he had reached his potential yet.  The overall answer was ‘no’, but now where did that leave us?  In fact, his FTP is near the top of the chart for a Cat 4, which begs the question: Why no results?

First, the story of my friend:

We’ve been lifelong friends and have always ridden bikes.  I talked him into racing a while back and he raced a few cross races in 2009 and trained all winter for 2010 road season.  For a first season, it wasn’t too bad: about 20 races of various disciplines yielding mid-pack finishes and three top 10s (OK, three 9th place finishes).

The following cyclocross season (his second), was when he finally started seeing some success, and after winning a Cat 4 race, upgraded.  He redoubled his efforts over the winter and got a power meter.  His FTP was 265 (at 140 lbs) and he figured he was destined for Cat 4 glory on the road.

It didn’t happen.  He only managed to increase his best finish from 9th to 5th.  Hardly the success that his 4.14 w/kg show on the power profile chart.  To futher prove my point (which I’ll make in a minute), he then proceeded to podium a few Cat 3 cyclocross races and earn enough points to upgrade again.

Rob’s Story:

Rob may be simply replaying my friend’s story, but he is running a year behind.  His first season had similar lackluster results across his 20 or so races.   His best finish was 7th place in a criterium with a reduced field of 14 due to horrendous weather.  His five road races were particularly mediocre, barely cracking the top 20 (although to his credit, he was dropped from every road race except his last; a sign of improvement).

Rob doesn’t appear to race cyclcocross like my friend, a discipline which highly favors FTP, with a nod to handling skills.  His time trial results are equally mediocre, but there is a lot more to a good TT than a high FTP (equipment out of reach of many Cat 4s, for starters).

Why can’t a Cat 4 with decent FTP find success?

Sandbaggers: OK, nobody likes this term, and it isn’t always directly applicable, but keep in mind that there is an overlap in categories.  You’ll have to be better than the best Cat 4 to start beating them.  In my first race with a power meter in 2009, my four minute peak power was 379w (5.06 w/kg, or nearly in the Cat 2 range) at the Steamboat Prologue, which was only good enough for 3rd place in the Cat 4s. (No TT equipment was allowed)

Also, elite athletes from other sports may cross over to cycling, and without an annual license they may be making the lowest category races very hard.

Strategy: Beginning racers are not only the slowest, they’re also not the smartest (as a group).  Race craft is very important to success in road racing.  Unfortunately, the tactics are dictated by the race itself so the Cat 4s tend to require a unique strategy.  Beyond the specific tactical suggestions below, it is vitally important to be able to manage yourself as a racer within the peloton.  This includes riding smoothly, staying safe, positioning, attacking, playing to your strengths, and most importantly drafting.  I’d suggest to Rob (and my friend) that if you don’t have a lot of experience cycling in a group, that riding the Gateway Ride every weekend (Saturday) after Base 1 would be great practice.

The benefit of drafting cannot be understated.  Every tactic in road racing is built around this basic principle.  Drafting a single rider can reduce your workload by 30%, and much more in a large peloton.  In this , riders averaged as low as 2.8w/kg on flat stages!  The ability to draft and conserve energy in the group is essential to success.

Another aspect of lower category racing is the inevitable pack sprint.  This is a bit of a myth, as not all Cat 4/5 races end in a sprint, but they are more common.  I know my friend’s power numbers, and his 30s and 5s peak power is by far his weakest area.  Without sprint power or practice in field sprints, success in lower categories will be harder to come by.

Summary:

The fast racers will always be there, no matter the category you’re racing.  What can be helped is race craft and experience.  I also spoke with Rob a little more via email and prescribed him a healthy dose of endurance rides to increase his efficiency as a a cyclist, to train his body to better turn his high oxygen consumption into higher power.  I believe that both Rob and my friend can be helped by slightly increased fitness, but will be best served by more experience cycling in groups both on the road and in races.

About Russell

I have been racing bicycles for a decade. This blog will chronicle my efforts as a Category 1 road racer lining up with the pros.
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4 Responses to Tips for a Struggling Cat 4

  1. Mat S. says:

    Russell,

    Could you describe your approach to crash avoidance or at least reducing the potential? I’ve found very little information out there and it isn’t a subject that a lot of racers want to discuss for obvious reasons.

    Thanks!

    Mat S.

  2. says:

    this is really a super great post…same with women’s lower categories…

  3. Eddie says:

    Great article, Russ. Do you have any tips for CAT3 strugglers? I seem to struggle with CAT3 circuit races where the “stronger” 3′s just attack from the start line for first 5 miles/30 minutes.

    • says:

      Cat 3 (Or 2 for that matter) is a bit of a different animal. Most races feature experienced racers and some team tactics.

      The reason the for the information for Cat 4s is due to the fact that there is a lot more than fitness required in the beginning categories.

      This is true for the higher categories as well, but as you progress in the ranks, fitness becomes more and more important.

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