The Art of War
By Jared Rogers | May 3, 2010
Race name: Vernon HIlls Grand Prix
Race date: Sunday, May 2, 2010
Military minds often think in terms of strategy and tactics. Competitors, or at least the really good ones, are almost no different.
Strategy is immutable; it is a Big Picture look at a problem that focuses upon the entire forest and not individual trees. Military concepts such as offensive, mass, maneuver, and surprise represent the timeless principles of strategy. Why do you think Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been a best seller for thousands of years and translated into every imaginable language? Because it teaches strategy and the lessons of strategy are timeless. They are bound to our very nature as humans.
Tactics vary with circumstances and, especially, technology. If I were to teach you how to be a soldier during the American Revolution, you would learn how to form and maneuver in lines, perform the 27 steps in loading and firing a musket, and how to ride and tend to a horse. Naturally, yesterday’s tactics won’t win today’s wars – but yesterday’s strategies still win today’s wars… and will win them tomorrow and into the future.
So, tactics present a Small Picture perspective where individual trees are in focus but the Big Picture of the forest is not. Just as your eyes have to look up from this page to refocus on the larger room you’re reading it in, so strategy and tactics require a different focus.
So what’s up with this overly long diatribe about warfare, strategy and tatcis? Trust me, it’ll all make sense in the end.
Vernon Hills has a prominent place in my cycling history. Back in ’07 it was my first crit, which followed my first bike race of all time the day before – Baraboo. Needless to say, back then I wondered why I chose racing as a past time because my first two days in the sport could be summed up as arduous at best . Fast forward to my fourth season and things are a LOT different.
This is a course I KNOW hands down so I was planning on having a good race. That crazy turn two with the median that juts up at you, that misleading turn three that narrows down on you and always causes a crash and that wide open landscape that makes even a 5 MPH wind something that people don’t want to fight. I knew what sprinters would be in the field. I knew that we had a strong squad of guys going out. I knew what our strategy was. I knew where the move was supposed to happen. I knew, I knew, I knew…
But just cause you know the strategy doesn’t mean that all the tactics being employed by everyone in a race will play into your strategy. Case in point, Bryce and I were sitting in the grass when they told everyone to take a lap. Almost all of our riders just sat there because we 1) had spent about 30 minutes warming up and 2) most of us knew the course. Under normal circumstances this is a good tactic. But then the officials told us that if we didn’t take a lap we would be put at the back of the field. Okay this was a first? So I immediately take off so I don’t get put at the back. Where did I wind up? At the back! I should have just stayed put had I been thinking and not wasted my energy. Tactics vs. strategy…
So I toe the line WAY at the back of a 64 person field and I am not too thrilled. Bryce rolls over to my side and slots in behind Ryan and Emanuele slots in right in front of me. I mean, I’m so far back I can’t even hear Fowkes tell us when the wheel pit closes (not that I’m hoping to use it but hey, it’s good info to have). So I tell Emanuele to give me some room ‘cause I know what the strategy is and being at the back isn’t going to play out too well. Whistle goes off, I go blasting up the left side (I swear I hear crashing on the line in the middle of the pack) and the war is officially on.
The front of the pack is getting up to speed as we hit turn one and I see Ian and Adam up towards the front. Ian had mentioned that early season races are like gun battles and he was brining and RPG. All I had to do was wait - and I didn’t have to wait long. He takes off, another rider grabs his wheel and I’m just hanging out. Why not help out, are you just hear to ride around in circles all day? Not really - so as we come through the start finish area I give it a little go and no one follows me. I make the bridge and get up to Ian who is waiving me through, but I can tell by the way the other rider keeps looking back that the pack must not have liked there being three off the front, two of which were from the same team. Oh well, all back together for now.
A few laps later Adam would go off the front in turn three and make the group work. I slowly drifted back into the sprinters lounge and just kept my eye on how many were up the road. As the laps ticked by I would see Ian, Adam, Bryce, Ryan and Hudson all doing work trying to keep things in order. At the same time, I was doing my part by noting how much time had passed and remembering that with 4 to go I was to move back up to the front so as to not miss the final volley of attacks. And this is just what I did. At four to go the lights and sirens went off and it was time to leave the lounge. With three to go I was about 20th wheel and by the time we hit two to go I had a nice lane on the left to take me up to the front. As I passed Ryan on the left in turn one, I called his name, slapped my hip, threw up the deuce and told him lets go. Unfortunately, I would later find out that he didn’t know that the deuce was for two to go, not peace out homie!
