Last weekend 21-year-old CTS Athlete Greg Daniel won the USPRO Road Race National Championship with a perfectly timed acceleration less than two kilometers from the finish line. Since then nearly every news story about the race has called it a surprise victory and noted there were stronger favorites in the final group of 10 riders. To give Greg due credit, his win wasn’t a surprise. His strength, great racing instincts, and willingness to risk losing in order to win are well known. Here’s what the rest of that lead group, and all amateur competitors, can learn from the new national champion.
If You Never Attack, You Never Learn
Greg Daniel attacks all the time. No one in the US pro peloton is surprised to see him in a breakaway, whether it’s the daylong escape or a last-minute flyer. Most of the time those breakaways don’t succeed, but every one of them is an important learning experience. Every breakaway and every race situation is different, and spending more time off the front, both solo and in groups of various sizes and compositions, teaches a rider how to manage his effort, how to work out the tactics inherent in creating success out of a breakaway, and eventually how to win.[blog_promo promo_categories=”coaching” ids=”” /]
In an interview published on cyclingtips.com, Greg said he sensed the moment to attack because he felt the pace in the lead group starting to wane. He knew that the two lead groups had just come together, with heavily favored riders coming up from behind to join the group he was in. He knew he didn’t want to go to the line in a 10-man sprint. He knew it would be a mistake to let the favorites who had just made a big effort to join the front group recover their strength. Experience enabled him to process that information and make a race-winning decision without hesitating to overthink it, and he gained that experience by getting into breakaways over and over again.
Put Yourself in Position to Win, Then Worry About Actually Winning
Race day tactics are always a Catch-22. When they work in your favor you look brilliant; when they fail you look like an idiot. One of the hardest decisions to make is whether to expend energy now or save it for later. Should you work to ride across a gap and potentially burn energy you might need for a race-winning kick, or wait where you are and hope the groups come back together? There’s no perfect answer, which is part of what we love about bike racing in the first place!
The final laps of the USPRO National Championship road race were hectic and confusing. No race radios were allowed, so riders couldn’t get minute-by-minute updates on gaps or the positions of rivals and teammates. It was a long (187 kilometers) race on a hot and humid North Carolina afternoon, so everyone was suffering from varying levels of fatigue, heat stress, and dehydration. In that scenario, preconceived notions of who is strongest go out the window. At the front of the race groups formed and split and reformed several times, and every time Greg had the wherewithal to stay in a winnable position. Did he burn energy to do that? You bet. Could he have lost the race by expending that energy? Absolutely. But doing that got him to the bottom of the final climb in a group of the only 10 riders left with a chance to win the race.[blog_promo promo_categories=”camp” ids=”” /]
The idea I have long tried to convey to racers, however, is that if you want to win you first have to make sure you put yourself in a position to win. You have to make the lead group on the road, be in the top 5 coming out of the final corner of the criterium, and fight your way toward the front of the field in a cyclocross or mountain bike race. Worry about that first. Learn how to get there consistently, because it is only from that position that you can learn how to make the decisions and take the actions that result in victory.
If You’re Strong, Work
Watching the final laps of the USPRO race, I wondered if Greg was doing too much work. Every time the pace started to slack he went to front, but he didn’t look head and shoulders stronger than the other riders in his group. Everyone looked tired, yet he kept driving it. In the past, that eagerness to work has been his undoing, so it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption that maybe he was burning his last matches too soon. Hindsight being 20/20, his choices look brilliant (see above) because he won, and working to keep the pace high may have prevented the chase group from rejoining the front on the descent or flats leading into the final climb, thereby depriving them of a chance to catch their breath and recover.[blog_promo promo_categories=”bucket list” ids=”” /]
The amount of work you should do in a breakaway or lead group is always a judgment call. You don’t want to do so much that you get dropped or have nothing left for the finale, but you want to do enough that your group stays away, and that you’re making the race harder for the chasers. And at some point, you also want to do enough work to make the race harder for your compatriots in the breakaway so they have less strength for the finale, too.
If the post-race interviews and tweets are any indication, Greg used his strength with great wisdom. Nearly every rider from the final 10-man selection noted that there was no “letting him go”. Greg had the power and acumen to accelerate at the right time. He was the strongest when it counted and he is the new National Champion. Congratulations to Greg, and a big shout out to his coach, Jim Lehman, and longtime supporters Alex Gillett and Groove Auto!
Have a Great Weekend,
CEO/Head Coach of CTS