Monday, May 17, 2010

Protected rider

Even though an individual wins the race, bicycle racing is a team sport. Any race you watch*, you will see someone give his wheel to a teammate who’s had a flat or sit on the front blowing himself up trying to chase a break, knowing full well he won’t contend for the win as a result. The person receiving the wheel or comfortably sitting in the slipstream without taking a pull is the protected rider. This will typically be a General Classification (aka overall or GC) contender in stage races or a sprinter on a flat stage or one-day race.

*BikeSnobNYC has a great post today in which he mentions how much easier it’s become to be a cycling fan in the USA what with all the TV coverage these days. He also mentions missionaries on fixies and some slightly humorous albeit unoriginal Mormon stereotypes.

While this notion of an entire team working for one racer is typical of professional racing, it’s less characteristic of the amateur ranks. We tend to self-select races we’re well-suited to, and while there are basic rules such as not chasing a breakaway if a teammate is in it, we usually choose races in which we reasonably expect a good result and work towards that end.

At Saturday’s Bear Lake Classic, teammate Lance A. was there with the objective of getting 160km* worth of racing in his legs, and, not being a sprinter, figured he’d work for the team to try and set Scott P.** and me up if it came to that.

*As of today, I am doing away with any use of English units of measurement in this blog. SkiBikeJunkie is all metric, all the time. Seriously, how ridiculous is it that we insist on feet, inches, pounds, pints, and miles when the rest of the world has already made the switch? It’s not that hard to get used to (though I still have almost no frame of reference regarding what constitutes hot when the temperature is in Celsius). For instance, I don’t even think of bike parts in terms of pounds and ounces: it’s all grams. When talking about bikes, I’ve flipped the switch mentally. Ever buy a 2-liter bottle of diet coke? You’re used to it there, too. Wouldn’t be any great feat to do it for everything else we measure. Seems like while we were throwing stimulus money around on a bunch of useless crap that forcing a switch to the metric system would have been a good use for some of it.

**This is my Cat. 3 teammate Scott P. Not to be confused with my Cat. 4 teammate Scott P. who placed fourth in the Cat. 4 race on Saturday and now has enough points to upgrade. Man, that’s going to get confusing.

The race was two laps around Bear Lake. The first lap featured lots of attacks, none of which stuck. I was in two of them. One had about eight of us, apparently about one from each team. If there was a move that was going to work, I thought that was it. It wasn’t. I didn’t have the legs for too many more attempts, so I figured I could try to get in one more move or save it for the sprint. But probably not both.

There was a feed zone after lap one (more on this later), after which Scott, Lance, and I were all at the back of the field eating. A move went, and we weren’t in position to cover it. We figured it would get chased down like all the others.

But it didn’t. The field started chasing in earnest, reaching speeds of 50kph without making up ground*. Manny C. and Nick E. were in the move, and both of those guys can go, but I didn’t think they could hold us off for 60km.

*After Fabian Cancellara made his winning move at the Tour of Flanders, Tom Boonen said that he was chasing at 55kph and still losing ground. Now I almost know what that feels like. Except that Boonen was going 10% faster, and he was by himself. So I guess I really have no idea what it feels like to go 55kph trying to chase something down, except for maybe 10 seconds while trying to bridge to a break that’s not very far up the road. Seriously, the speeds the pros are capable of are ludicrous.

When we reached the north end of the lake, we took a right turn, heading east. The wind was coming from the south, across the lake with nothing to break it up, so it created a severe cross wind. Only when there’s no wind or a headwind is the ideal position immediately behind the rider in front of you. Usually slightly to one side or the other provides a little more protection. In a cross wind, the best tactic is to form an echelon.

Tangent: I learned when having dinner the other night with frequent commenter Kim and her husband that not all my readers are well-versed in cycling tactics. So we’re going to spend some time on drafting 101, specifically drafting tactics that can be used in a crosswind.

Drafting for those not familiar with cycling is somewhat analogous to the flight formations of geese. We’re all probably aware that geese fly in formation because it requires less effort than flying alone or as a haphazardly collected flock.

