I've never been much of a bike racer. I may or may not have been born with any talent whatsoever, and I didn't learn how to train properly until I had a job and a family, and the opportunity to do so had passed. There was one summer when I owned a lovely, simple Bianchi and a brand new college degree but no job. I don't have a lot of regrets in life, but high up on the list, to the point where I'd happily go back and fix things, is the fact that I didn't spend about six hours a day on the bike. It was 1987, so I can't even blame "watching an epic Tour de France unfold". There was nothing to watch until Saturday afternoon highlights.
Still, I tried, and by trying I mean I trained enough to race, and when I raced, I attacked. I got fit enough for the short office park crits I was doing, and after a few of them I got bored sitting in the peloton, waiting for someone to do something. I knew I wasn't going to just ride the pack off my wheel, but by that post-college summer, my second one of regular racing, I knew when the pace would ramp up to the sprint. One morning my friend Steve and I hatched a plan: he had the better sprint, so I would give him a signal just before the final bell, at about 1km to go, and the two of us would launch. He could take my wheel until I had nothing left, then slingshot past me to the line. We waited, I signaled, we went... and I was alone. No Steve tucked on my wheel, but no anybody else either. I had a good five seconds on the peloton, maybe more (who knows?), and there was nothing left to do but finish the job or die trying. With no experience and no technique I'm sure I took shitty lines, overcooked my pace, and committed every other sin I could (not) think of, and sure enough the reaction caused one guy to take me on the line. But I got second, a couple bucks, and a hell of a good time.
My bottom-of-the-barrel amateur career isn't exactly the most informative data point in the sport, but cycling has a funny way of resembling itself up and down the food chain. At just about every level, attacking is fun, and changes things. When you have nothing to lose, attacking is a great idea. When you are set up to win from the pack, attacks are the wrench in your plans. Everyone should attack all the ...
Hang on, reality would like a word here. Attacking may be a beneficial strategy but not all attacks count as smart ones. The goal is to win, and burning your matches on long-range attacks only works if you have enough of them to get across the line. Otherwise, if an attack is sure to leave you gassed and off the back, and the peloton isn't going to respond to your move anyway, then what exactly is the point? To enjoy the sensation of riding out front for a few minutes, or seconds?
It's the age-old dilemma. How good are your chances of winning on the attack? Or by waiting for the finale? What do you have to lose?
Why Am I Writing This?
Attacking is almost sure to be the focal point of discussion in the upcoming Tour de France, given a general classification crowded (for now) with immense talent and a course unusually packed with strategically placed ascents. It could be a complete free-for-all, after which we will collectively and figuratively parade Christian Prudhomme up and down the Champs Elysées on our shoulders. Reality will probably intercede as crashes disrupt people's plans, and those still in contention will have to weigh their chances when deciding to attack or not. We will scream at out screens for them to do so, and at times they will comply, but not as much as we'd like.
That's why I'm convening this discussion. There is sure to be some debate about the nature of attacks in a Tour hell-bent on encouraging them as this one is. Let's chat, if you will, about how we should view those options, before the cards are played.
The State of Affairs
Anyone old enough to drink -- legally or not -- can remember a few of the bad old days of the early 2000s when we sat watching grand tours play out in as boring a way as possible. The bar was brought low by the Armstrong/Bruyneel strategy of burning the entire field off your wheel before accelerating alone. We (eventually) blamed doping, and sure enough that was a big part of Postal-Disco's plan, but the dominant team method predates 2000 and post-dates Armstrong's career, living on at Team Sky. EPO was a contributor to dull racing, but it cut both ways, also bequeathing us the most awe-inspiring attack of that whole sodden decade. [Say what you will about Floyd Landis, but at least he knew what to do with his special powers...]
The last several years have been hit or miss with regard to attacking -- about average, I'd say. The Froome and Wiggins Tour victories were mostly quiet affairs, though Nairo Quintana lit up the race for second in 2013. Last year's Tour was practically over in the first week, but only because Nibali tore the race apart with his bare hands. Evans won in 2011 not by attacking, but by remaining close enough to his rivals, who took turns launching heroic assaults. The Vuelta has usually been fun in recent years, while the Giro, for all our unconditional love, is a bit dull.
