Race Tactics

By Matt McNamara

Most of us can recite some standard tactical acumen like putting your team on the front and driving to the finish for a big sprint victory, or getting in the break and then attacking out of it for a prestigious solo victory. What if you don’t have a team? What if you are new to racing and still figuring out how to apex a corner? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Do Your Homework
The first step in creating a realistic race plan is to understand just what it is that you are facing. Don’t roll up to your next event blind. Race reconnaissance can be broken into a couple of categories: strategic knowledge and tactical knowledge. Strategic knowledge includes things like your start time, race distance, and course layout.

With the internet and a variety of cool software and hardware options, there is no reason not to know the important details of the course. Strategic knowledge requires some work before the event, but can really pay off once you are at the race site. Ask teammates for information in the weeks ahead of your event. Take their advice with a grain of salt, however; a hill that may be a monster and absolutely needing a 34×25 for them may be OK for you with a 39×23, or vice versa! Search the internet for race reports or GPS files of the race course.

The next step in your strategic pre-race recon is to know the competition. Who won the race last year? Who is riding well in the other races so far this season? Are there any particular teams to watch or follow? Do breaks stay away or always get caught? Try to imagine different scenarios that might come up and have a plan for each. Have you raced the event before? If so, how did it go? What did you do right?

Once you get an idea of the competition, the course profile and the demands of each it’s time to take a deeper look at the course.

Pre Riding!
Pre Ride the course! This simple baseline is all too often ignored by stressed-out racers rushing to get ready in time. One of the easiest ways to derail your race is to miss the pre-ride. Ideally you can do a ride or two on the course before the main event. This is especially true for “A” level events where you have higher goals and expectations. Though this is tough to do for road races, it is well worth the effort if you have never done the race before. Where is the climb? How fast or technical is the descent? Are there areas where you can take advantage?

For criteriums pre-riding is a necessity. Get on the course between categories if possible and give the course a good once over. This is often banned by the organizers, but at the very least walk the course along the sidelines. Look for obstacles or potential hazards. Is there a seam down one side? Bumpy pavement or holes to avoid? Look for the fastest line into or out of corners. If you have the time, watch other categories. Is it faster to ride an inside or outside line into the final corner? During the pre-ride take a few moments to steel yourself to the task at hand. It’s a race, a fight. Be a warrior. Put yourself in the mindset to do well.

The Race
The first race is the one to the line. In most events being on the start line is not THE make or break for the race, but it is the first chance you have to establish yourself in the field and observe. It is very important to feel a part of the race. Your adrenaline will be pumping anyway so you might as well expend a little at the front rather than fighting from the back through all the corners. Normally I like to set up on the outside line for the first few corners. It’s a bit easier to keep your speed up and you can move around a bit easier.


Riding outside through the first corners may force you to ride farther, but it can help to avoid the squirrels on the inside and avoid the start/stop sprints that sap energy. After the first few laps and the pack thins out and maintains a steadier rhythm, it’s usually much easier and more efficient hitting the inside of the pack through corners.

Once you’ve established at the front it’s time to do some work to help keep the pace high. This will drop the weaker riders and also force strong riders stuck at the back to expend a lot of energy to get back to the front. A few weekends ago I mentored the Category 5’s at the Menlo Park GP. It was a fast course with a couple of tricky corners, but I was pleasantly surprised that the racers continued to rotate through and keep the speed high all the way to the finish. Rotating through in the pace-line is one of the most fundamental skills, but one which requires many hours to master. How hard you pull through and the transitions off the pull are subtle arts. You’ve likely seen a derivative of this before, but in the interest of awareness, here is the rotation:

The on/off paceline featuring constant rotation as soon as the lead rider’s (upper left) bottom bracket clears the front wheel of the “off” rider (upper right) is tremendously hard in effort but the fastest in speed. Especially in big fields, make sure you get back into the “on” or left line again before falling too far back, or else you’ll get trapped.

Tactically you can use the rotation to your advantage. If you are a solo rider don’t feel obligated to take monster pulls trying to keep the pace high. Instead start floating just off the paceline and watch the other riders. Who looks strong, who looks squirrely? Of course the caveat is that you gotta do your work! Don’t get a reputation as someone who won’t work at the front. Considering the fact that most criteriums are less than 45 – 60 minutes long, If you’ve done the training then you will have the fitness to contribute and still finish well.

Riding Corners
Without a doubt corners represent the biggest challenge to racers, all racers. Even if you’ve done hundreds of races every corner is its own experience. There are a myriad of lines in any corner and, unfortunately, the fastest line is sometimes elusive so you have to be flexible every time. That said let’s look at a couple of stereotypes – the inside and outside lines.

Inside lines are coveted. They are fast and seem to allow you to maintain position easily. Simply set your wheels inside the rider in front of you and stay smooth. Unfortunately, the ugly cousin to the inside line is diving the corner.

Diving the corner is usually a result of the field slowing and riders surging to get a better position. Said ‘Diver’ will run up the inside line and try to slot back into the field in the nick of time. Sounds easy, except that most riders simply charge to the corner, grab a handful of brakes, and then have to re-accelerate to maintain the hard fought positions. First, this will almost surely require more energy expenditure to maintain than simply staying smooth. Second, and perhaps more importantly, you will endanger and probably impede the riders around you with that technique.

Instead work on only taking the positions that are safe and open to you. You shouldn’t have to slow down much at all, and a big handful of brake lever is a clear indication that you’ve mis-judged the line.

Once you have taken that inside line you have to do something with it. Lots of times the inside line will open up on the exit and give you a straight shot at advancing or sprinting for the finish. Try different approaches to each corner on the course. Instead of trying to pass ten racers in a single corner take a more measured approach and pick off a rider or two each corner. Lay back, let some space open and accelerate into and through the corner. This will give you a nice head of steam coming out of the corner. The graphic below illustrates how to gain tactical advantage from the inside.


If done properly (and safely!), taking the inside line through a corner is the shortest distance and can let you keep the most momentum. Also, riders tend to naturally drift outside, adding to the gap you can create.

Then again, the outside line is also a place to make time. Outside lines usually close down if the course runs back to the outside curb, but not before you can pick up a place or two. Again, just lay back a little and carry more speed into and out of the corner. You have to set these things up throughout the race. Each time is a trial run for the last lap craziness that will surely come.

Racing is fun because there’s never only one template for success. Here a well-timed attack on the outside can be ideal, especially if the rider in front of you (white body with blue sleeves) can be used as a drafting slingshot.

Finishing It Off
Now that you’ve learned how to get and maintain position in the corners it’s time to put together your finishing push. As a solo rider you have ultimate responsibility for how you approach the finish. You have to be ‘in’ the race and willing to push yourself. You have to be willing to take the chances necessary to win, be that a late break of positioning for the field sprint. You have to be, pardon the phrase, master of your own domain. The rush is coming, you know the rush is coming. Instead of waiting and hoping to take charge someday, take the extra pull that keeps the pace high and the hounds at bay. Ride the outsides. Don’t get caught in the middle. Keep rotating forward. Look for riders going to the front and get a free ride. It’s easy. If you’ve been practicing moving around during the race it’s even easier! The great thing about racing is that there is always another one, another chance to perfect the art, another course that suits, another chance to grab the right wheel, or be the right wheel.


About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. This spring he is presenting a webinar series on the many varied aspects of race performance and preapartion. The next in the series, Individual Race Tactics, is this Wednesday, March 18th at 4pm PST. For more information or to sign up visit the company website. Sterling Sports Group is a growing company focused on creating a seamless interface between athlete and coach, technology and personal attention. Visit us online to learn more at www.sterlingwins.com.

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