There’s a lot more to road racing than simply getting out there and going as fast as you can. All teams in the professional peloton go into races with a clear pre-race strategy. This means it’s not good enough simply being or having the strongest rider – you need to get your tactics right too.
From choosing the right riders for the course, to having a plan for every scenario in the race, the right preparation and good cycling race tactics gives you the best chance of success.
Of course, even the best-laid plans can unravel if bad luck intervenes as it did for Wiggle-Honda in this year’s La Course by Le Tour de France. With one of the 13 laps of the Champs-Elysees to go, Jolien D’Hoore lost her lead-out rider Chloe Hosking to a puncture, meaning the Belgian had to settle for second in the biggest one-day race on the pro women’s calendar. Until that point, despite a number of crashes, all had been looking good for the British-based team.
Allocate roles and responsibilities
Although there's only one individual winner, cycling in races like La Course or the TdF itself is most definitely a team sport. As with any such activity, each member of the team must know their own particular roles and responsibilities, and know how that fits into the bigger picture of team tactics.
“Our directeur sportif split the team,” explained team owner Rochelle Gilmore, Wiggle-Honda team owner. “We had two sprinters – D’Hoore and Georgia Bronzini – with two leadout riders each. If Georgia wasn’t feeling good in the race then the plan was she would give her two lead-out riders to D’Hoore.
“Bronzini lost Amy Roberts very early to a crash and Emilia Fahlinalso crashed and spent most of the rest of the race chasing behind in the cars," Gilmore continued. "Nettie Edmondson and Hosking were doing a fantastic job for D’Hoore, and when she crashed early in the race Bronzini went to the front to try to control the race, basically sacrificing herself for D’Hoore, so I think in the end we delivered D’Hoore to the finish with a lap to go in really good condition.”
All was looking good, said Gilmore, until Hosking punctured on the last lap.
Ensuring each member of the team has a role, and knows what part they play in each scenario, can mean the difference between victory and defeat
"It left us isolated just at the most important part of the bike race. Given the situation that one rider [eventual winner Anna van der Breggen] had gone off the front of the peloton and had built a small gap we needed another rider to close it,” she went on.
“If Hosking was there she was going to hit the front with 350-400m to go, around the last chicane, and just ride as fast as she could. She probably would’ve caught van der Breggen just at the point D’Hoore would’ve started her sprint. But as it was, D’Hoore couldn’t do anything but stick to a normal sprinters’ plan and go with 200m to go to fight for second. If she’d she gone at 400/450 she would’ve died at the end and then others would’ve benefited and come off her.”
Choose the right riders for the course
While there’s no accounting for events beyond their control, the Wiggle-Honda team leave nothing to chance in their pre-race planning. It all starts with selecting the right riders for the job.
Each race course is different, so taking that into account is critical. For La Course, it's a criterium-syle race on a cobbled surface. There are also slight inclines on the course. Length, duration, topography, surface, all these factors and more will have an impact on which members of the team are selected for which roles.
Gilmore believes D’Hoore has all the right attributes for a race like La Course. “She’s from Belgium so she’s grown up on the cobbles. It’s also in her favour that it’s a tough race. It’s like a time trial in that you always have to be pushing on the pedals because the bike just doesn’t roll on the pave. Sprinters aren’t used to pushing on the pedals the whole time because they have their team around them and get pockets where they have no wind, which in most races gives them opportunities to just cruise and rest their legs.
“In La Course, because you have to work so much harder to get to the finish you have to sprint with fatigued legs, which together with the slightly uphill finish, makes it suited to a power sprinter like D’Hoore," she added. "Bronzini’s one of the fastest sprinters in the world but because she’s a zippy sprinter I don’t think this course suits her as much.”
Have a plan for each scenario and communicate
Having a strategy in place doesn't mean having one plan; it means having several. Work out the likely scenarios and develop tactics to deal with each and every one. That way, there are unlikely to be many surprises in the race.
The women’s pro peloton only use radios for World Cup races, which means every rider needs to know what to do in certain situations. “They have a couple of scenarios in their minds and they try to stick to the plan," said Gilmore. "They know from their position in the team and the roles they’re given that if a rider crashes who should go back and assist that rider. We saw yesterday when D’Hoore and Hosking crashed early on, Bronzini went straight to the front to talk to all her team-mates to let them know they needed to calm things and wait for them to get back on.
Sometimes, despite the best laid plans, Lady Luck can deal a hand that ultimately helps or hinders
“When a rider gets back to the peloton they go straight to their teammates to let them know they’re there. Everything’s finely planned pre-race but without race radios there’s still a lot of communication between the riders on the road and it’s only natural that sometimes they ride on instinct.”
Not much changes, even radios are on the agenda. “In World Cups they still have a really clear plan from our DS and we rarely deviate from that out on the road. The difference is, if there’s a breakaway, for example, they can ask do we chase this or leave it? The DS talks the whole time but it’s mainly about wind direction, which way the road turns up ahead, instructing someone to move up, or asking if they need drinks. But as far as team strategy goes our team doesn’t rely so much on the race radios.
“It’s a rare occasion that they’ll talk on the radio or come back to the car and say our plan’s not working, we need to try something else.”
Be aware of the strengths of other teams, but play to your own
Is it worth analysing your opponents and working out strategies to overcome them? This depends on the race and the course itself, but for the most part it's more important to focus on the strengths of your own team.
According to Gilmore, the Wiggle-Honda team don’t concern themselves too much with what the strategy of others might be. “It’s not a big a discussion in team meetings generally, but our DS will let our riders know what the other teams are really good at and he will at times mention that this team will have to do this and that’s why we’re not going to do that. We know the feeling of our riders, their legs, their mentality and their morale so we generally concentrate on what we’re doing or going to do and just ride to our strengths.”
Take time for post-event analysis
Learning from success and failure is important if you want to improve as a team, and each is as important as the other. Take the time to go over the race, dissect it, and work out what worked, what didn't work, why, and what could be done differently for the next race.
“There are races that we’ve won and done a lot wrong in, so it’s very productive to get in to a team meeting and say, ‘Hey, we were super lucky today because we did this wrong, this wrong and this wrong,’ so there will be heavy discussion after a race we win as well.”
Take all of these into account, and you put you and your team in the best possible position for success. However, even with the best laid plans, luck still plays a part.
“With races we lose due to misfortune like La Course there’s not really much to say," concluded Gilmore. "We had really bad luck. D’Hoore had the condition, the fitness, the speed and power to win – so all you can say is if things had been different we would’ve won.”