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How to win get your first win at a bike race

A demonstration of how to do it. Greg LeMond wins the 1989 World Championship Road race in the rain despite a broken front spoke.

How to win get your first win at a bike race 12/20 2013 by Pieter Van Pietersen

Once you start riding your bike further and faster it is human nature to want to race. You want to know how you measure up against the local competition and before you know it you've entered a race.

You may not win your first race but very soon you will be thinking about how you can win. Here are some tips about how to get that first win.

Winning at any sport is a joyous occasion. Certainly in bike racing you are more likely to lose than win, which makes a win even sweeter. The next day you will wake up with a smile on your face, knowing that you confounded the efforts of 100 other guys.

Winning a bike race is not an easy task. Even finishing a bike race is an accomplishment. Racing is a big step up from Sportive riding due to the surges in pace. Riders are well trained, have excellent bicycles and are mentally up for smashing their competitors. However they are often going about the task in the wrong way and will fail to win. These tips will drastically increase your chances of winning a bicycle race.

By the way, doing Strava is not racing as there are too many unknown variables such as group riding, wind direction and air temperature. A proper race - time trial, MTB or road race - will give you an honest result.

It is about crossing the line first
This is easily forgotten but is the most important point. You have to get your wheel over the line first. That means that everyone else has to be behind you, so at some point you will have to put your nose into the wind and be in the lead. Too many riders forget this, and always stay in the slipstream of another rider, trying to save their energy. Meanwhile breakaways are going up the road, or sprints are being lost as the rider was too far back. They sit there watching these things happen, and finish the race saying 'bad luck, I'll try again next week.'

Don't get caught up in all the side issues, just focus on crossing the line first.

Don't forget that it is a race
Riders will often forget the point of the race, which is to beat everyone else, and instead look at heart rate and power statistics or say they are there for training. Rather than concentrate on the job at hand, which is to get over the line first, they will pour over their data, looking for improvements in fitness. New record for one minute power output? It is useful to know, but doesn't matter in terms of being the winner.

Related to this, riders will forget the point of the race and will be happy to just participate. They may be in great shape, actually get in a breakaway but will be happy to roll in last of their group. They were happy to just be there. The difference between winning and being there is small. The job is only complete once the line has been crossed. You should be thinking about winning all the way until that point, otherwise you have given up.

Most races are won in a sprint, so train it.
The chance of a lone breakaway succeeding is slim. In lower level races, you will be relentlessly chased and at higher levels the fitness difference between the riders is too small to expect to be able to power away. Despite this, there are a huge proportion of racers who do not train their sprint.

The most likely outcome for a race will either be a bunch sprint or a sprint from a breakaway. You may think that you are awful at sprinting, but you can improve. There are numerous ways of doing that which are discussed elsewhere, but the upshot is that you should make time at least once a week to work on your sprint. You may not ever get fast enough to win a sprint with 50 guys, but you will be able to beat a group of five. Bear in mind that while peak power is important, so is two minute power as a sprint normally consists of several bursts before the line. In that final two minutes you will need to be able to perform 10-20 second surges followed by quick recovery with enough left in the tank to lay down your available power in the last 200m.

What I see a lot is strong triathletes or guys who train hard in the group rides who can beast it in the race, but sit up and get swamped in the sprint. They are not thinking about getting over the line first. They are just riding hard to show that they are strong. Meanwhile everyone behind is getting a comfortable ride to the finish. You should rethink your tactics, or what is the point of being in the race?

If you would like some numbers to work off, then you will need to output about 16W/kg for 15 seconds to win a lower level bunch sprint. This equates to about a maximal speed of 30-35mph/50-55kph (males).

To win at professional level, including at Grand Tours, you need about 17-18W/kg for around 10-17 seconds. This data are presented at

Mark Cavendish puts out about 21W/kg to hit 37-43mph/60-70kph, but remember that is also after over four hours of riding with a final hour at 30mph/50kph.

If you work on your sprint, you have the tools to win, otherwise you will just be an also ran.

