Last race’s long breakaway got me thinking about some of the techniques used when riding in a small group. I am also racing a Team Time Trial this weekend where some of these techniques will be applicable.
The basic version of the technique is riding in a single or rotating . However, a situation like a breakaway in a criterium includes corners, ever-changing wind direction, and the constant reminder that your friends will soon become your adversaries.
On a technical course, unless the breakaway is quite large (perhaps > 10), then it will be best to negotiate the corners single-file. This will allow the group to take the ideal racing line and preserve as much speed as possible. This is one of the key advantages the break has over the chasing peloton, so keeping the speed high is very important. Riding in a single paceline is ideal, with the lead rider pulling off after a corner. Pedal through all corners if at all possible.
Okay, there are two rules here. The first is that if wind is significant, you should be pulling off the front into the wind. In a double paceline, this keeps the faster side of the paceline out of the wind, and evenly distributes the workload. In a single paceline, it allows the other riders a brief respite, but it is not as important.
Secondly, on a technical criterium course, the lead rider should pull off to the outside of the corner after a turn. There is always some acceleration out of the corners. The lead rider should maintain the maximum speed possible through the corner. Once the corner has been negotiated, simply accelerate slightly less and hold your line on the outside.
Third, a flick of the elbow (on the side you expect the following rider to come past) is the sign that you are done with your turn at the front.
In a double paceline, this is quite simple: just sit at the back in the draft between the rotating riders, and keep enough space so it is clear that you aren’t going to proceed with the riders moving up. In a single paceline, you will need to drop back when a rider pulls off the front to give them enough room to fall in line with the wheel you’ve been following.
Sitting on will be tolerated if it is an obvious team strategy, or if you are not a threat to the group. If you’re simply the most tired, then by all means sit on. You’re at no obligation to ride yourself into getting dropped. By obvious team strategy, perhaps your teammate is leading a close GC in a stage race. In the breakaway in a criterium, you may be allowed to sit on the break while the other riders race for time, and you can take the win at the end.
Sitting on the group, especially when you’re not tired, will dampen the mood of the group. If there seem to be too many ‘freeloaders’, the breakaway may not last for long. Why would the others ride so they can be beaten by the guy sitting at the back?
Sitting On – Advanced
At first, there is a time in the breakaway where it isn’t known why a rider is sitting on. As each rider finishes their pull, they’ll drift backwards, and see the gap the rider looking to sit on has left. The rider wishing to sit on can simple shake their head and gesture in front of them to indicate the gap is not an accident. They may even give a push on the butt/hip of the rider drifting back to let them know where they need to rejoin the rotating part of the group.
There is a countermeasure for someone sitting on. The rider drifting off the front of the single paceline pulls away and slows to get behind the last rider as usual. The guy sitting on leaves a gap, but the rotating rider keeps drifting back and the two of them now drop away from the break together. In this game of chicken, The rider sitting on will be left with a choice to be dropped from the break, or chase back. If the rider sitting on is tired, the rider who has been rotating can attack them and leave them without a draft to drag them back to the break.
“Flicking” – or Cracking the Whip
Another way to put pressure on a particular rider is to subtly accelerate after they have taken their turn at the front in a single paceline. Remember, the rider at the front pulls off and slows, but the rest of the break rides at a constant speed. In this case, they accelerate, and the rider drifting back slows at the same rate they have been after previous pulls. The last rider in line comes past sooner than normal, and at a faster speed. The rider that just pulled off will now have to accelerate more than usual to regain contact with the group, and may lose contact and waste a lot of energy if they’re not paying attention.
Hanging them out to dry
Another, more simple, technique is to simply not come around when the strongest, or most motivated rider in the break flicks his elbow. They stand to gain the most in the break, so they are likely to keep the pace high to serve their interests.
Wind and hills
Another subtlety is the effect of slight hills and winds. In a downhill into a headwind, the riders behind benefit greatly from the draft and can soft-pedal or coast. Uphill with a tailwind, all riders must work nearly equally to fight gravity. If you can time your turns so that you are at the front when the wind is weakest, you will use less energy than your mates in the break, and if you’re lucky, they won’t even notice what’s happening.