If you race, you should watch pro racing. There is a lot of insight to be gained from watching the strategy play out during a race. However, pro racing contrasts with most weekend warriors in a few important ways: Length (Long road/stage races vs criteriums), Team numbers (Often each team has nine riders), and willingness to sacrifice (It is a domestique’s job to work for the team, not themselves).
In this post I hope to give a few strategic tips to riders lining up for a race with only a teammate or two. Not all of the specific strategies below require complete sacrifice by anyone on the team (except the last one), so they can be used in lower category races where not everyone is prepared to completely sacrifice their own result.
First, each teammate will have to be prepared to let the cards fall where they may. You’re entering into an agreement to put the team’s result ahead of the individuals. Some of the tactics below favor a ‘team leader’, while others leave the results to chance. Second, don’t forget this basic rule: Don’t chase your own teammate. If you have a teammate up the road, or with a small gap, don’t contribute to the peloton’s effort.
Setting a false tempo
Just because you can’t chase your own teammate, doesn’t always mean you shouldn’t ever ride at the front. If you have someone in a breakaway or establishing a gap, it may be beneficial to ride at the front slightly slower than the group ahead. Riders behind may not realize a gap has formed, or may think the pace is high enough that they don’t need to come around you and chase.
This simple strategy uses a few riders to soften up the pack so an attack can get away. The weaker rider(s) attack a few times, and the strongest riders will chase them down. Once caught, another teammate counter attacks. After the aggressive chasers get tired, the strongest rider attacks, and hopefully nobody is interested in chasing.
Let Gaps Open
The pace is high and the pack is strung out single file (or nearly). Your teammate is in the top few positions and your are a few positions behind. Take stock of the mix of riders ahead, and if the composition is in favor of your teammate, slowly drop the wheel in front of you. If this is done when the pace is very high, the rider behind must make a choice to come around you and close the gap. If they do, they get more fatigued. If they don’t, the group ahead rides away. Letting the gap open going into a tight series of corners is an ideal way to make the gap harder to close down.
This tactic also fatigues riders on competing teams, even if the gaps are quickly closed.
If the race covers an exposed section of crosswind, a teammate or two can create a small echelon. Rather than spanning across the entire road, only leave enough room for the team, leaving everyone else riding in the gutter. All the team members need to be at the front, so coordination is required to pull this one off. A very advanced tactic on longer sections of crosswind is to rotate within the couple members of the team, making sure not to let any other riders into the rotation to keep the rest of the field in the gutter.
As a critical point in the race approaches (possibly the final lap of a criterium), a teammate moving up the field passes a team member, and eases slightly as they pass, or even gives them a quiet shout or a tap on the butt so they can catch their draft. The teammate gives them a free ride to the front of the peloton. Once in position, the rider can continue to ride at the front to keep the pace high enough so their teammate can stay near the front to avoid being swarmed if the pace slows.
While this is the most obvious teammate strategy, it is actually the hardest to pull off. Your teammate has to be prepared for true sacrifice right at the end of the race. It also requires a teammate (or more) that are nearly fast enough to win the race themselves, since it requires setting a high pace as the finish nears. It also requires the ability to position a rider (or riders) directly in contact with each other when the race is most dynamic.