Dropping in cycling


Watching the Tour of Flanders last weekend and then some highlights since, I’m fascinated by how some riders can take off alone after gaining what looks to be a relatively small bit of distance over a climb. Two examples would be Pogacar dropping van der Poel this weekend and Cancellara dropping Sagan in 2013. It’s not like they have anyone in front of them to catch their slipstream. Once they gain a few metres on a climb, these guys look unstoppable. What’s happening here?

In: 51

Leaving aside any potential “enhancements” that may be taking place behind the scenes, some days you just have another match or two to burn and your riding companion doesn’t. Cycling is nearly as much mental is physical; say these two guys are in their own breakaway – they’re both hurting, and both are pushing just as hard as they have to to hang with the other one. It’s also harder to bridge a gap than it is to stay with someone. So, rider A recognizes that rider B is hurting a lot, but rider A knows they still have some in the tank. They wait till an appropriate time – a kick up in incline, or when their opponent takes a drink of water – and then they make their move, putting a few bike lengths in. Rider B then has to get out of the saddle and sprint to catch up, but if they really don’t have anything left in the tank, they’re not going to make it. And since they were already “just hanging on” with rider A, now they’re discouraged as well because they’re spent. All motivation disappears as rider A disappears into the distance.

If you’re the 2nd rider in even a group of 2, the drafting effect of the rider in front reduces your workload by about 10-15%.

If you’re keeping up and resting and recovering, great, but the rider ahead thinks you’re barely hanging on at that reduced effort, then they sprint away enough to break the tow. Just 5 or 10 metres will do it… and now your same amount of effort is not enough to keep going at the speed you were at as you’ve lost the aerodynamic tow. So you either have to put in the additional 10-15% to maintain the speed you were doing, and then add another 10% to sprint on top of that to get back on their wheel, or you get left behind.

As soon as the lead rider sees you catch them up again, they ease off… they’ve tested you and see you have the capacity to spare right now (but maybe not later), but if they think you can’t catch them immediately, then they keep up that sustained speed for another 30 seconds or so to ensure the gap is large enough that the you can’t slipstream them.

Everyone is already “on their limit” when they are goign up a climb that late in a race. If you spend too much time at your limit, or if you cross your limit too much, your body essentially shuts everything down. No matter how hard you try, your legs literally do not have the ability to push harder because they are too full of lactic acid.

This is how they train. You have sprinters, climbers, all-rounders, and time trialists – and to a degree you have, unofficially, “descenders” who are really good at making up or gaining time downhill. What you really need to understand is that professional cyclists train an insane amount for base fitness that puts them on a crazy level compared to recreational cyclists. They then train for their specialties on top of that, reaching their threshold for lactic acid buildup and max power output.

I’m sure you know pros train with power meters, so they aren’t really looking at speed, just their sustained output. When you see someone take off from the front on a hill or on the flats in a breakaway, they are putting in *extra* effort that they have trained for without entering their max effort threshold. The difference in sustained wattage output is what separates all the disciplines. Sprinters max out in very short bursts, whereas climbers can go for a long time uphill at a threshold that would destroy others.

Cyclists train on the same mountain climbs in the off-season that they’ll encounter in grand tours, and they’ll ride the routes and come up with power plans with their teams for spring classics.

They are also very, very good at controlling power output, a 10-watt change in pace can put you in an advantageous position or burn you out. Younger riders recover better when on the bike and tend to make exciting moves like breakaways and climbing attacks.

All pros have to train for mountains, so most pros are actually good at it – they may hate it and they may finish far behind the leaders, but you and I would not be able to climb a grand tour mountain stage within the pro time limit even if we trained all year for it. A lot of pros drop out in the mountains – usually sprinters, first-timers, and anyone with an injury or illness. When you see two leaders dueling it out on a climb, one of them inevitably has some advantage – better output or endurance – and will try to make the other break. Attacks on climbs are difficult and responding to them is a chore, and often as not, the rider with the advantage is the one with patience and experience who is waiting for the other to break – there have been races where both climbers have slowed to a crawl because they didn’t want to be the one to attack. There are also instances of riders giving it everything and pulling out a miracle. And there are instances of favorites just blowing up and limping to the top. It’s all a matter of power output and endurance, and it makes for a hell of a show.

Breakaways at the top of a climb are a classic move. You may now be going into a downhill where bike control takes precedence over top speed, or where gravity somewhat compensates for air resistance so the fact that you are on you own is less of a burden than it would be on flat land. Also if you are in fact in better shape than them, it’s not ideal to make the extra effort to lose them on a climb, as it doesn’t buy much distance, so waiting til you are at the top to show what you’ve still got in the tank, you is a better strategy.