For all road racers trying to upgrade from the lower categories, there's one skill that takes precedence above all others: field sprinting. Outside of pro/1/2 races, the dynamic tends to be to such that everyone is willing to chase down attacks, but no one is willing to counter-attack or work with a break they bridge up to. It's a vicious cycle; most races end in field sprints so no one wants to attack or counter-attack for fear of being tired for the field sprint, thus, the race always ends in a field sprint. At the same time, no one wants to let any other riders get away, so the field will typically do just enough to chase down any attackers, put themselves back in contention and on par, then sit up again, rather than make themselve vulnerable by counter-attacking.
If field sprinting is your skill, this isn't much of an issue. You'll fly through the categories off your sprinting ability and get to the category 1/2 race sooner then your peers who might be as strong or stronger than you, but don't sprint as well. The 1/2 races then might be a shock, since there the attacks do get counter-attacked, and races end in a field sprint much less often. There you'll be forced to develop the rest of your abilities just to get into a winning position. You can't sprint for the win if you don't make it over the climb, into the breakaway, or to the end of the race.
I'd like to look at two scenarios: first is that perhaps you are this type of sprinter, but still have the fitness or ability to ride in the breakaway and want to be racing for wins regardless of the way the race comes down. In a second scenario, what if you aren't a sprinter, but you know the race will be a field sprint 99% of the time. How are you going to get results in that scenario so you can upgrade to the harder races where you can really show what you're capable of?
I've had many clients who fits the description in scenario 1. One in particular was a category 3 master at the time, who'd only been racing seriously for a few years, but had the talent and drive to become a category 2, and had made that his goal (which he acheived in one season). He had the luxury of relying on his field sprint for insurance, but had found that when he put all his eggs in that basket, it didn't always pay off. Here's a report of his from a hilly road race:
Man, am I disappointed. This is the best I've ever felt in a race. I warmed for 5 minutes all in easy then went to the line. I told myself to sit in and wait for the sprint. I went right to the front on the climb (which felt easy). One guy went off after lap 1 on the top and we let him go. He never got more than 55 seconds. Things stayed together for the next 5 laps and the time up before the finish I figured we would really pick it up. I was around 20th on the steep part but on the second climb I was right at the front 2nd or 3rd wheel with an attack and I looked back to see the field all single file. Everyone was breathing hard and I was feeling like I had plenty left. One guy slowly pulled away near the crest and I let him go. One more went another mile later, they never got together and we were just 10 seconds behind them. I was at the front and I started pulling aside to let someone else pull on the flats. No joke, I couldn't get any one of them to come around for 2 miles. It got to the point I was braking downhill. The 2 escapees were now out of sight but we were finally moving again. We caught one fairly quickly but the other one was gone. I sat right around 5th wheel on the run in and came up first over the rise in to the intersection. I was 2nd or 3rd into the climb and stayed there halfway up. With 100m to go I was dying. I lost 20 places on the last steep part. I was totally bummed. Kicking myself for not attacking with all I had on the last time up. Monday morning quarterbacking is easy but I think my chances are better in a small group than a pack sprint. Next weekend will be different; I know I'm one of the 2 or 3 strongest in the field and I'm not going to sit on the last lap.
What my client did right here was that he stuck to his plan. He previewed the course and the competition, considered his own abilities, and formulated a tactical approach that he felt would yield him the best results. He could have just as easily reacted to those attacking riders over the top of the hill on the last lap and been the one to spark a reaction from the field, setting himself up for getting caught with nothing left for the sprint.
On the other hand, what my client did wrong here was that he stuck to his plan. A tactical plan is always based on your best assumption of how the race might go. Quite often when you get there, you find that the race is going nothing like you expected. Your tactics have to change on the fly as you analyze each new situation you encounter, and the new information you're provided with. In this case, the finish line was at the top of a very steep 400-meter climb. Just long enough to nullify any normal flat field sprinting advantage my client might have had. At the same time, on the final lap his fitness allowed him to be at the front over the second, shallower half of the climb where crosswinds were also coming into play. The field was single-file and breathing hard, yet he felt comfortable and strong enough to attack. Clearly, this was a good opportunity, but one that ran against conventional wisdom about how the race would finish, and contrary to the plan he had laid out for himself.
With hindsight, I suggested that if he felt like the race was at a crisis point but he was comfortable, he should have given himself some freedom to race. If you're a sprinter, remember that you always have that ability as your insurance and final card to play. At some point you do have to draw the line and give yourself a cut off where, if there's no break or you haven't made the break, you change your tactics to focus 100% on the field sprint. It might be that with 10 miles to go in a road race or 10 laps to go in a criterium, you say, "ok, no more racing. From here in I'm trying to win the sprint, no matter what place it's for or who attacks between now and then." If you're not committed to the sprint at that point and are still making or following attacks, every match you light is one less you have for the sprint. It's important at some point to commit to one approach or the other, and that commitment could even come on lap 1. But that doesn't mean you have to pass up good opportunities that present themselves before that cut off point, if you decided to try and play the race from multiple angles.
In the next installment, we'll look at Scenario 2: what to do if you're not a sprinter, but you know the field sprint is what you're facing. How do you get results in that situation?