Nearly every race, apart from sprint stages, has the potential to ignite a debate on the state of attacking. We fans have an opinion, as do former racers on occasion, and it's usually to the effect that attacks are too infrequent. Maybe we don't all go the Full Hinault and call directeurs sportif "gigolos" directing dull tactics on their "game boys.". We just want to see a hard-fought race. But the more attacks, the more we enjoy it.
I Think I Want To Attack!
OK, so why do riders attack in the first place? I can think of a few reasons.
1. The Hopeless Long Range Attack
One would be to get attention. In cases where neither you nor your team have much hope of victory, you can at least get a mention or photo in the paper or show off your sponsor's name on TV by joining a break or taking off on your own. There are other reasons: maybe your boss is down on you for some reason and you want to prove your worth to the team. [Often your willingness to do so means your teammates don't have to, which is usually a good thing.] Maybe your contract is up soon. Maybe your confidence is low and you need to shake things up. No matter what your reason for taking off ostensibly may be, it also comes with just the slightest chance that you can actually win. Sure, the peloton will most likely reel you in, but sometimes things happen and a break is left up the road to take the spoils. Bad weather, crashes, etc. can disrupt the chase enough for you to have your moment in the sun. As they say in those lottery ads, you can't win if you don't play.
Another obvious reason would be to win intermediate prizes. Plenty of races, particularly stage races, have official prizes in the form of cash or points given out to the first rider to reach a spot on the course. Jerseys are often given out to points leaders in a variety of categories. Then there are the unofficial prizes, like winning your weight in butter by being the first rider to enter Belgium. The incentive to accelerate here speaks for itself.
2. Helping Your Team Play its Hand
Next would be in service of the team. If you think the peloton might collectively decide it's your team's responsibility to chase down breakaways, for whatever reason, you can spare your team that duty by joining the break and giving your mates a handy excuse of not wanting to chase down their own guy. More importantly, attacking is a way of knocking a rival team off its game plan. Teams harboring favorites tend to conservatively guard their star rider until he* is ready to launch. If you can threaten them to the point where they have to chase you down, you're making their day worse, and perhaps your team stands to gain as a result.
[* Or she. the realities of race dynamics know no gender.]
Some blend of these dynamics can be seen in the Quick Step strategy of launching Anyone But Boonen up the road in the last hour of the Tour of Flanders. It's why they prize guys like Terpstra and Stybar so highly, because they can win when they attack, which means other squads are forced to deal with them when they're on the move, leaving them helpless to stop Boonen in the end if it comes to that. It's a bit less common to see grand tour teams with two potential GC winners threatening the race, though it's one CSC played to perfection in 2008, when the Schlecks stressed out an isolated Cadel Evans regularly enough to wear him down prior to Carlos Sastre's race-winning attack. For every dramatic example like this, there are a dozen more times when a single stage has played out this way, or a team has worn down a rival's support riders to expose, if not directly attack, their lead guy.
It gets complicated at times, but the bottom line is, cycling is a team sport, and a team's collective strength is a huge asset, not just the strength of its presumed leader. If attacking can be employed to force them to race in a less comfortable way, it's worth your team's consideration.
3. Going for the Glory
The most important and memorable reason to attack is to win. For the same reason team tactics can play out as I described above, so too can the individual battles. If your rival is on his limit, attacking can push him over the edge. If he's riding comfortably, attacking can take him into discomfort. If you think he's probably stronger than you, why just sit there and let him do his thing?
And then there's my favorite: attacking now to get up the road where you will eventually be joined by your team captain in a glorious two-teammate assault on the race, your rivals, and history. Yeah, that was awesome.
I'm Not So Sure About This...
But for every positive reason, there's a countervailing reason not to take off. Or at least something to consider before hitting the gas.
