By Scott Mercier,
US Olympian, Retired pro cyclist
Scott Mercier competed in the 1992 Olympic Games for Team USA and raced professionally for the Saturn, US Postal Service, and Navigators cycling teams. He will be contributing a monthly column for CTS, featuring stories from his cycling career and the triumphs and challenges of staying fit in the years since.
The tactical and technical cycling skills of the professional peloton are often overlooked by the casual observer. Tactical skills include knowing when and where to attack, how to position yourself in the peloton, and a general awareness of how a race might unfold. Technical skills, on the other hand, are the nuts and bolts of riding in a peloton. Successful professionals have both these skills in spades.
Learning the hard way
My ascent from a novice to the professional ranks was so rapid that I never learned these critical aspects of racing until I had been a pro for several years. In the lower ranks, I would just attack and nobody could follow. And I would almost always attack from the front.
Attacking from the front might work against inexperienced novices, but it rarely works in the pro peloton. There is no element of surprise when you attack from the front and you typically don’t have enough speed to open up a meaningful gap on the peloton before they can react. A pro will simply do a short sprint to close the gap and then sit on your wheel.
I clearly remember a stage at the now defunct Tour of Bisbee in 1992. I had gotten into a breakaway with several professional riders. One of them was Tour de France veteran Nate Dalberg. Nate told me I was riding strong and to keep doing my turns. I was thrilled to get this recognition from an international pro when I was a mere Category 2 rider. I was doing twice as much work as anyone else in the breakaway, and then Nate waxed me in the sprint. On the one hand, I was psyched with my 2nd place result. On the other hand, I was a dumb ox and got outclassed and outsmarted by a seasoned professional.
Gaining Tactical Skills
A big part of improving your tactical skills comes not just from experience, but also from doing your homework, by studying your competition, paying attention to the race bibles, and listening to more seasoned riders. One of my biggest wins was in the Tour of South Africa (Rapport Tour) and the final margin was just 12 seconds. Steve Bauer was our road captain and he guided me and our team to the win. Having a rider like Steve–and listening to his advice–was critical. I would not have beaten riders like Alexander Vinokourov and Jens Voigt without his guidance.
Studying your competition can also help improve your tactical savvy. In the Tour of Cape Town, one of my biggest threats was South African champion Andrew Mclean. Andrew had a tell where he would flap his arms when he was digging deep. I noticed this during one of the early stages and was able to that information to time an attack to win the race.
If you find yourself continually getting outfoxed, try to find a mentor who can help you learn to read a race. We spend hours and hours thinking about our weight and watts, both of which are vitally important. But if you know climbing isn’t your strength, it’s critical that you start any climb during a race at the front of the peloton. This gives you a chance to slowly drop toward the back. Maybe you’ll get to the top with the back of the pack, or maybe you’ll get dropped but stay close enough to the group to do a hard effort over the top to catch back on. If you start at the back, you’ll get dropped immediately and it will be difficult to catch the front group after the climb. These are the types of tactical gains that you can only get by experience, studying, and having a mentor.
Building Technical Skills
The technical aspects of racing are equally important, but often more painful to learn. And when I say painful, I mean painful as in crashing and skidding along the pavement. An example of the technical aspects is pedaling through corners. It takes time and practice, but you can actually pedal through most corners, particularly on flat roads and with modern pedals that have a lower profile and stack height. As the speeds get higher though, and you lean your bike over more in the corners, you’ll reach a point where won’t be able to pedal without striking it on the pavement. I learned this the hard way on a training ride early in my career. We were on a big group ride in the Malibu hills and we were riding hard; almost race style. I attacked on a descent and was pushing hard through the corners. In one of the turns, I accelerated too soon while I was in the apex of the corner and struck my pedal on the pavement. I almost kept my bike up, but I wiped out and must have slid 100 feet or more. Both sides of my body were covered in road rash.
Other examples of the technical aspect of racing include learning how and where to position yourself in the peloton, what to do if it’s raining, and especially paying attention to the wind. Windy days can be brutal. They are some of the most exciting days for me as a fan of the Tour de France but weren’t my favorite when I was racing. Crosswinds lead to echelons, and it’s not uncommon to see five or six different groups of riders spread across the road.
My first introduction to an echelon was during my first race as a professional. My team entered the Ruta Mexico, which was a 15-day stage race. It had big hitters, like Tour winner Laurent Fignon and World Champion Gianni Bugno. Stage 2 was windy and when the road turned, our nice tailwind became a wicked crosswind. Somehow, I found myself in the first echelon. But I had no idea what I was doing, so I got spit out the back. I got into the second echelon and after about five minutes got spit out the back of that group, and then the third… and fourth… I got spit out of every one. Eventually I was riding on my own and lost about 30 minutes to the lead group that day.
Most of us learned to ride a bike when we were kids. We ride for joy, health, commuting or dozens of other reasons. The tactical and technical skills for racing can take years to master but are worth the effort–even if you don’t plan on competing. The same skills that win races help conserve energy and stay safe in group rides. Those who learn to master both will find themselves in a position to compete for victory again and again.