By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
In a year where nothing seems normal, it has been a welcome comfort to watch the Tour de France over the past three weeks. On top of being exciting, watching pro races is a great way for amateurs to learn about strategies and techniques you can use in your next group ride or race. The pros go faster, but the tactics that work in the pro peloton work anywhere. Here are some key takeaways for masters racers and riders over 50.
Don’t Pigeonhole Yourself as an Athlete
As athletes get older, extreme specialization becomes less effective. Perhaps less so in track cycling, but definitely in road cycling, where some younger riders fancy themselves as sprinters or climbing specialists. It’s not that 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound riders suddenly climb like mountain goats or that 5-foot-3, 135-pound riders suddenly develop explosive power. It’s that age generally dulls the sharp edges on both extremes. Sarcopenia gradually robs the bigger riders of muscle mass and some fast-twitch muscle fibers adapt to function more like slow-twitch fibers. The smaller riders gain some weight and lose some aerobic capacity (lower VO2 max) and see a decline in their power-to-weight ratio. In other words, age starts to level the playing field between riders, especially in the middle of the pack where riders were only slightly better suited to climbing vs. sprinting.
While it is important to play to your strengths, it is also good to approach racing with an open and opportunistic viewpoint. In the Tour de France this year, quite a few stages were won by opportunistic roleurs. Attack the climb, no matter your size. Go in the breakaway, even if it’s windy. Take a flyer with 3-kilometers to go instead of waiting for the sprint, or try your hand in the sprint instead of flogging yourself with a flyer. The differences between riders tend to narrow as we get older, meaning you may get better at aspects of cycling you weren’t great at 15 years ago, and you may not be as dominant in other areas.
Practice Descending Skills
I’ll be 60 years old this year (next month, actually) and I still love going downhill fast. I don’t take as many risks as I did in my 20s and 30s, but I’m comfortable with speed and confident in my judgement and skills. Tour de France commentators like to exclaim that riders are taking big risks on the descents, but most of the time the riders wouldn’t consider it particularly risky. They’ve normalized descending at that speed through years of practice, not the recklessness of youth. Older riders tend to prioritize safety over speed, because we have a different perspective on risk and consequences. But, despite decades of experience, many become overly cautious going downhill.
Getting to the summit of a climb should be the hard part, and the descent should be stress-free, fun, and free speed. If you’re anxious about descending or riding your brakes all the way down, it’s time for a skills clinic. Golfers take lessons, and so do skiers, even after decades in their respective sports. A refresher course on descending can do wonders for your confidence and comfort, which reduces stress. Increased speed isn’t even the goal; it’s a fun byproduct.
Don’t sit up
On Stage 7 of the 2020 Tour de France, crosswinds caused major splits in the peloton. At one point, after chasing for several kilometers, the second echelon came within 15 seconds of rejoining the front group. They were almost there, but didn’t make it and that was the last they saw of the front of the race. Later in the race, on Stage 12, Marc Hirschi jumped away from his breakaway companions and held a slim 8-10 second gap for a few kilometers on a climb. A lot of riders give up when they only have a small gap and it’s not growing. Hirschi kept the pressure on and eventually the gap opened–partly due to his descending skills–and he won the stage solo.
Whether you are trying to close a gap or pry one open, don’t give up too soon. If you’re in the front, make the chasers get all the way to you. The exception is making the judgement call to ease up slightly so you can integrate into the group as you get caught. If you’re in the back, keep the pressure on because you don’t know if the pace ahead will slow down. Whether a gap grows or comes back together often depends on decisions on both sides of the split, not just the power output of the person or pack in front.
It’s not how much power you have, but how much you have left
When you are watching critical moments in the Tour de France, it is hard to imagine how a rider can have so much power in the closing kilometers of a long stage, especially after weeks of racing. While there is no ‘easy’ place in the Tour peloton, what you’re not seeing are the steps riders take to do as little as possible whenever possible. Staying in the wheels, reading the wind, and anticipating places where the peloton is likely to split are important for minimizing wasted energy.
When it’s time to go, you want to have the strength to go full power for as long as you need to. Time to exhaustion is as important–if not more important–than peak power, particularly hours into a ride or race. Your peak 20-minute power might be 340 watts from a performance test, but can you reach or maintain that output with 3 hours of riding in your legs, or several days into a multi-day event? To have the most power for the time you really need it, you have to be as frugal as possible with your efforts everywhere else. Masters and 50+ riders often have the capacity for fewer repeated maximum efforts compared to younger riders, so you have to use your experience and wisdom to outfox the kids.