Simple Team Tactics for Road Racing

If you race, you should watch pro racing.  There is a lot of insight to be gained from watching the strategy play out during a race.  However, pro racing contrasts with most weekend warriors in a few important ways: Length (Long road/stage races vs criteriums), Team numbers (Often each team has nine riders), and willingness to sacrifice (It is a domestique’s job to work for the team, not themselves).

In this post I hope to give a few strategic tips to riders lining up for a race with only a teammate or two.  Not all of the specific strategies below require complete sacrifice by anyone on the team (except the last one), so they can be used in lower category races where not everyone is prepared to completely sacrifice their own result.

The Rules:

First, each teammate will have to be prepared to let the cards fall where they may.  You’re entering into an agreement to put the team’s result ahead of the individuals.  Some of the tactics below favor a ‘team leader’, while others leave the results to chance.  Second, don’t forget this basic rule: Don’t chase your own teammate.  If you have a teammate up the road, or with a small gap, don’t contribute to the peloton’s effort.

Two CU riders (black) in the break, and one controlling the peloton

Setting a false tempo

Just because you can’t chase your own teammate, doesn’t always mean you shouldn’t ever ride at the front.  If you have someone in a breakaway or establishing a gap, it may be beneficial to ride at the front slightly slower than the group ahead.  Riders behind may not realize a gap has formed, or may think the pace is high enough that they don’t need to come around you and chase.

Trading Attacks

This simple strategy uses a few riders to soften up the pack so an attack can get away.  The weaker rider(s) attack a few times, and the strongest riders will chase them down.  Once caught, another teammate counter attacks.  After the aggressive chasers get tired, the strongest rider attacks, and hopefully nobody is interested in chasing.

Let Gaps Open

The pace is high and the pack is strung out single file (or nearly).  Your teammate is in the top few positions and your are a few positions behind.  Take stock of the mix of riders ahead, and if the composition is in favor of your teammate, slowly drop the wheel in front of you.  If this is done when the pace is very high, the rider behind must make a choice to come around you and close the gap.  If they do, they get more fatigued.  If they don’t, the group ahead rides away.  Letting the gap open going into a tight series of corners is an ideal way to make the gap harder to close down.

This tactic also fatigues riders on competing teams, even if the gaps are quickly closed.

The teammate in 4th wheel could let a gap open

Crosswinds

Rabobank leaves only enough room for their squad.

If the race covers an exposed section of crosswind, a teammate or two can create a small echelon.  Rather than spanning across the entire road, only leave enough room for the team, leaving everyone else riding in the gutter.  All the team members need to be at the front, so coordination is required to pull this one off.  A very advanced tactic on longer sections of crosswind is to rotate within the couple members of the team, making sure not to let any other riders into the rotation to keep the rest of the field in the gutter.

Positioning

As a critical point in the race approaches (possibly the final lap of a criterium), a teammate moving up the field passes a team member, and eases slightly as they pass, or even gives them a quiet shout or a tap on the butt so they can catch their draft.  The teammate gives them a free ride to the front of the peloton.  Once in position, the rider can continue to ride at the front to keep the pace high enough so their teammate can stay near the front to avoid being swarmed if the pace slows.

Leadout

While this is the most obvious teammate strategy, it is actually the hardest to pull off.  Your teammate has to be prepared for true sacrifice right at the end of the race.  It also requires a teammate (or more) that are nearly fast enough to win the race themselves, since it requires setting a high pace as the finish nears.  It also requires the ability to position a rider (or riders) directly in contact with each other when the race is most dynamic.

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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6 Responses to Simple Team Tactics for Road Racing

  1. Mark Johnson says:

    Hi Russell: I enjoy your blog/tweets very much. Congrats on your recent 6′ effort workout. Out of
    curiousity, was that indoors or outdoors?

    • says:

      My 4×6′ Cruise intervals were not too amazing, but I was happy to have completed the workout according to plan. I averaged about 320w for the first few, and 344w for the fourth 6′ interval. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be able to hold 345w for the entire 50′ State TT in three months time.

      The workout was outdoors. (Workout Data: ) If you look closely, you’ll see the power (and especially speed) is highly variable. I don’t do too many indoor workouts, so I had to go quite a ways back but I did a very similar workout indoors on March 8th, 2011. (For comparison: )

  2. Ryan says:

    I find the biggest problem with team tactics is everybody says they want someone on the team to win, but not everyone is willing to give up their own result to make that happen. Its pretty hard to go to a race and say “I don’t care about my result” after months of training, but sometimes after you pull a long solo break and you get to see the faces of your chasers and they look like they are about ready to die is a feeling almost as good as winning (especially when you see them falling off the back when the intensity goes back up again.)

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Hi Russell: Thanks for your reply and as an “old age grouper” I appreciate your willingness to “share the details.”

      So, in your recent outdoor workout you averaged 327.25W for 4, 6 minute intervals. Approximately one year ago, you averaged 321.6W for 5, 6 minute intervals (1.75% less). So, the question is: if you repeated your recent workout, indoors, and with similar rest, what do you think the percentage delta would be? Bottom line, can you produce similar wattage indoors? If not, why do you think that is? Lastly, as a “local,” would you mind sharing the “stretch of road” that you conduct these 6’ intervals? My hunch is that it has a “slight grade?”

      As you said, in approximately 3 months your goal is to hold 345W for 50’, a 5.4% improvement in wattage, for 87% more time, (without “rest intervals”). What is your training strategy to accomplish this, e.g. increasing number of intervals, increasing power, or increasing duration, or some combination thereof? I guess, bottom line, what is your key weekly workout(s) that will help you achieve your TT goal?

      Lastly, you average cadence was 6% higher in your 2011 indoor workout compared to this year’s “outdoor” workout. Perhaps, in an upcoming posting you could write about cadence and your goal? Needless to say, your recent average of 98C , outdoors, is higher than my “goal” of 90C.

      Thanks again for your time!

      • says:

        I’ll try to approach each of your questions:

        An extra variable on this year vs last year’s workout is that the recent one was on my TT bike. I usually see 5-10% lower power on the TT bike, so that is an extra variable. Most of my wattage goal is based on last fall’s estimated FTP of 360w and a 5% reduction for the TT bike, which I think are achievable numbers.

        My power/HR ratio is about equal indoors, although my RPE is much, much higher. Keep in mind these were ‘Threshold’ Zone 4 intervals, not max effort for 6 minutes.

        The route for the TT workout was varied. The route was NB US 36 from North Boulder, with an effort up Nelson Rd, and one down St. Vrain (the last).

        My average cadence for hard, steady efforts on the flats tends to be just under 100 rpm. I think this tends to vary by rider, but generally I’ve found that higher cadences save your legs for harder, lower cadence efforts later in races.

        I’ve gotten a few questions about workout strategy for the state TT. I don’t have a complete plan yet myself, but I have some general principles. Expect a few posts detailing my plan in a few weeks time.

    • says:

      It is very hard to get an lower category team to make the sacrifices of certain team tactics.

      Your first option is to employ tactics that don’t require complete sacrifice, and leave the rider that stands to gain to a matter of luck (trading attacks, and dropping wheels, etc).

      Also, the issue can be helped by a team that pays/reimburses entry fees for all racers. While equipment and other discounts can seem more desirable for a team, if the budget is available, race entry reimbursement will encourage more racing and exposure for sponsors. Also, a racer is more likely to be willing to sacrifice a race for the team if their entry fee is coming from the team itself.

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