Practice winning
Lots of cyclists will train hard. They will ride plenty of miles and do plenty of intervals, but how often do they practice being first across the line? They might go on a group ride once a week, but not participate in the final group sprint. Even if they did, that would only be one sprint per week.

You may hear commentators saying that such and such a rider has come from a track background so he knows how to handle himself in the sprint. The reason for this is because track racing presents many opportunities to practice winning. You learn how to jump at just the right moment, when to shelter, how to rest, to feel for a lull, how to efficiently close a gap, to notice when others need a little bit more recovery.

To simulate winning, try getting a few mates together and doing mini races, perhaps 2 miles. Some will be flat out, others will be slower and more tactical. But in this way you can practice different strategies, learn about your body and importantly feel what is needed to get across the line first.

You need to program your mind to win too. Everything happens too quickly in a race, so you need to think about it in advance. When the sprint kicks off, you don't want to be thinking about what are you going to do - you need to already know what you are going to do.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the race. Where do you want to be positioned in the road before the final corners? What will you do if someone attacks from the left or right? Consider all the scenarios, including being on second wheel with 100m to go, then coming round that rider for the win. Your body will do what your mind tells it.

The fittest rider often doesn't win, but you still have to be fit
I've seen this written many times, the point being that a smart rider can beat a strong rider. Whilst that may be true, if your fitness is in the bottom half of the field, then you are not going to win no matter how smartly you ride. Furthermore it is usually the case that the winner will be one of the fittest 5 riders in the race. Fitness may mean the fastest sprinter or the guy who can climb the fastest, depending on the race.

It therefore follows that in order to win you will need to get fit. Sorry, there are no shortcuts here except for the very talented among us. You will need to ride your bike and train your sustainable cruising power and sprint. You then be in a condition to win at the end of the race, rather than being exhausted.

To look at the numbers, you will need to look at being able to sustain 4W/kg for one hour (This being your Functional Threshold Power, or FTP), and 6W/kg for two minutes in order to win a lower level race. If you can't do that, then keep training.

Example: 155lb/ 70kg male needs to be able to sustain 280W for 1 hour and 420W for 2 minutes, 1100W peak sprint power to have the firepower to win.

Choose your race
Consider which races you are suited to you. If you are heavy, i.e. male over 200lb/90kg then a finish up a steep hill won't be ideal. In fact if you weigh over 200lb/90kg, then avoid races with hills altogether. Go for a flat circuit race or time trial. Races for beginners are usually held on such circuits anyway so that helps. (Note Fabian Cancellara weighs 81kg).

You will also be more likely to win a race that is for beginners, as most of them won't be very fit or will not be aware of tactics. There are always a few riders in a beginners' race who are very fit, so these are the guys you have to watch out for.

Winning will also be a confidence booster, which will tend to improve future performances.

Position is as important as having the horse power available. Let's imagine you are one of the top 10 fittest guys in the race. Imagine a typical circuit race where the final corner is 200m from the finish line. You need to get around that corner in the top three positions, preferably position two. Your sprint power may only be 1000W for ten seconds, but they guy with 1200W won't be able to get past you from fifth position. Having a three bike length advantage around that corner means that he won't have enough runway to win. In this way, bike racing is similar to motor racing, where smooth cornering and positioning play a greater role than pure power.

The trick of course, is to get to the corner in second place, and that's where final two minute power comes in, as you'll need to do mini sprints in order to get into position.

It is ideal to visit the circuit at a quiet time, such as early one morning. Practice the important corners. How is the camber? Where is the apex? Is the width of the road the same on entry and exit? What protection is there from the wind? Are there potholes or cats eyes? How fast can the corner be taken? What gears will you need? Mark Cavendish will practice a corner over and over again in order to be able to nail it.

Take a risk to win
By taking a risk to win, this does not mean pushing through a small gap. It means taking a tactical risk. You might be in a group of ten riders near the finish. If your sprint is average, you could consider attacking the group as you probably won't win the sprint. You will either solo to a victory or get caught and come last. (Incidentally, don't be the first to attack in this situation. Wait for a few attacks to be caught then commit.)

I know riders who either win or come last. It is better of course to win occasionally than never at all.

