Stage racing is a unique animal. There are very few sporting events that combine different disciplines or versions of their sport day after day, to award an overall winner. Decathlon comes to mind as one of the few parallels. But that very nature of it's appeal also contains its challenges. For many riders, these races are the peak of their season and their training has revolved around being at their best. For others, the races are primarily training, especially in the early season, or to peak for later events. And of course, some people climb well, some time trial well, and some sprint well, but everyone has to do everything. When you have such a discrepancy of goals and fitness levels within the same race, particularly over long, hilly courses like ones often encountered at these events, it's a guarantee that there will be some riders off the back on the more difficult stages.
I have often found myself as one of those riders. While getting dropped can be discouraging, it's important to keep things in perspective. You have to remind yourself why you're there in the first place, keep your own fitness level in mind, and stay focused on doing everything you can to complete the task at hand. I am often at stage races to train, and perhaps make it to the criterium stages, so getting to the finish line on the hillier days is always my primary goal. Sometimes luck plays a factor, too. One year at Redlands, already riding off the back and then suffering a broken chain, I ended up the Lanterne Rouge, or last rider on the road. There's a certain amount of pride to be had in being the last finisher, because it says that you plodded on in the face of adversity where so many riders threw in the towel. But many riders simply don't understand how to emotionally cope with this type of situation, how to survive it, and how in the end to turn it to your advantage.
The first task in any stage race (or any race, really) is to know your goals. That year at Redlands, training was of paramount importance. I was dropped very early on one day on one of the steepest climbs of the race, and my first instinct was to pack it in. I thought about why I was there, and decided I had to finish. If you quit, you can't race the next day. If you can't race the next day, then you obviously can't use the race for training. My new goal for the day became to simply make the time cut, and make an investment in my future results and fitness.
This is the situation where I feel many riders lack perseverance and tactical knowledge. If you're a sprinter who might need to survive a hilly stage to make it to the flat one where there's a chance for victory, making the time cut is an important tactic. For this to work properly, it requires a committed group of riders who understand the task at hand. To one younger rider in our group that year who repeatedly dropped us on the climbs, only to be caught by our "bus" later, I said, "trust me. I've been dropped in more races than you've started. If you want to get to the finish line and race tomorrow, you should stick with us."
It's important to understand that when you're in a group where the only goal is to make the time cut, you're no longer racing against each other. The bus is not a breakaway, even though it may look like one. You're not competing against the other riders in this group; you're united for a common cause--to make the time cut--and you need each other's help to accomplish that goal. Everyone has to work to the best of their ability and for mutual benefit.
That means no sitting on, but also no hard pulls, and no attacks on the climbs. If you can climb fast, then you should have stayed in the field in the first place, and even so, you'll go faster overall at this point by riding with the group. The point of the bus is to keep a steady, even, sustainable effort over the remainder of the race. To do this right, you have to go fast on the flats, but slow on the climbs, again, to keep the effort steady. It's also crucial to keep the group as large as possible, which means only climbing as fast as the slowest rider in the group, within reason. Taking 10 extra seconds to keep one more rider in the group might mean gaining 30 seconds back on the flats when that rider starts pulling through again. If someone is clearly not going to be able to hold the tempo, though, the group may have to leave them behind.
Attacking or pushing the pace on the climbs only splits the group up into small pieces, leaving everyone to work on their own to chase after the climb is over, and perhaps jeopardizing everyone's chance to get back to the field or make the time cut. Again, your goal is to keep the group as large as possible. If you're strong, take longer, not faster pulls, so you don't pop the other riders in the group who are willing to pull through if they can.
Etiquette is also important in the bus. If you're in a group that's close to getting back to the field after a climb and working hard together, don't attack the chase in a panic to try to get back on. If the group has worked hard and shared the load to get back into contention, taking advantage of that by jumping across, rather than taking a hard pull everyone can benefit from, is the quickest way to get a water bottle thrown at you. Ideally, there should always be a "bus driver", a more experienced rider who can manage the group like a shepherd, keeping everyone from going off the front or back of the group, and keeping things organized and on schedule to make the time cut.
The best motivation you can provide yourself with when you're off the back in a stage race is the next stage. Just because you're struggling one day, doesn't mean you should always head for the car. You can have a good ride in the crit, or be there for a teammate who might be doing well on the overall. If the team's counting on you to contribute, again, you can't do that from the sidelines. Employing some of these strategies for getting to the next stage won't just make you a better rider, it'll make you a more valuable teammate as well.