I won’t get into the downwash and upwash specifics and why, in the case of birds, a V works better than flying one in front of another, but basically similar principles hold true on a bicycle. Sharing the effort is critical in road racing and why team tactics are important. It’s also why if a protected rider has a mechanical, one or more teammates will drop back to help pace him back into the field.

In a cross wind, the ideal position is just to the leeward side and behind the rider in front of you. (In the photo above, if the wind were coming top to bottom, and the geese were cyclists, all the geese to the lead goose’s left would be in his or her draft.) Cyclists in a cross wind will form echelons, spreading across the road, to optimize drafting.


Knowing that an echelon is the most effective formation, the lead racer will sometimes position himself so that only a teammate will benefit from the echelon, not leaving room for anyone else on the leeward side. This tactic is known as guttering.


Guttering forces the racers trying to draft either into the gutter or off the road or over the yellow line, depending on whether there’s a gutter or not and whether the wind is coming left to right (into gutter) or right to left (over yellow line, and still eventually into gutter/off road). Crossing the yellow line is a big no-no in open course road racing.

Guttering can be used to great effect, most notably in last year’s Tour when HTC Columbia formed an echelon and put it in the gutter, forcing a break in the field that a guy named Lance was famously part of, while his teammate Alberto was not. Lance claims it was just smart racing; I think he got a tip from his buddy George.

We had echelons all over the road trying to deal with Saturday’s cross wind. At one point, I had a choice: join an echelon that was already over the yellow line and risk disqualification, or start a new one and risk being caught on the wrong side of a gap. I chose the former, hoping that they would consider the crosswind and wouldn’t DQ all of us, as I was in no way the only racer over the line. Alex evidently chose the latter and got caught on the wrong side of a gap.

It was in this cross wind that Drew N. and Greg R. from Logan Race Club attempted to bridge to Manny and Nick up the road. I was close enough to them when they made the move that I probably could have joined them. I didn’t know these guys (the LRC guys don’t race often, but when they do, they race well—I should have considered that), instead opting for the safety of numbers, expecting that working together we’d pull all of them back.

Teammate Lance did a great deal of work in the crosswind, then once we rounded the corner and were out of the crosswind, he turned it up a notch and chased hard. There are a few rolling hills on this portion of the course, which is otherwise completely flat. Someone yelled at Lance to take it easy on the fatties and not go so fast on the hills. Lance is about 190cm tall and weighs over 85 kilos. He’s one of the biggest racers in any event he enters, so it was quite ironic that the so-called big boys, all smaller than him, were begging him to take it easy.

Lance had a bit of help but not much*. He flogged himself like a borrowed mule trying to catch that break. I’d pull up next to him, and he’d sound like he was about to heave out a lung.

Me: “How you feeling?”
Lance: “Great. Tuck in behind me and stay out of the wind.”

Then he’d go up and take another pull.

*There were a couple of guys that worked really hard to help Lance pull it together, and a couple teams that did pretty much nothing. Scott tried to rally some of the other teams to help with the chase. One team came up only when asked. Another team claimed they had a man in the break so they wouldn’t have to work when in actual fact they did not.

With a little over 10k to go, I asked Lance at what point we concede that the break was not going to be caught. He said “about now” and finally eased up.

Shortly thereafter a red Audi went speeding past our field, pulled across our lane of traffic, then off the road. The driver jumped out, ran into the road, and started waving her arms. It was one of the USAC commissaires. She stopped us and began yelling at us about yellow line violations, telling us she had heard multiple complaints. She threatened to DQ the whole field but allowed us to proceed after we promised we’d police ourselves and stay on the right side of the road.

I was actually glad for the break. My legs felt good at this point, but I was thinking that I needed the pace to ease up just a little so I could recover enough for the sprint. I felt recovered. For a while.

