I was chatting with a client yesterday about his experiences in his first ever A4 race. The tale he recounted sounded more like the opening scene from the 1981 film Chariots of Fire than anything resembling a bike race.
As I’ve made my way through the sport I’ve been lucky enough to have raced with and against some phenomenal bike riders. I tried to learn a little something from each and every rider I respected. Their advice moulded me into the rider I have become.
I present the following not as a conclusive list but the humble learnings of an eternal student of the sport. It is my hope that the following advice will save you on dental bills this coming season.
We all want to be a winning bike rider but before you can get to the finish line with your hands in the air, you need to make sure you actually reach that line in one piece.
Tyres & Pressure
You have some important jobs to do before the race even starts.
You only have two contact points between your bike and the ground – your tyres. Make sure your tyres are suitable.
I see so many A4’s racing on hard rubber winter training tyres like Gatorskins. The properties that make these resilient winter training tyres are the same properties than make them slippy at speed in wet conditions.
My favourite tyres are Michelin Pro Race 3, 25mm. I had ateammatee back at Astellas who turned me onto these. He swore they were so grippy that he could “scrape his knees” going through corners in crits.
Also, ensure correct tyre pressure for the conditions and your weight (check out the YouTube Channel later in the week for a short video with more info on this). A lot of riders just “bang in” 120 – 140 PSI regardless of the prevailing weather & surface conditions. I remember learning this the hard way in the US. I was bouncing through corners during criteriums, running 130 PSI, while all my teammates were running under 80 PSI.
When you’re in a bunch you have a responsibility to others around you. A poorly maintained drive train is a very easy way to cause a pile up. A new chain used with an old cassette will skip and an old chain run on a new block will also skip. Try to match up the wear on both chain & cassette so they wear at an equal rate. If you have a set of race wheels which are seeing a lot less use than your training wheels you’ll likely have to replace your chain three or four times throughout the season. A simple check with a chain measurement tool will tell you when it’s time to replace the old one.
Language of the bunch
I’ve been lucky enough to race all over the world and while the language spoken from place to place is rarely the same, the language of the bunch is universal. It is your job to learn to speak the language of the bunch. A failure to become fluent can have disastrous consequences for you and others around you.
The language of the bunch is a system of hand signals and predictable movements, not loud screaming. Trade vocal & erratic for calmness & composure.
Loud screaming of “hole”, “car”, “stopping”, “standing”, “turning” or “diesel” causes panic further back the bunch and does nothing to tell where the actual danger is. “Hole left” is a shout I often hear in handicap races from A4’s but who’s left is it on?? Who shouted that? Panic, panic…..breaks pulled, boom, down we go!
Instead, point out obstructions with a move of the hand, the rider behind will return the courtesy and you’ll have a chain of riders quietly pointing out an obstruction without any drama.
When moving into a gap, first ensure there is actually space to move into. This involves lifting your head up (not staring at your front wheel) and checking to ensure there is adequate space for you to move into. Next give a little signal to let others know you’re moving in. This shouldn’t be a wild arm movement like you’re turning a corner on your morning commute – rather a neat movement of your hand without your hands leaving the handlebars.
When racing up a hill I often see A4’s getting into problems. When you get out of the saddle your bike shouldn’t thrust backwards. You can avoid this by not getting out of the saddle when the cranks are at the 6/12 o’clock positions. Also it’s useful to motion behind your back to let the rider behind know you are about to stand.
The bunch involves a lot of close proximity riding. On occasion your personal space and another riders personal space may intersect. If you feel contact with a fellow rider, don’t panic, you can lean into him/her for balance before moving back onto your line. Contact with another rider will not cause you to crash but panic will.
It can be hard to learn the language of the bunch in the abstract. Reading a blog ,while drinking coffee at your desk, won’t build the skills you need for survival in races. The best way to learn is to be mindful of these concepts and watch other, more experienced riders, put them into practise.
One of the best early pieces of advice I received was “watch the good lads”. It’s beautiful in its simplicity but more textured than I realised when I first heard it.
The “good lads” do everything for a reason. How they move in the bunch, when they drink, how they dress & when they accelerate. The next time you’re doing a handicap race park yourself on the rear wheel of one of the “good lads” and just watch. I learnt more stalking Ciaran Power’s rear wheel for two hours than I did in 100 hours of GCN videos.
An easy way to reduce your chances of crashing
Positioning in the bunch is a simple way to mitigate your chances of an accident. If you’re sitting 40th wheel and anyone on front you has an accident it is likely it’ll impact you. If you’re sitting top 10 you have a much smaller chance of being affected by the actions of others. In pro races we constantly see a fight for the front of the bunch – “to stay out of trouble”. Yet in domestic races you’ll be able to sit top 10 with no extra energy expenditure.
Many groups seem to go and come back immediately in A4 races. The failure of most breakaways is an organisational failure, not a horse power issue.
Once a group gets clear you immediately need to get organised. Determine which direction the wind is blowing from and form two lines. The line progressing should be moving up on the sheltered side with the regressing line providing that shelter.
The strongest riders in the break shouldn’t ride harder, they should take longer turns on the front. Conversely, just because you are weaker doesn’t mean you should ride through at a slower pace – you just need to take shorter turns.
Everyone in a breakaway should be working. Once riders start “sitting on” it becomes contagious and the break is often doomed.
It’s very easy to criticise the poor bike handling and high crash statistics in A4 races but it is, in my opinion, to be expected. A4 is an introductory category, designed to learn how to race bikes. Back when I was starting a rider would learn everything about racing from the local club spin. The recent demise of the group ride (I’ll do a blog on this next week) has a left an educational vacuum. Riders are now attempting to learn in an environment with greater repercussions when a mistake is made.
I would like to see as a precondition of holding an A1 license that each A1 rider should have to “mentor” a set number of A4 races per season. The A1 rider would ride in high vis and aim to be the role model that A4 racing is currently lacking.
I don’t propose the “mentor” idea as a conclusive solution but it would be my hope that it sparks a debate on how we can better equip beginner racers for the demands of bunch racing.