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How to Make Winning Look Easy: Team Edition

Teams and directors, amateur and professional, on any given day try to put assets into the break away and up the road as early in a race as possible.  From this strategic position many more opportunities and options are afforded those that have been successful with their aggression.

Southern California has been synonymous with fast and fun bike racing as long as I can remember.  It’s the land of sun and hard-nosed bike racers. This is where many great teams have originated and if one team can dominate a region as flush with talent as SoCal, it indicates a high likelihood of success when on the road.  The Williams brothers have been reunited on the newly minted Legion of Los Angeles team, and through April of the 2019 season the team has been nearly perfect in criteriums.

I’ve had the privilege of working with Justin and Cory since prior to the 2017 season and with that I’ve been granted more insight to race day happenings. Legion manages the pre and post race meetings in a unique manner typically found within professional teams.  However, that shouldn’t surprise any of us given that the majority of the team has raced professionally. The team discusses race strategy instead of tactics and they refer to roles and not rigid assignments. But most importantly, they are all willing to communicate and to teach one another good race-craft.

Part of learning race-craft is trying new strategies and really pushing the riders to learn how to win in different ways.  The general consensus from the peloton, fans, and media is that because the team has two great sprinters, they are a field sprinting outfit.  However, thus far in 2019 the majority of the team wins have came from small moves up the road. Statistically, they are a break away team. However, with two of the fastest sprinters in North America, Legion always has that tool to leverage.

So how do they do it?  For starters, let’s remind ourselves that while you don’t have to be the best to win on any given day, you still need to be one of the best to be in the conversation.  Legion of Los Angeles boasts a full squad of riders who are all likely in the top 20% of ability in the peloton on any given week. That means if there’s 100 starters, all 8 of their riders are within the 20 best.  That depth of quality of within the team is important and is also a minimum buy in for what they execute on a weekly basis. In short, fitness and ability are necessary but not sufficient for high level performances.  Fundamentally sound race-craft must also be executed.

So now let’s talk about the race I wanted to highlight.  This is the 4th installment of the California Bike Racing series and Cory is leading the omnium points and has won each race. Legion wants to use the race as practice for bigger, better events that are coming up so Justin gives the guys a task: the team wins from a break away where they are represented in advantageous numbers.  Seems complex, yet simple at the same time.

Legion will need to execute a strategy of systematic pressure throughout the relatively short race in order to achieve this goal. The short race means that they’ll need to implement the pressure from the very early part of the race with the anticipation that it will pay off in the last 20 minutes.  The fundamentals to applying systematic pressure are fairly simple, yet physically demanding.

Stay on the front foot and make the peloton react to the Legion game plan.  That means always having assets up the road being chased.  It prevents the team from needing to chase, saving riders for the next round of action while psychologically affecting the peloton as they are always on the back foot while they respond to pressure.

Spacing. The concept of riding with your team is relatively new in the evolution of the sport, and it has many places where it’s advantageous. This is not one of them.  When the race is on, the peloton behaves more like a swarm of bees reaching forward, only to be blown back by the wind. Moves don’t go from everywhere, but rather they always originate from a relatively stable place.  However, riders can get to that place from nearly anywhere which is why spacing is important. Ideally, a team will always have a rider in the right place to cover or initiate a move.

Efforts. Most of the efforts should fail.  If it was easy to get up the road and into the move, we would see it happen constantly. The opposite is the case. We know at the elite level it takes around 5 minutes at about 5.7 w/kg to create about 15 seconds of gap and we know that Source Endurance coaches have a number of race files that show this.  Those are big efforts and even if you do that sort of effort, it may not work. But to execute the team plan, Legion needs to pressure the peloton with as many of those type of efforts that the team can muster.

Fatigue. Elite level races typically don’t see any threatening break-away until after 1500kJ or 65 minutes.  Mostly, that’s because elite level athletes are just that. They don’t fatigue at the same rate as us “mere mortals” which is why nearly all races 75 minutes or less at the elite level will end in field sprints but races 80km or more can end in numerous ways.  The former simply isn’t long enough to develop anything while the later has enough time to fatigue the riders. This race was advertised as 90 minutes which meant that in order to establish a break, the 65 minutes of hard pressure has to start nearly immediately.

Commitment. Many bike racers are notoriously short sighted and easily lose focus when presented with a long term task.  As mentioned, the strategy Legion wanted to execute on this day meant that they would need to pressure the peloton from the beginning through the end of the 90 minute race.  That’s a long time and especially because it seems like even though execution is good, failure is imminent. However, after that 65 minute mark, things start to unravel and that’s when the commitment to the task begins to pay dividends.

Go for it. Once the pressure mounts and an opening presents itself, that’s when the race is 100% on.  From that point, a rider just has to ride… hard. This is the hard part as many riders do not recognize when it’s time to just go for it.

Fundamentals Applied.

Everything discussed so far is for naught if the athletes, and the teams are not given real examples to look at, critique, learn from and reference. Film study is being used more extensively for entertainment, but also for education. However complete analyzation of an entire team’s data is something only seen in a program with a centered coaching and physiology staff.  Examples being nearly all popular major American sports and some, not all World Tour Teams. Every now and then I’ve been able to work closely with a majority of the athletes on the same team and I can honestly say that while those teams have been under powered, they’ve performed at their maximum ability and I’m proud of all the athletes.

I’ve lined up Cory Williams, Justin Williams and Sean McElroy’s power files from the April 14, 2019 CBR Criterium. This comparison works exceptionally well on the CBR courses for a couple of reasons.  First, there are no defining course characteristics that are noteworthy except for the absence of course features. The result is that during the race you’re truly racing your competitors and not the course.  In the right context, this provides fantastic race-craft learning potential.

A bit about the chart: Power is in yellow, speed in blue. Also, I’ve highlighted the areas in red where a rider is actively engaged in racing or facilitating a positive outcome for the team. Green shows where the peloton was close to splintering and yellow shows when it finally did crack and the winning move got away.  That move consisted of “Field Sprinter” Cory Williams joining Sean McElroy on a bold 5 to go move that would leave the peloton without enough time to muster a chase.

So what do we see here?  To begin with each of these 3 athletes independently make decisions about when and how to use and apply their big efforts.  Obviously, burning energy for no reason is about as foolish as a solo or two man break away at Tulsa Tough so they use their matches when they make sense.  Also, they decide when, and how to burn a match.

There are a lot of engaged moves that have poor outcomes.  So how do you choose join the moves that lead to good outcomes?  Scroll back to the top and read again.

When the race goes hot and all three of these guys realize it, understand there is opportunity, and they all commit, the peloton is put under immense pressure.  Without a systematic answer to the pressure and after +80 minutes of fatigue, the peloton snaps. But the final piece was that Cory and Sean had to fully commit to making the move work.  Make note, had it failed, the entire narrative of the day and this article would be different. But it worked, they made it look brilliant, and Legion was touted as having an unbreakable hold on SoCal criterium racing.  

It was a perfect outcome for the break away, a perfect 4 in a row CBR wins for Cory and another W for the Legion of Los Angeles leaderboard.

About the Author: Adam Mills has raced at the elite level since 2002 and graduated with a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kansas in 2005. His true talent comes with his ability to combine his vast experience with his knowledge of sport. He is indeed a student of science, sport, athletic performance, strategy, and tactics. He continuously educates himself by keeping up to date with current research trends and methods in sport and his clients have reaped the benefits from this work with over 15 national championships in 10 disciplines on two continents. Adam is able to incorporate these attributes on a daily basis to help his clients reach and exceed their goals whether they are a beginner or a seasoned professional. Learn more about Adam and Source Endurance here.

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