A basic guide to cycle road racing tactics (or why Cav didn’t win this time around)

This post may be a day late, but given the events of today’s Olympic road race from a British point of view and especially given the basic and inaccurate nature of a lot of the resultant media coverage, I felt compelled to try and explain some nuances of the sport. I am only an enthusiastic fan, not a racer so emphasis is on the “basic”…

Olympic sports tend to be individual or team based and a simple case of going faster, longer or stronger. Road cycling is unique in being an individual medal event undertaken by teams. In a football match or a relay race the winning athletes all get a medal. In cycling only the first man/woman over the line gets gold.

So, firstly, a basic physics lesson. As a human powered sport where the cyclist will cruise at anywhere between 30-50km/h and peak at over 70km/h, wind plays a big part. It comes in two forms – the natural kind, which may be in the form of a tail, cross or headwind and the self-generated kind, or air resistance – the faster you go the more air you have to push out of your way, which takes more energy.

Therefore the crucial thing to realise is that much like motorsport, there is a distinct advantage to sitting in the slipstream of another rider. In fact by sitting on a wheel as it is known, you can expend 20-30% less energy than the man in the wind.

Now a physiology lesson. Much like Usain Bolt is a sprinter and Mo Farrah a distance runner you get different types of riders. Mark Cavendish is a fast-twitch muscle sprinter – the fastest one out there. He is built for short periods of massive power within the last few hundred meters of the race. However he has to get there and that is where the teamwork aspect comes in. He needs his team mates to do a number of jobs, but one very important one is to shield him from the wind and give him as easy a time as possible through to the point where he can do his job.

Other types of rider revel in riding into the wind, on the front – they have massive stamina and are known as Rouleurs. Ian Stannard is a prime example of one but in this context so were the rest of the GB team. They are used to chase down breakaways and to keep a high pace going to prevent them in the first place.

There are then a number of variables about the race itself:

  • One day or stage race? The Olympic road race is a one-day event. The Tour de France is 20 stages day after day. Therefore one day races see more balls-out racing, more breakaways and risk taking as you don’t have to worry about what is coming up in the next days.
  • Stage length. In the Tour de France a stage of over 200km is considered long. However the World Championship and Olympic road races are generally about 250km in length.
  • Team size. A regular race will see teams of eight. The Tour de France and other grand tours have nine. The Olympic road race allows up to five (the exact number per nation is decided by ranking during the season)
  • The course (or parcours). Is it hilly, rolling or flat? Different courses suit different riders. The London 2012 course involved a punishing nine ascents of Box Hill. It is a mere bump in the road for these pros, but tackled nine times it takes it’s toll. However after the hill comes a 50km flat run in to the finish. It is therefore a stage that encourages breakaways over the hill repeats, but offers promise for the sprinters that everything can come back together for a sprint finish.

So, the Olympic Road Race is a single day race which encourages aggressive riding. It is also long, and you don’t have as many team-mates as you are used to. The course is a bit of an enigma.

So, as a team of five, with the best sprinter in the world, Team GB set out their stall to get Cav to the finish for a bunch sprint. This meant that they had to work to get him there fresh, as well as policing the peloton and managing any breakaways. Essentially what they did to great success in Copenhagen in 2011 to get the World Championship, just with less men this time and a hillier course, as well as every other nation knowing exactly what the plan was. On paper a suicide mission, but when your sprinter is the World Champion who rarely fails to deliver, and he is backed up by the Tour de France winner, runner up, British national champion and one of the most experienced riders in the pro ranks, and with a backroom staff that are not known for leaving things to chance, you have to believe.

In a typical stage race the first hour or so will see a group attempting to form a breakaway. Normally this will be policed so that the breakaway will only be let go if it contains nobody of threat to the overall leader. Breakaways routinely gain a number of minutes on the peloton before being methodically reeled in to produce a bunch sprint. This chase down may be down to one team (of eight riders) or multiple teams who work together in the interests of producing a bunch sprint.

However a one-off race like the Olympic Road Race doesn’t follow norms. Today a breakaway formed and a decision had to be made whether to let it go or not. Not letting it go would involve expending energy in shutting it down. In Team GB’s case that would mean using energy they would need over the nine ascents of Box Hill, so the break was let go. Whilst it contained some good riders there was nobody seriously threatening in there early on.