Then with about 2k to go, my legs started cramping. First the inside of my left leg. Then my left quad. Then my right quad. It was bad. I was hoping I’d just pedal through it and be fine, but as we rounded the last corner on the finishing straight, the cramps hadn’t gone away. I knew there would be no real sprinting. I tried to go but was fighting to push my bike forward and to push against my cramped muscles. I still managed to finish somewhere around 15th, but I don’t think very many of the people behind me were contesting it.

The feed zone had no neutral support. I’ve got to think that dehydration was a factor in my cramps, as over a four hour race, I only had two bottles and the dregs of a third I begged from Scott. I was hoping for at least a neutral water handup or just a volunteer willing to hold out my musette bag. Nothing. So I had to tough it out. I can understand not having sufficient volunteers to do neutral support, but that should be made abundantly clear in the race bible.

To add insult to injury, there was one rider disqualified from the field: me. I have no idea why*. Perhaps a yellow line violation? I don’t know. If that was it, why just me and not the numerous others who had crossed over?

*If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say I was singled out for my comment about TJ’s dad at Tour of the Depot. TJ was in our field, and his dad was the race official following us. But I don’t think TJ’s dad reads my blog, nor do I even think he knows who I am. Nevertheless, does anyone else find it a little fishy for someone’s parent to be an official, capable of affecting the outcome, at an event where the kid is competing?

What I needed from this race was high-volume, high-intensity time on the bike. I got that. I shouldn’t be disappointed. Except that Rachel sacrificed so I could have the day away to race, and frankly treats me like the protected rider every day of every year with how nice she is about my bike racing and skiing addictions. Lance sacrificed to try and set me up at the end. It would have been nice to have a better result to show for their efforts. Sure there’s next time, but next time would require Rachel and Lance to sacrifice all over again. I guess all I can say is thank you.


  1. Good write up Mark. I always hated racing with TJ as I have never seen him take a pull. He tried pulling that crap on me in cross. Apparently he wanted to race for 15th position. I just slowed kept slowing down until I was doing about 2 mph oops 1kph, and said "this aint no free train kid take a pull."

    I think its fine to but weights and lengths in metric units, however, height in cm is a little retarded. Even VS. doesn't go to that extreme.

    Are you racing Sugar House Saturday?

  2. no yellow lines at soldier hollow.

  3. First off: awesome graphics. 1st class all the way.

    Second: They DQ’d you? Seriously? FWIW, I saw you clearly in the corner when you passed me; your line was the same as at least a dozen+ others.

    Yeah, I picked the right/wrong side, but I did a couple other dumb things right around then, so I wasn’t ticked off at anyone but myself. Afterward I caught up with Chris with Cole Sport. About 10 minutes later we caught another guy- a Canyon racer. By this time Chris and I were over it and having a good ride back. But the Canyon guy was all piss & vinegar, all wound up and going on about how he was registering a complaint, etc. He was damping our generally good karma, so we pushed it a bit in the rollers and left him behind. I wonder if he remembered a bib#, and it happened to be yours?

    I wasn't bummed about the race. I was bummed about the speeding ticket I picked up in Evanston...

  4. Dear Ski Bike Junkie (Mark ?),

    Congratulations on your decision to use the metric system ONLY. I know from extensive experience that you will never regret this decision.

    Here are two things you might find helpful.

    1 Don't use centimetres. Use millimetres for all bike measurements and you will never have to use fractions ever again; no decimals, and no common or vulgar fractions either. If you investigate you will find that designers and builders of bikes invariably use millimetres only. There is a long article (50 pages) at that gives the reason for this suggestion but, as I said, it's long.

    2 Learn some reference points such as:

    Hand width = 100 millimetres
    Long finger width = 20 mm
    Little finger nail width = 10 mm
    Hand span = 250 mm
    Elbow to tip of longest finger 500 mm

    These are figures that work for me, and I am sure that your own will be close to these.

    Others you might try are length of your shoe, length of your normal walking pace (750 mm for me), length of your stretched pace (1000 mm or 1 metre for me), and your height (1850 mm for me but I change this to 1.85 metres to calculate my body mass index).

