In road racing the size of the field plays an important role in the demands of the race. You can adjust your race tactics depending on the size of your field.
For more information on race tactics and training check out Ask a Cycling Coach Ep 257.
Small Fields Vs. Large Fields
Races come in all shapes and sizes. From local weekly criteriums to national events, fields can range from just a few riders to dozens of athletes. Because the size of a field can vary by so much it’s important to know how to implement appropriate tactics, whatever the size. Athletes can race more effectively in any race if they understand how behavior and tactical principles change, depending on field size.
A small field generally has between two and fifteen athletes racing together. Small fields are more likely to be composed of individuals and less likely to have teammates working together to protect a single rider.
In a small group there’s less collective horsepower, fewer athletes to draft behind, and fewer matches to burn among the group. It’s also more likely that you’re racing with a group of individuals and not a field with teams. With limited matches to burn and less opportunity to recover from attacks, small groups tend to ride more conservatively and attack less frequently. This decreases the margins for error when making attacks.
Racing with fewer athletes can also be more psychologically challenging. If you make an attack in a small field and that attack doesn’t stick, you don’t have a large group to drift back through, sit behind, and recover. It’s also a lot more visually obvious that you’re being dropped from that field. And with a lower chance of catching a draft it’s less likely you’ll be able to recover and hang onto the group.
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Take Calculated Risks
It can feel risky attacking in a small group, especially towards the end of a race. But the truth is, someone has to do it. If a field is composed of individuals each athlete is waiting for someone else to make an attack and bring the speed up. You might be waiting for someone else to make that attack, but you can’t forget that you also have an opportunity to attack.
In a small field attacking seems risky because you have less athletes to recover behind if your attack is overtaken. While the drafting problem is real its also important to remember that the speed of the group usually isn’t as high overall. If you’re feeling strong and you have the legs to do it, you may very well be able to hang on or catch up with the group after a failed attack. Making moves in a small group might feel extra risky but it’s not a guaranteed race-breaker.
Taking a calculated risk and using the element of surprise can serve to your advantage and might even result in a winning move. If your attack doesn’t stick and you can’t recover that’s okay too. It’s better to take risks, blow up, and learn something about yourself than to sit in and risk not learning anything.
A large field is going to have fifteen or more athletes racing together. Depending on the category of racing a large field can have more teams with teammates that are actively working to get a certain athlete across the finish line first.
With more collective engines racing together the average speed of a large field tends to be higher. Higher speed is tricky because it increases the cost of technical mistakes. Taking the wrong line, cornering slowly or sitting towards the back of the field costs more when the rest of the field is traveling fast. This is referred to as the accordion effect. Every mistake you make forces you to accelerate afterwards to keep up. Having to surge repeatedly is a waste of power and energy. The high speed of the race can also make it difficult to hold on after a failed attack. While you do have the added advantage of being able to drift back through the field after attacking, if you don’t catch a wheel and hang onto the group the high speed of the race can make it too difficult to grab back on.
The high speed of large groups gives athletes with strong bike handling skills an opportunity to shine. Because mistakes are made more apparent at higher speeds, so is good technique. An athlete that can sit in the front third of the group, and practice good cornering technique, line choices and drafting will be able to conserve energy and fitness while staying with the group.
Racing in a large group also gives you an opportunity to sit in and let other athletes do some work. If you’re racing with teams there may be team members actively trying to bring the speed up and attack off the front. If you can conserve energy riding in the front third of the field, you can hang around longer to implement your own race plan. The large group also gives you a greater margin for error when you want to make attacks. If your attack doesn’t stick you have a large field you can drift though and recover in. As long as you can maintain the speed of the group and hang on, you can try more attacks.
Differences Between the Men’s and Women’s Field
The difference between field tactics in men’s and women’s racing is slim to none. The same tactical principles that apply in large and small fields apply for both categories. What does tend to make tactics between the men’s and women’s fields different is the field size and the distance of the event. Most race directors will make the distance of the event shorter for the women’s field, and depending on the region, women’s fields can also be smaller. Making adjustments to tactics as an athlete racing in the women’s category usually comes down to adjusting for field size and distance.
There’s a lot going on when it comes to different dynamics for different field sizes. However, whether you’re in a large field or a small group the rules of etiquette and good sportsmanship are the same at every race. No matter who you are, where you are, or who you’re racing with, what flies and what doesn’t is almost always the same. It’s never okay to brake check, attack in the feed zone, engage in physical contact or cut other athletes off in a sprint. Knowing the rules of etiquette and abiding by these rules no matter the event is key to having a safe race. Commit the rules of etiquette to memory and you won’t have to think twice about it while you’re racing.
No two races are the same. Variables like the field size and the fitness of each individual athlete all play a part in the unique dynamics of the event. While you can’t necessarily prepare for all the quirks of each individual field, knowing the tactical principles that apply to small and large fields can help you make informed decisions while you’re racing.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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