In fact, the break came back to within three or so minutes after about four ascents of Box Hill. All the driving to bring it back had been done by Team GB with next to no assistance from any other teams. The other teams either had a man in the break, and therefore no incentive to work, or simply believed they could let GB do it all for them. The pace set by GB here had two goals: firstly to reel in the breakaway, but secondly to discourage further attacks by stringing out the main field and making them work just to stay with GB, let alone think of attacking.

Then more aggressive riders started to try to bridge across to the lead group. They had been comfortably sitting in the peloton doing no work and therefore had the legs to accelerate in front of GB. In theory however the effort to bridge across is high and would need to be paid back later.

Then on the ninth and final ascent of the hill one of the strongest riders in the peloton, Fabian Cancellara, attempted to bridge and took with him a small group of very strong riders. Suddenly the break had 20-30 riders of quality in it. The crucial fact here is that a small group needs to work extremely efficiently to stay away as each needs to take a turn in the wind more often. The larger a breakaway the higher their chances of success as they can expend less individual energy to stay away – they can work as a group as efficiently as the peloton behind them if they all co-operate for the greater good.

If there was a tactical error by GB here then it was at this point. However they could not necessarily work harder to bring the break back because there were only four of them so sending one up to the break would weaken the plan to ride for Cav. If they all went then they had to make sure Cav could stay with them. Whilst Froome, Stannard, Millar and Wiggins could have upped the pace and bridged themselves there is no guarantee that Cav could make it across with them – he’s not built for it. In some post-race interviews it has been hinted that Cav did actually have the legs at this point and that they possibly made the wrong call.

It is at this point that another difference between the Olympic race and regular season racing becomes apparent. In World Tour races teams are wired up with two-way radios to their Directeur Sportif in the team car. They can discuss tactics and make decisions with near perfect information and in real-time. In the Olympics race radios are not allowed so you are reliant on time gap information relayed by motorbikes or the officials. If you want to discuss tactics you need to go up and down the line, or even back to the car. The road captain (in team GB’s case David Millar) is absolutely key here, but it is simple fact that it takes longer to react to things that happen.

So, Team GB found themselves with 50km to go and a significant and strong breakaway group at 50-60 seconds up the road. The general rule of thumb is that you need 10km to pull back 1 minute of time so in theory everything should have been under control. However as discussed the Olympic road race, and this one in-particular is not subject to normal rules of thumb. So clear was Team GB’s strength they had been left to drive the peloton for nearly the whole race, which takes it’s toll as you are doing so much more work into the wind (well, everybody except Cav.) and you only have four riders to do it with. Secondly, the break was big enough that nearly every nation bar GB and Germany had at least one rider in it so the appetite for chasing down wasn’t one the peloton had. Finally, Germany as the one team who had a sprinter capable of challenging Cav in a bunch sprint in Greipel, seemed convinced that GB would be able to pull things back (again, lack of race radios may play a part here) so only made token efforts. Their main rouleur, Tony Martin, had also already dropped off the pace (he’d suffered injury in the Tour de France and would also be keeping focus on the forthcoming time-trial)

Thefore the rule of thumb was broken and the gap remained. Effectively Cav’s chances were already doomed at over 20km from the finish and the rest is a simple matter of record.

It is easy to use hindsight to say that there hasn’t been a bunch sprint in the past six Olympic road races, that GB should have had a Plan B and so on, but the truth is they used the resources available to them in the best possible way. It very, very nearly worked but because it didn’t it looked a lot worse than it was. The fact is, this is bike racing and it is unlike any other sport in this respect and that’s what makes it beautiful.

2 thoughts on “A basic guide to cycle road racing tactics (or why Cav didn’t win this time around)

  1. Good explanation, Aidy, and reflects what the commentators were saying on the BBC as the race was in progress. As the last circuit ended and the gap was about 55 seconds, they reckoned the game was up. Before then they were confident that Team GB could reel in the front group, but it changed quite suddenly when those riders went off from the peleton to join the front group.

  2. Thanks for this explanation. I suppose in the absence of team radio it was down to David Millar. Also, I cycled from Farnham to Box Hill and back on the day of the race. I can vouch for the fact that there was a significant SW wind blowing as it took me a lot more time and effort to get home than it did to get there. I think this was a significant factor in the breakaway being uncatchable as they were pushed back to London by the tailwind.

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