One of the most important lessons in tactics that I teach my athletes is how to use their strength wisely by being patient. I had to learn this lesson the hard way, because when I started out, I had a much better engine (a holdover from college running) than I had a head on my shoulders. I won the Minnesota cat 3 rider of the year off all podiums without a single win in the series. Several hundred races later, I now rely on tactics to beat riders who are more fit. Patience is a strategy in bike racing and other endurance sports like like running and XC skiing.
In cycling and endurance sports, it only counts if you are the best at the very end of the race, i.e. who crosses the line first. With the exception of primes in crit racing, cycling is about saving your energy to use at the precise moment when it will win you the race.
In road racing, we have seen time and again that the patient cyclist who only puts in one attack ends up being the decisive the winner. Last year in the Vuelta, Chris Horner won on the final mountain stage even when Vincenzo Nibali appeared to be riding away from him on the lower slopes. Horner simply rode a steady pace, reeled in his foe, and then turned the screws to drop Nibali late on the climb.
I had an athlete who was consistently just off the podium for the early part of the season, until he got sick. The day he had a cold, he raced more conservatively and wound up on the podium. The lesson was that being sick and patient was better than being fit and overly aggressive.
In cyclocross, Sven Nys is the master of playing the waiting game. Younger rivals like Niels Albert and Lars Van Der Haar are known for their repeated attacks, and last year, for lots of podium places behind Nys. Being patient allows to him see the cards that the other athletes will show. Even in the pro ranks, riders with good legs will attack more just because they feel good. By making sure he is always near the front, Nys can wait for others to make a mistake or burn themselves out, and then capitalize on it. Additionally, he rides from the first position through technical sections to ensure that he has a clean line and can carry his momentum well, keeping his effort level in check, so that he only has to make one decisive attack.
Last year in one of the TTTâ€™s I did, I was part of a mashup of riders from 4 different teams. Some of us had never ridden together. The first part of the course was hilliest, and we held back and learned to rotate with each other. We noticed that we had lost around a minute to our minute team at the halfway point. However, because we had been holding back and focusing on keeping a tight formation, we able to pull back the minute and another 30 seconds in the final 8K to win the race. By keeping riders under their limit for most of the race, and especially on the early climbs, we were able to take make a difference when our adversaries were tiring.
Patience is seen in running as well the form of running the negative split for the 1500M to marathon length races. Most world records and amateur PRâ€™s in running are set with negative pacing. You might recall when Steve Prefontaine failed to medal in the Olympic 10K even though the crowd was excited to see him take the lead early in the race.
Why does this work?
My collegiate cross country coach explained it the best: you want to minimize the time that you are working hard. By introducing fatigue earlier in an effort from going too hard, subsequent efforts of the same level have a higher perceived exertion. This means that even if you maintain a consistent intensity, it feels harder, and your body will choose to slow down. If you want working harder to actually equate to going faster, you have to wait longer to burn your matches.
Think about a friend or teammate of yours who attacks all the time and then blows up – share this with them and help them win their next race!