There’s an old metaphor about bike racing — it’s a chess match on two wheels. Every team enters a race with a goal and a team strategy to achieve that goal. As in chess, there are pawns, racers who’ll sacrifice themselves to prod the defenses of their competitors and look for a weakness to expose. Knights will seek to strike a fatal blow to the ambitions of a rival, or serve as the team’s last line of defense. And kings and queens are the leaders around whom the team and its tactics coalesce — and its fortunes rise and fall. When these players move amid a fast rolling pack of bike racers, everyone takes notice.
Like chess, bike racing is highly tactical, Unlike chess, it’s carefully planned in advance, in closed-door sessions with riders and team directors. At the Tour of the Gila in Silver City, NM, the directors of the Rally Cycling teams let us listen in on their team meetings as they laid out race day tactics. We saw difficult decisions made, mindsets manipulated, and strategies followed to perfection. But most of all, we learned from the Rally Cycling teams that whether you’re trying to win a bike race, or accomplish something in work or life, success depends on a good plan.
Setting the Stage
The Tour of the Gila is a mountainous stage race that the Rally Cycling men’s and women’s teams would use to prepare for the world-class Tour of California the following month, in May. The men’s and women’s squads would enter the fourth stage of the five-stage race with differing ambitions.
In the Gila’s fourth stage, the riders would tackle a short and fast race known as a criterium, a circuit race held on a technical one-mile course in downtown Silver City. About an hour in length for the women, and 90 minutes for the men, the stage would serve as a respite from the Tour of the Gila’s other long and hilly stages.
The men’s team leader, Evan Huffman, held the Tour’s overall lead, and the team sought to defend, and maybe even extend his time gap over the next closest competitor. Meanwhile, the women’s team had lost its leader to a crash and a broken collarbone the previous day. Its members hoped to rebound from that setback by winning the day’s stage.
Here’s how the two teams approached the same race.
When the women’s team won the criterium stage of the Tour of the Gila in 2016, team director Zach Bell employed a unique distraction to motivate his team. “I wore a pair of tight jean shorts, and as the laps counted down to the finish, I cut off more and more of the shorts,” he says. The idea to get the team to smile and relax as the tension in the race ratcheted up proved very effective — it won the furious final sprint to the line.
In 2017, Bell faces a much tougher crowd. The team’s best rider, Sarah Bergen, has crashed out of the stage race. The team is short-handed. Morale is low. But, to its advantage, as the underdog the women’s team faces few expectations.
After Bell goes over the stage’s logistics, the duration of the race, and the key features of the course, he anoints rider Emma White, just 19 years old, as the designated leader. White is one of the country’s most talented young racers, a former medalist at the junior world championships, but she has never really led a team before. However, no one seems surprised by Bell’s call. White is the team’s best chance to win.
“It’s your chance to steer the ship,” Bell tells White matter of factly, the pressure on the team leader being implicit. “How are you feeling?”
“OK,” she nods.
He gives each of White’s teammates a task — to follow the attacks of rival teams, or to shield her from the wind — and specific instructions on when and where to move her into position for the anticipated sprint finish. But White is the boss. If she tells a teammate to go, they will go. She is ready for the roll, she says.
“We had talked about the responsibility of the team leader at our training camp, and how if you make the wrong call, you’re responsible for that decision,” she said later. “That gave me a lot of self-motivation.”
In the race, as the laps wind down, White’s teammates cover a flurry of final attacks, and move her to the front for the sprint. White comes out of the final corner as the seventh rider in a single final line (just as Bell had suggested she position herself) and starts her sprint on the long uphill drag to the finish. She crosses the line with space to spare on her nearest competitor, and throws her arms up in victory.
Instantly, the mood on the team morphs from subdued to jubilant. The team’s mechanic, Zane Freebairn, watching the finish from the pit area, leaps in the air and shouts, “Yes!” He exchanges high-fives with his colleagues, mechanics on opposing teams, then gathers his gear and runs to the finish line to congratulate White in person. White’s teammates gather around her, squeezing her shoulders.
Bell made the right call in choosing White for the sprint, and in refraining from heaping any extra pressure on her. For White, all the pressure she needed came from within. “I felt like, I don’t have a choice here,” she says. “I have to win.”
Winning on All Fronts
This is the scene at a pre-race meeting when your team has won all three of the previous day’s stages: jovial, relaxed, and amped. Before the meeting really starts, racer Adam de Vos lays out a plan that’s sure to catch their competitors off guard.
“Snake eats the tail!” he announces. “When you start so fast that you’re already lapping the pack before they’ve even had a chance to clip into their pedals.”
Jonas Carney, who’s known for surprise tactics with quirky names, seems surprised that he hadn’t come up with this comically ingenious tactic himself. He starts the meeting in earnest by going over race logistics, and noting the key competitors to watch. (The race numbers of the team’s most important rivals will be printed out and taped to the Rally racers’ bike stems).
The team’s captain, Danny Pate, who has nearly two decades of pro racing experience, offers insight as well. He names racers the team should add to their “no-fly list,” competitors who can’t be allowed to break away from the field. Pate gives some of the strongest competitors nicknames, a kind of backhanded honor that makes his teammates grin.
The team will have a two-pronged task in the race. First, maintain Evan Huffman’s lead in the overall standings. And second, win the day’s stage with sprint ace Eric Young. Because the Tour of the Gila’s overall win carries more importance than an individual stage victory, Young will be given little assistance in going for the sprint. The bulk of the team’s energy and resources will go toward controlling the race, and making sure that a rival close in overall time doesn’t break away from the pack and gain valuable seconds on Huffman.
As the meeting winds to a close, Carney throws the team and Huffman a curveball.
“If it’s a pack finish, I like the idea of Huffman doing a surprise move at the end,” he says.
“Like what?” Huffman asks, seeming a little shocked.
“Attacking and trying to solo the last lap and half,” says Carney.
Everyone’s a bit quiet. Huffman had planned on conserving as much energy as possible for the next day’s difficult mountain stage. Now, he will try to win this day’s race himself. Someone breaks the tension by saying, “F-yeah!” Someone else chimes in, “This could actually work.” Another person, “It’d be pretty sick.” Huffman, who’s quiet and contemplative by nature, appears almost meditative, focusing on the task ahead.
During the race, the team controls the field just as planned, and Huffman rides near his teammates at the front, where it’s safest for him to position. As the laps wind down, the pace picks up. It’s too fast for the last lap attack to work. Young wins the race in a thrilling high-speed sprint to the finish line.
Later, Carney divulges that Huffman’s planned last lap attack was less about his winning the race, and more about giving him a specific task — an attempt to alter his mindset in the race. “If he knows he’s going to try and go for it at the end, he’ll be more motivated to fight for position near the front,” Carney says.
Huffman, an experienced racer, knew Carney had an ulterior motive in asking him to launch an attack in the final laps of the criterium. And he didn’t at all mind being manipulated in that manner. After the race, he said, “It was a good plan.”
He would go on to win the Tour of the Gila, and a few weeks later, win two stages of the Tour of California, a defining moment for himself and the team.
Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He has written for Outside magazine, Bicycling, and Texas Monthly, and is the author of The Cyclist’s Bucket List (Rodale, 2015).