Some riders become expert at not taking risks. They'll conserve energy, stay on the wheels, probably miss most breaks, and will finish high up in the following bunch. But they won't be winning.

The winner will take a risk. He won't be afraid to try to break away. He might get caught in the final mile/kilometre and get overtaken by the entire field, but at least he tried and put himself in a position to win. Sometimes it'll work and sometimes not. Remember, bicycle racing is not like a running race or triathlon where the strongest wins. In a bike race you need to attack and get a gap at the right time, hope that the others hesitate and that you have enough power to pull it off.

That isn't a licence to waste energy, however. Keep your bullets until crunch time, then give it everything.

On stage 2 of the 2014 Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali won by attacking his group with 1500m to go. He average 495W for 2 minutes, or around 8W/kg.

Don't ride every race in the safe zone. Be prepared to get out front and attack in order to win. It may not work out this time, but eventually it will. That's better odds than never.

Don't get caught up in the equipment
You don't need fancy deep section carbon wheels to win a race. Save your money, no carbon wheels are needed. Same goes with Campagnolo Record, Dura-Ace and carbon frames. Not needed. I regularly see guys on awful old bikes beat everyone else.

What is important is that you are set up on the bike correctly and that it works well, especially your gears. If you sprint and your gears jump then you will not win and may even crash.

Having said that, there is a line of thought that says, 'if you have the best equipment, you can't blame the equipment for the loss - it is entirely down to the rider.' This was taken to the nth degree with Victoria Pendleton having her bananas peeled for her so she didn't have to waste energy doing anything else except thinking about cycling.

Also the cheaper gears, chains and bearings tend to wear out faster.
If you can afford it then fine, but don't miss out on something else because important like proper food because you've put all your money into cycling kit.

I will just add that Mavic Kyrium wheels should be avoided for racing. Whilst they are strong and durable wheels, they are aerodynamically poor due to the rim and spoke shape. Keep these wheels for training. Standard box section rims with aero spokes will do the job nicely at 20% of the price of fancy deep section wheels.

Save energy
Analysis of race winning power files shows that the winners usually pedaled less that the others. Typically 15% of the time will be spent at close to zero Watts. If you are not resting as much then you need to think about conserving energy during the race.

The winning attacks normally happen in the final 1/3 of the race, and the win will come from the final minutes. It is vital to use this reserve of energy for these key points in the race. When it is time to dig deep, then dig 100%. Don't make a common mistake of riding hard at the front of the bunch when there is nobody ahead of you.

A few tips about race preparation
It is a good idea to be well rested before a race. Ride your bike the day before the race - gently. If you take a day off, then your legs will feel heavy on race day. Do a gentle hour's spin.

Try to get a good night's sleep before the race. It is said that the night before doesn't really matter, and it is the night two nights before which is important. My feeling is that the more rested and unstressed you feel, the more passion and aggression you will be able to muster in the race. For those of us who are working, it is easy to start races feeling exhausted. If you'd rather be snoozing on a sunny patch of grass rather than getting ready to rip everyone's legs off it doesn't bode well.

Prepare your equipment and clothing the night before the race. This gives you time to find anything you've misplaced or that is still in the wash basket. It means a smooth exit the next day rather than a stressful rush around.

If the race is an hour or less, there is no need to eat beforehand. Just drink water in the race. Longer races will require some food planning, which is discussed in another article.

The key to race preparation is to reduce stress by planning well. Your adrenaline and focus is then channeled into beating the completion.

Everyone can win
I've seen 55 year old ex rugby players win bunch sprints. I've seen first time racers win. You too can win a race. Do what is needed to put yourself in a winning position and eventually it will happen.

To summarize
- choose your race wisely,
- ensure stress-free preparation,
- train your sprint and
- remember the golden rule which is that it is about being first across the line.

Please let me know how you did, and if you have any other tips to add. I'd love to hear from you.

CyclingTips golden rules of road racing.
Hunter Allen talks about conserving energy.
Telegraph Article about Victoria Pendleton being given a peeled banana so she could concentrate on cycling
Interesting stats about the power output required to win a sprint from our friends at Sports

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