What is an attack? Why does it happen? In the nuanced world of bike racing tactics, what is its importance? Throughout one race, an attack may happen once, twice or 40 or 50 times. What’s behind the strategy of an attack and when to do it? These are all questions we’ll dive into in this edition of Cycling 101. To simplify different racing scenarios that could see different attacking tactics, we’ve broken up the article into three categories: flat, hilly, and mountain parcours.
The flat as a pancake route
Take a glance at this race’s profile, and you already know, it’s bound to be made for the sprinters. This type of course is more often than not along a coastline, which gives it its flat profile but potentially adds some strong offshore winds.
• Start: After the neutral zone is complete and the officials drop the flag for the official start, attacks will almost always go. Here’s where we’ll see smaller teams looking for sponsor exposure, Lexus King of the Mountain and Visit California Sprint jersey challengers hungry to scoop up intermediate points and GC contenders looking to put pressure on other teams.
• Middle: After attacks fly off the front, the breakaway is established, and GC or sprinters’ teams come to the front of the peloton to keep the front group’s time advantage under control. Depending on the wind, here’s where it could get interesting. Teams like Deceuninck Quick Step enjoy mixing things up and attacking into crosswinds, which potentially wreaks havoc on sprinters and GC.
• Finish: If it all goes according to plan (for the sprinters), the breakaway will be caught a few kilometers before the line, and the lead-out trains will start cranking out some massive speeds for their sprinters. Why is this necessary? If not, we can guarantee more attacks. If the pace isn’t quite high enough in the run into the line, opportunists will seize the advantage and launch a sneak attack. Once in a blue moon this move works and makes for a nail-biting finale.
Hills, twists, and turns
Where attacking is concerned, the hilly profile has many similar features to the flat route with some slight differences. Because the road is more challenging, it attracts a different type of rider, a “puncheur,” or one who specializes in rolling terrain and short, steeper climbs.
• Start: Depending on where the hills are, the breakaway could attack on the first climb of the day, and will likely include any riders interested in the Lexus King of the Mountain jersey. They’ll stick with the breakaway until they’ve collected as many points as possible, then float back into the peloton to save their energy for more of the same in later stages.
• Middle: If the breakaway does start losing members, their advantage could start dwindling. It’s here where we see attacks out of the peloton to bridge across. Usually, two or three motivated riders pop out of the bunch and use the smaller gap to chase down the original leaders.
• End: Because of the rolling terrain and likely twists and turns, the chances of an eventual winner coming out of breakaway are much higher in these types of scenarios, which makes it more appealing to attempt the long game. If that is the case, expect attacks from the leaders when they are a few kilometers from the finish. They’ll do this to shake off weaker breakaway companions, and hopefully catch others unaware.
Long, sustained mountain routes
Things change when the gradient turns to the sky, and so do the tactics. Mountain stages are when the GC contenders have to shine, as do their teammates.
• Start: Much like the previous two scenarios, mountain stages will usually have a breakaway established in the early part of the stage. The attacks will come from stage win hopefuls, smaller teams, and teammates of GC competitors who are also high on the overall classification. Their purpose is to put pressure on other teams and force them to work on the front to keep the gap small.
• Middle: Again, the tactics depend on the route, so for this scenario, we imagine it’s a summit finish. Like in the sprinters' stage, climbers’ teams will have pulled back the breakaway before, or on the lower slopes of the final climb. Then we will see counter attacks from solo opportunists.
• End: The pace is high up the final slope, and riders are dropping fast. Climbers will trade attacks to feel each other out and gauge strengths and weaknesses. These attacks aren’t full gas, but more to test their rivals in an exhausting game of cat and mouse before the final acceleration to the line.