1. The Hopeless Long Range Attack
Have you got the legs? A long-range attack will involve pacelining at a rate of speed equal to or faster than the peloton. Whether you are up for this kind of riding depends in part on what you think the chasing speed will be. If you're talking the opening weekend of the Tour de France, the answer is "very high" and your chance of success will no longer be the faintly hopeful 1% you had in mind. Worse still, if your breakmates are up to the task and you aren't, you're actually in their way and they will get angry with you. So choose wisely. In a three week race, tomorrow is another day.
Also, there are some pretty serious politics that go into the makeup of a breakaway. Sometimes the escapees are powerful enough to ditch the rules, or they take off in the first 30 seconds of the race when nobody is ready to stop them. But most of the time, a breakaway is permitted to succeed when the peloton collectively decides there is nobody up there to make them uncomfortable. I've never ridden in a team car, so I dunno, but I'd bet that the first hour of a grand tour stage involves some very fast and difficult decisionmaking by the DSs about who is where and what needs to happen next before the race can settle down. Anyway, if you want to attack, you should first consider what reaction your doing so will provoke from the pack.
2. Helping Your Team Play its Hand
Here again, you can't just say "let's attack!" as if it were the same as "let's go out for a beer!" It's only a choice if you have the legs. Where you are part of a potentially successful team strategy, as opposed to just looking for some attention, then your efforts have to be deployed sensibly. Sure, an acceleration by one of your guys may take their team out of their comfort zone, but if it hurts you more than them, what good have you done? If you could be of service later, you don't want to burn all your matches now.
3. Going for the Glory
Continuing the theme, have you got the legs? When it comes down to one-on-one, this is a relative assessment, and can be very tricky to make. Who has more in the tank? If you think it's you, attacking is a great idea, as long as it's not from too far out, or it's on a climb where you have no incentive vis-a-vis drafting. Basically, your choice is to go at the other guy's pace or yours. IF you think you have the legs. And if you're not sure?
Riders say this all the time when pressed on why they didn't attack: "I was on my limit." I'm not sure I could explain physiologically what a limit is or what happens when you go beyond it, but basically your legs fill up with pain. Lactic acid is part of the issue, or rather how to get rid of it once it gets into your quads and calves. Ultimately, if your job is to go from point A (where you are contemplating an attack) to point B (the line) as fast as possible, filling your legs up with pain will probably slow you down in the end. It also has implications for the subsequent stages, because recovering to race again gets harder when you're a big ol skin tube of pain, and if those stages matter to you as much or more as this one, then you have to make your decisions very carefully.
Riders know this, and they know themselves. WAAAAYYY better than we ever will. So I personally tend to give them the benefit of the doubt when they say they would have attacked if they could. Most of the time we are talking about the obvious -- it's stage 19 of the Tour and a guy is down on GC by three minutes. Should he attack? Golly, I dunno... maybe?! If you think that would help... Right. So second-guessing riders for not making Tour de France-winning attacks is 98% silliness.
Still, there is one more thing to consider here: pain. It's a physical sensation with a chemical explanation (oxygen, lactic acid, etc). But is that all it is? Or is the psychological component of suffering another factor that determines whether or not a guy can attack? Are some riders better at accepting the suffering and proceeding in the face of it than others? Almost certainly yes. But now you're talking about what's inside a person's head, and for us fans that's a gray area. (Nyuk nyuk.) "If [rider A] just had more guts he could win, but he doesn't." To speak in the negative here is to risk your credibility. Sometimes you can see a guy who clearly tortures himself and say s/he's got that extra bit of mental strength. [Nibali? Contador perhaps? Evans had it.] But to point at the guy who lost and accuse him of wussing out is another matter.
Anyway, I've tried to run through the ins and outs of attacking. I'll toss a couple questions out there. Do you think riders attack enough nowadays? Too much? Too little? Is there more to attacking than what's discussed above? Do you think this Tour course encourages more attacking or less? [Pure speculation, but I'm a fan of pure speculation.] Is there anything else we should think about ahead of time before we get into a debate during the Tour about who should have done what?