After completing his 3rd national-level US stage race ever, Jarret gives you all the tips and tricks you need for stage racing from his self-proclaimed "expert" status.
There's a lot of opinions out there on how to prepare, race, and recover from stage races, and for good reason. There's a certain allure of a stage race for most people as we all, for some inexplicable reason, always want to think of ourselves as "GC threats" because we first became aquainted with cycling from growing up watching a certain Texan win a certain stage race in France annually throughout our childhood.
After racing both the Redlands Bicycle Classic and the Joe Martin UCI stage races in the past month, I've now amassed all the experience that one can gain and will now proclaim my opinions as facts, many of which go against all the sage advice you read out on the internet about stage racing. Below are my fool-proof methods to help you survive the early season stage races in the United States.
Go All Out on Stage One
Almost everyone will tell you "You can't win the race on the first day, but you can lose it," most likely in a voice as if they made up the cliche. This advice is given in the spirit of conservative pacing, and with the thought that racing all-out day after day will catch up with you eventually.
This, of course, is ridiculous advice. First, you are invincible and fatigue is just an emotion, and OF COURSE you can win the stage race on the first day. Steve won stage one of Joe Martin this year and he won the race. I barely lost stage one of Redlands (that one second still haunts my dreams), and I didn't win the race by a LOT - all I got was one other measly podium. It doesn't take a Lefevere-level tactician to do the math for that equation. If anything, everyone else is going to be taking it easy, conserving energy on the first day. Cash all your energy in on day one, and you will be taking everyone by surprise.
Don't Work as a Team
We all know that teamwork in cycling is the foundation for individual success. In fact, on stage one of Joe Martin, the team worked incredibly well to get Steve and I in position before the final selective points of the race, where we then worked together, and Steve won the stage! This is a great thing, until you see Steve pulling on that yellow fleece on the podium, and then you realize:
We have to actually defend the yellow jersey tomorrow.
The naive out there might be thinking wearing the race leader's jersey is a good sign. Let me be the first to say, leading the race is NOT a good thing - you have to do things like ride in the wind, pace your leader back from mechanical problems, and there's an expectation for you to do dumb things like "honor the race" - which basically just means waste as much energy as possible. All of these things are in the exact opposite spirit of survival, and thus your teammate leading the race is the worst situation that could happen. The best way to prevent this scenario is to refuse to work as a team, ensuring none of you will actually get results.
Position Matters - Be at the Back
In "new racer advice" articles/forum threads, the unenlightened will inevitably mention:
Get to the front of the peloton and stay at the front of the peloton
What these ill-fated racers do not realize, is that the front of the peloton is where the actual bike racing happens, such as attacking to get in the break, riding to bring back the break, winning the actual bike race, etc. Ironically, all of these things make you less likely to survive the bike race in it's entirety. Stay at the back of the peloton to get as much draft as possible, ensure that you NEVER miss the grupetto on the hard days, and to be closest to all the snacks in the race caravan.
On climbs, most people advocate for "sag climbing", which entails starting a climb at the front of the group, riding easier than everyone else (who will be passing you on the climb), and to then latch on to the back of the pack as you crest the climb. Advocates of this strategy will say this allows you to go up the climb using less energy than the rest of the field, saving yourself for critical moments of the bike race.
However, what proponents of this strategy won't tell you is that being at the front of the field before a significant climb actually takes a lot of energy! All these self-proclaimed GC contenders are bumping elbows to take up the same ten spots that everyone wants to have in a frenzy that can only be equated to the lead-up to a sprint finish, if that sprint finish was made up of a ton of malnourished riders with sub-par bike handling who have never actually been in a sprint finish before. It's much better to sit at the back leading into the climb while all the riders up front are braking too much and death-gripping their bars out of an intense fear for their life, and "reverse sag" the climb to end up at the front of the field with all that energy you saved. This is also an optimal strategy to pick up all the KOMs on the race route.
Make it Worth Your While
Stage racing requires a lot more resources, time, energy, and fitness, and offers fewer prize money than other bike racing options, especially criteriums. This perverse cost to reward ratio necessitates some creativity if you desire longevity in your stage racing career. In my experience, there are a couple of ways to make it more likely you can afford the entry fee and travel to the next stage race.
Save everything for the time trial. Because this is, by definition, an individual effort, all that big time trial prize money you receive doesn't get diluted by splitting it with the rest of the team. If you're delusional enough to still be chasing a GC result by the time trial stage, then I guess this will help you too.
Merchandise primes are your friend. Similarly to the time trial, merchandise primes on criterium day aren't typically split with all those pesky teammates, generally because a half of a tire is almost useless. Thus, merchandise primes offer the most efficient way to ensure you're keeping the bike working after all those incessantly long road stages that wear down your equipment.
Get a thrifty director. Basically, you need someone in the feed zones who will scrap for other teams' discarded bottles so you leave with more than you came with. Water bottles are expensive and there's no need to buy that stuff when so many people willingly toss it aside.
Throw Logic and Tactics Out the Window
There's something about riding for long hours in a straight line that makes bike racers sometimes incapable of making rational, tactical decisions on the road. This is only amplified by most teams being used to having radios in their ear, which causes even further degradation of the pre-frontal cortex used for on-the-road decision making. Are you sitting on the break because there's a GC threat to your teammate's yellow jersey in it? Expect people to yell at you instead of the guy who is actual the reason you're trying to kill the breakaway in the first place. Is it in a team's best interest to help your team keep the race together? Don't expect any help - you're their competition! While annoying at first, if you've followed my advice up to this point you shouldn't actually have to use tactics, and you can use the backwards logic of others to your advantage by launching nonsensical attacks at the least opportune time.
This isn't a comprehensive survival guide, but it is a good start to getting your way through these early season stage races, especially when coming off a winter of riding on the trainer. 100% of the users of these principles (FIB Cycling, mainly) have achieved the following results in 2019 to date:
Three wins, six podiums, and eight top-five finishes on individual stages
A win, sixth place, and ninth place in the General Classification
A Mountains Classifications win
A distinct desire for criterium season to start
One mention in a tweet from Olive Garden
You can't argue with those numbers on the board, folks.