So going into turn two I was about 8th wheel and Ian was off the front with three others. Good, looks like he was going to be in position just about where the move should go. I started my march towards the front knowing that I only have about 30-50 seconds to get to Ian before there will be a headwind and I’ll have to burn a lot of matches if I am going to help out. As we’re motoring down the back stretch (we have a tail wind mind you) I am closing really fast on the only rider between me and the four off the front as well as that infamous turn three. So as I’m coming up to his wheel I yelled “go” to let him know not to slow down. He replied “sorry, one of my guys is up there.” I really don’t know what I said, but I don’t think it was positive (sorry). So I sail turn three and push hard knowing I’ve only got seconds before I hit a headwind.
I make contact in the nick of time so now I am fifth wheel as we get the bell. Oh Yeah, next stop top 5 or even better the podium! There are only two problems with this. First, because I had to close 20 meters so close to the finish (I was redlined and very close to empty) I had very little time to recover. Had the four in front of me kept motoring, I probably would have been able to hold the wheel in front of me, but I don’ t think I had much more. Second, because of the first problem, despite me seeing it unfold, I wasn’t able to react to a mistake that always happened to me during my second season (Check this report where towards the end I talk about always getting boxed in on the last lap). Needless to say, the combo of being gassed and boxed didn’t play out well and I lost a ton of spots coming out of turn two. My mind cracked hard on the back stretch with less than a half a lap to go despite me pleading with it and my body to just go hard for another minute.
So sadly I watched (what I thought was) everyone ride past me and my 5th place finish turned into me rolling across the line about two seconds off the back of the pack in 33rd position. I rolled around for a minute and then made my way to the sidelines to talk to our team. To everyone who I spoke to directly after the race, please know that I was not in the best of moods and I apologize for my demeanor. But what that mood was displaying was my sincere disappointment in myself for not being able to close this race the way I knew it should have went.
Many who have ridden with me over the years know the rider I was when I first started racing. That rider would get ejected from the peloton two laps in, mentally cracked at the slightest amount of suffering and couldn’t envision race strategy if you tattooed it on his arm. But the beginning of this season has me convinced that that rider is long dead and gone and I pray he never comes back. The new rider has the fitness and mental wherewithal to get it done come race time. On top of that, when I am in a race now, I can “see” things unfold and I have an instinctive feel for if it will work given that particular point in a race. Thus the talk about strategy vs. tactics. I can honestly say that in the four seasons of racing I’ve done, this year my mental clarity (i.e. strategic thinking) is 1000 times better. In the fours you are lucky if you can get teams to enact tactics correctly. It’s a whole different ball game to get them to employ the overarching strategy.
Case in point – what happened to me as I came up towards turn three. When I came up to the rider in front of me he mentioned that he had a man in the group. Tactic = blocking right? Here is why I kept going past him despite our team having a rider in the same group (one that carries an RPG I might add).
Have you ever seen a break get established within the last two laps of a Cat 4 or 5 crit and it sticks? Answer is no. Why? The last lap of any crit is the most ballistic of any pace wise. If you slow down even a faction of a MPH, you will get swarmed, overrun or boxed in because the peloton has one thing on their mind at this point – outrun the people behind them to the line. Thus, blocking or slowing down isn’t a good tactic given the greater strategy. Coincidently, when I was gassed on the last lap I noticed that several riders went down on the previous lap in that turn – they were towards the back of the pack. Luckily no one was hurt too badly and everyone looks like they will be back to riding soon.
So despite my poor finish, I think I rode one of my best races in a long time. Ian managed to get 4th, Bryce cracked the top ten and everyone else was able to bring it in before I did. We all rode well and I can say that I look forward to riding with this group of fours this season (although I know some of us won’t be fours for long). Hats off also to the promoter and the people of Vernon Hills – as always, it was a good time.