I’ve been perplexed for the last couple years about the way that the Pro teams ride in formation during road races here in the United States. And now in criteriums. I’ve discussed the practice with a few other knowledgeable riders and they say it is good bicycle race tactics. I can understand the practice when there is a chance that they will need the combined power and shelter of their whole team. Cross winds in road races. Positioning leading up to a selection part of the race such as cobbles or leading up to a climb. But, protecting your position when the field is JRA (just riding around) seems stupid to me. And a waste of energy. I haven’t had anyone explain it to me in in such a way that makes any sense.
Now this is being done in criteriums. And other crazy “tactics” that are dangerous. And break the rules of the sport. I think I’ve explained this before. The “tactic” of protecting the race leader in a criterium during a stage race. The leading team puts all of its riders at the front and rides tempo. That is pretty understandable. But, the new evolution is that the “Pro” teams ride the race on the inside of the course. And not at race speed. They ride the inside of the course at a couple mph slower than the race would normally be going. This causes a huge bunching of the riders behind the team that is leading. When the riders in the bunch, individually decide they need to keep their position in the corner and start to move up, the team leading swings radically across the road to the outside to negotiate the corner and then back to the inside of the course. This careening across the course effectively hooks the whole field at every corner. This makes it an interval session behind the team that is leading. Full on power, then full on brakes. It is very dangerous and nerve racking. Plus it is technically illegal according to the rules.* The only explanation for this tactic is that it allows the leading team to ride slower than they normally would at the front.
The Bissell “Pro” team road this way at all three criteriums during Nature Valley. The problem for them was that Tom Zirbel, their race leader, wasn’t able to stay at the front on the back of the train, so he rode each race white knuckled, like the rest of the field, 50 guys back. If they would have just ridden at full speed on the outside of the course, Tom could of sat at the back of their train and no one would of bothered him. He would of been much more rested and safer. Isn’t that a big priority of the team aspect? Protecting your race leader. They were just putting the race leader in a much more dangerous situation. Plus, it makes for some boring-ass criterium spectating for the crowds. Big one hour TTT. What a great way grow the fan base.
This “tactic” used to only be used during the leadout the last few laps of a criterium. I think the first time I can remember it is maybe at the end of the Saturn team era. Healthnet perfected it. Now, everyone does the same thing. I guess the reason that none of the pro teams complain is that when/if they get into the situation of having to protect a race lead during a stage race, they want the option of using it. And they all do it for their leadouts if they can control the last couple laps.
Another criterium discussion. I’ve verbally received a fair amount of shit in a couple criteriums this past month from a couple different guys. Michael Creed, Team Type 1, and I had a pretty long conversation during the Uptown Criterium during Nature Valley about me moving up on the outside up against the curb. We’ve known each other for quite a while and it was just a discussion, nothing more. He said that I was the worst at it. I said I was the best at it. He said it was uncalled for. That I had enough power/strength, that I could move up when it was more open in the wind. My question – why move up in the wind, using energy, when I can move up coasting, using no energy. This wasn’t diving the inside of a corner. It was coasting around the outside of corners and on straight sections up against the curb. I don’t get the problem with passing riders on the outside of corner. Actually, I’m a pretty big proponent of passing on the inside of corner if there is room. But, giving someone shit for passing on the outside is just nuts. It shouldn’t even bother anyone. If there is any danger, the only person at danger is the rider doing it.
I know that at the speeds that some of these races are going nowadays, it is nice to have a little bit of space around you. Riding at the edge of the field sometimes allows this space. Sometimes. But, if you leave too much space on the edge, it is completely fair, in my opinion, to use this space . In a criterium, the course is from curb to curb. Not 3 feet from the curb to 3 feet from the curb. I do realize that when someone passes me when I’m not expecting it, it sometimes scares me. But, there is eventually a point when every rider gets scared. Riding in the rain for example. If I can go through a corner at 30 mph in the rain and it scares the guys behind me, then they have a choice. Go through the corner slower or follow me through the corner and hope that I am riding the correct speed.
Moving up through the field is another issue. I think every rider has a obligation to try to ride in a safe manner. The main responsibility of this is that they don’t make radical/abrupt motions. Either left to right. Or sudden braking. It always happens eventually in a criterium. Usually towards the end of the race. But during the majority of the race, each rider needs try to keep these to a minimum. I move around the field a lot. I admit it. I try the left side of the course. Then the right the next lap. I move up on the side, through the middle, anywhere that it isn’t dangerous. And, I realize that is my opinion of what dangerous is. If it scares someone, that doesn’t make it dangerous. Not even close. If you abide by the non abrupt motion rule, then most everything else is okay in my book. As a rider, you need to have the ability to move around the field if you want to be effective during the race. Whether you’re riding on your own or for a team. I think I move around the field pretty effectively. I might scare some guys, but that is their personal issue.
But, the new way that is replacing just good bike handling skills is the hands off the bars hip tap/push. Every race guys are taking their hands off the bars all the time. They justify it by saying it is a way to tell the guy beside them that they are there. Or worse, to make a hole for themselves to move up or keep “their” position. The “I’m just telling the guy I’m there” explanation is stupid. If you have enough time to take your hand off the bars and tap their hip, you have enough time to pull your brakes. And if telling the guy is the reason, then just tell the guy. You are about 3 feet from his ear. The pushing to make a hole is just wrong and illegal.**
I had a talk with Nick Frey, collegiate Division 2 Road Champion, ex U-23 TT National Champion and Princeton University graduate, about it. I like and respect Nick. I said something to him during the race about using his hands. Nothing major, just a tap. He used the “just letting the guy know I’m there” rational. I told him that there isn’t a circumstance where it is acceptable. He doesn’t realize that he is making the race less safe. For him and everyone else. Say he hits a crack or pothole with his hand off the bars. Not good. Say the guy is on his right and starts to move over on him. The reason is because the guy next to him is moving over and the guy next to that guy is moving over. He only has use of his left brake (front). Not a good thing. So, he decides to not let the guy come over any further. The reason the “pack” works is because it is fluid. If you stop it from being fluid by physically stopping the movement, then it screws up the whole field. The guy 3 riders over from him could have an issue because the movement wasn’t allowed to develop. The morphing of a pack of cyclists is super cool. The close proximity that the riders can attain is something that baffles the general public. (And sometimes the riders.) This can’t happen if this hand checking/pushing keeps happening.
Racing The Tour of the America’s Dairyland Race this past weekend was so refreshing. I was so used to riding the criteriums at Joe Martin or Nature Valley with the stupid tempo riding. Waterloo was so nice. A race, going fast, in line. Cornering at speed without getting jammed up by riders on both sides. I’m not sure how you stop something that has become common practice. There are not officials in the field, so the pushing thing is going to be hard to stop. I haven’t heard of a case in the US where a rider was disqualified for pushing. And I see it dozens of times a race. The tempo riding deal is different. The problem is the officials don’t have the ability to understand what is happening. And when informed of it, don’t have the incentive to enforce the rules. No one is really complaining publicly. This is an official public complaint. If you’re an official that officiated a NRC stage race, feel free to comment or contact me.
*1Q6. No rider may make an abrupt motion so as to
interfere with the forward progress of another rider, either
intentionally or by accident [relegation or disqualification;
possible 20 days suspension if a crash results].
**1Q8. Pushing or pulling among riders is prohibited in all
races except the Madison and then only between members of
the same team. No rider may hold back or pull an opponent
by any part of his or her clothing, equipment or body
[relegation or disqualification].