    Good luck with your metric future. I am completely confident that you will not regret your decision.

    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia

  5. I enjoyed reading your race report, as usual. I get a sense of the drama due to your detailed yet concise descriptions. I get a fraction of the racing thrill without having to drive to Bear Lake.

    Indeed it seems fishy that you got the only DQ.

    Pat - The US was on the road o metric when I was a kid. I remember studying it in grade school. Then it fizzled, I'm not sure why, probably some special interest group. I'm still disappointed it didn't go through.

    We get some AFL on TV here and I see your Cats occasionally. What a wild game, sure fun to watch.

  6. Pat t cakes: I don't blame someone for not taking a pull. Unlike Mark T., I don't feel like anyone has a duty to be on the front. Lying about having a teammate in the break is a lame way to avoid going to the front, but apathy about chasing a break as a tactical decision can't be faulted. That said, it's incredibly annoying to have someone sitting your wheel without doing any work. I like your approach. And yes, I will most likely race Sugarhouse on Saturday.

    Stupidbike: Draper for sure and probably a healthy dose of Tuesday night races. Probably.

    Watcher: re: graphics, well I learned from the best. I shamelessly ripped off your double assist rolling race pee as a template for these ones. re: the ticket, well at least it was just a ticket and he didn't confiscate your contraband Boodles. I think the Logan route is a little faster, FWIW.

    Metrication: thanks for the tips. I'm using metric exclusively on this blog, but to coexist with other Americans, I'll need to continue using English units in real life. Thanks for the rules of thumb, though. Do you have one for temperature?

    Kris: Bear Lake was a long way to drive. Nevertheless, if you're ever thinking about it as a leisure trip, let me know. I could really use some help with a handup next time. :)

  7. OK, one point of clarification regarding duty on the front: if you're in a breakaway, then yes, you need to take a pull and do your share of the work. Or have a teammate willing to do double duty.

  8. Now that was a fantastic description of drafting. I still don't get it though. I'll go read it again.

    So do you and the Watcher go over graphic techniques while you're riding? It's as if you both should quit your day jobs and fabricate educational graphics full time.

  9. rabid - Junkie's description is very good, but let me try a different analogy to see if it helps:

    Air may not seem very substantial, but the faster you go the more energy it takes to plow through it. Imagine slowly wading through water verses running through it.

    In cycling the first rider has to plow through still air. But the guy just behind get to ride in his wake of swirling air which takes less energy to ride through. Like the eddy behind a rock in a stream. You can feel when you're in this pocket, both from the reduced air force hitting you and the less energy it takes to pedal.

    With a crosswind the air is hitting not only the front of the lead rider but also his side. This moves the eddy pocket to the side. if the wind is coming from the right, the pocket moves to the left. So to stay in the pocket you can't just ride directly behind, you need to go to the side. And the rider following you will also want to be behind and to the side. This creates the angled echelon riding formation.

    I must add that riding in a good paceline is one of the coolest aspects of road riding. It allows you to go considerably faster than you could alone. And when all the riders are doing their part so the paceline is smooth, it's a thing of beauty.

  10. Excellent. I suppose I was confused over how the formation would be different if the wind weer coming head on... Thanks for the clarification. (Water works every time, eh?)

  11. Thanks for your drafting for dummies post. I *think* I got some of it. I am pretty quick learner.

  12. Very informative post.

    I wonder if it takes roadies some period of time to develop a "feel" for the draft pocket? In my swimming days, I could definitely feel when I was going with the water or against it in my stroke, but water is tons more dense.

    On a bike at speed, even with other riders, I notice something, but it is not real obvious to me. Perhaps it takes hours of group riding to acclimate, and The few minutes per year that I ride in groups does not give enough experience.

  13. Dear Ski Bike Junky,

    For temperatures try this poem for degrees Celsius:

    Zero is freezing,
    10 is not.
    20 is pleasing,
    30 is hot.
    40 frying.
    50 dying.


    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia