Bicycle Racing and Ignorance

I once thought bicycle racing is all about physical strength, where the most macho-looking dude powers a bicycle to victory. No strategy involved. Thus, I hadn’t bothered to watch this sport. I quickly put a period to my conclusion of bicycle racing. And I couldn’t be further from the truth.

As I first picked up cycling somewhat seriously at the beginning of this year, I learned the one fact that made my mind do a 180 on seeing cycling as a strategic game: assume there are two identical persons riding their identical bicycles at the same speed, the person riding immediately behind needs less effort. This method is commonly referred to as drafting.

To explain simply, the rider in front will be a wind shield of sort, creating a wind vacuum that pulls the rider behind along. The faster the speed, the clearer the effect. The closer the two riders, the stronger the pull. If there are more than two riders drafting, only the one in front has to work hard. The only hard part is, since two cyclists ride so close to each other, longtitunally, they have to handle their bikes well and communicate effectively of obstacles or brake attempts.

I didn’t give this a lot of thought at first. Drafting simple serves as a cheat for me to ride behind and keep up with my stronger bike buddy. Until it comes flooding in to me when the dam of knowledge is cracked, then broken. As innocent as it were, my question were: “Wait, so in a race, when should I be in front, and when should I be in the back?”

“Good question! That’s the whole point!” – exclaimed my friend.

There can be a lot of variables from earlier in the race, so let’s approach this systematically backward from the finishing line. When there are two racers at the front, competing for the 1st place, a sprinter would prefer the position behind. This is so that he can save energy in his leg, get dragged along, and sprint pass the front rider near the finish line.

If a non-sprinter is competing for a 1st place with a sprinter, his best bet is to drop the sprinter long before the finish line, or at least maintain a good distance between them, so his competition cannot draft effectively. Thus, both of them have to put in the same effort and the sprinter might be too tired for a sprint at the end.

Yet, if two person have similar sprinting ability, either both are ept at this, or not at all, they would play cat and mouse, reluctant to do the work at the front, and look for a surprise attack to drop the other rider. Vocabulary: attack means putting in a hard effort to drop other riders, many times by surprise, so there is a significant distance between them and the drafting effect is minimum. Thus, they don’t have to pull the other along and both would have to put in efforts of their own. Watch these two guys stand off at the start line of a short race, not wanting to drag the other. [SPOLIERS] The Germany guy tucked behind to save energy and sprint pass the Russian guy at the end by a hair.

Interesting! So those are tactics at end of the race, what about before that?

If the whole peloton is still together at the front by the end of the race, it could be very chaotic. Vocabulary: peloton is the big main group of riders. Here, non-sprinter doesn’t stand a chance, sprinter can also be swarmed, blocked, and not able to execute their sprints effectively.

It is often more advantageous to be in a smaller breakaway group at the top.

A strong group of riders, ideally from 2-6, depending on how long the race remains and how strong they are, either in the same team or not, can work together to break away from the main group. This can happen in many ways by either riding consistently very hard to drop others, or by putting in an attack that some other selective strong riders can follow, or establish a solo/smaller breakaway where other riders choose to bridge across to work together.

How do people work together, then? In this waltzy fashion. See how the Aussies in green have their front rider peels off and join again at the back? That’s how cyclists distribute work at the front among each other.

What if other people don’t want to work in a small group? Identify this early to take action accordingly. We wouldn’t want to drag anyone to the finish line for free. Professional cyclists in races could choose not to work with each other if they don’t have the obligation to, or they don’t think it’s beneficial for them to be in this breakaway since they cannot deal with a strong sprinter in the breakaway group at the end of the race.

One option in these situations is to stop doing work altogether and let the breakaway fall back to the peloton. Another option is to establish another breakaway on top of this breakaway and possibly escape or force others to put in the work to chase you back.

Breakaway is desireable since it foces many others to do work as well, not just the only person at the front. A breakaway could either escape to the finish line, or force other people to chase it, burning their matches.

People could form teams, where winning prize is divided equally to create incentive for working together. Thus, if rider 1 of team A is in the leading breakaway, other riders from team A could look to counter the chase groups by just sitting on without doing any work. This is because they have no obligation to help the chase group as their teammate at the front will win the race for them. However, if the chase group catches up to the breakaway group, rider 2 or 3 of team A was effectively pulled to the top for free and could put in another attack immediately while other people are tired to form a new breakaway group at the top. On the other hand, if the chase group get demotivated due to riders of team A sitting on, that’s also good.

Phew! Ok, let’s stop right there! That’s the theory on paper. Real situations could change, as much as that is true in any real-time strategic game. Now you are equipped to enjoy this video. Or this, madskillz!

Well well well, isn’t that some roller coaster of knowledge! If bicycle racing is nothing like I once imagined, I wonder what else might not. This is a strong case on not to judge something on first glance, and hold opinions back until more knowledge on the topic is gathered. I shall attempt to do so more in the future.

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