Book Excerpt: Forming a combine and managing breakaways
Editor’s note: Excerpt republished with permission of VeloPress from ‘Reading the Race: Bike Racing from Inside the Peloton‘ by Jamie Smith with Chris Horner.
A breakaway requires an otherwise unlikely cooperation between opponents. Without it, a breakaway would never happen.
Even more interesting than the cooperation in a breakaway, however, are the cooperative agreements or verbal contracts we often form with non-teammates to ensure that we have help in a race. Forming an ad hoc team with opponents is a rare phenomenon in sport. It is something that we see in the upper categories of amateur racing, but not so much in the lower ranks. Allow me to explain.
How to form a combine
On any given weekend throughout the summer, there are dedicated bike racers living as vagabonds, traipsing from town to town in search of a cash prime or a top-10 placing to help pay for their bohemian lifestyle. Their territory may be the entire country, or it may be a five-state area. They travel with like-minded riders from other teams. Come race time, these traveling gypsies will band together to form a team while wearing an assortment of jerseys. Or they may recruit helpers when the racing is under way, thus creating a team in as few as three elementary sentences:
“You got any teammates with ya?”
“No. Let’s work together.”
This conversation may take place during the race or in the parking lot before the race. It’s usually held between two or three people. It’s a conversation that’s short enough to have while waiting at the start line. But most importantly, the fact that this conversation takes place at all is testament to the fact you’re better off with teammates.
This arrangement is called a “combine,” and it’s often formed with riders with whom you’re at least somewhat familiar. However, that’s not a requirement. But one thing you all need know is what your strengths are. Them asking you, “Do you have a sprint?” implies that they don’t. You saying to them, “Let’s go!” implies that you’re going to attack together.
Them saying to you, “Go with that one” implies that you’re to join a breakaway. The inference is that they will block for you, and you’ll share whatever winnings you’re able to muster.
No contracts get signed. No secret handshake takes place. You just wing it wearing different jerseys. It’s those mismatched jerseys that make this union unique. Since you don’t match, you’ll attract less attention. Other teams will be slow to pick up on your collusion if they notice it at all. Few riders will suspect that you’re in cahoots with one another.
Here’s a strange example: I was racing in a criterium in Lansing, Michigan. I happened to be very near the front of the pack (trust me; I’m just as surprised as you are by this) when a four-man breakaway formed off the front. It quickly established a gap, and it was time for me to decide whether I was going to bridge across to it. I looked at the riders in front of me and saw that one rider was blocking very effectively, though he had no teammate in the breakaway. As we came out of a hard right-hand turn, I noticed that he slowly pinched the front of the field against the left curb, bringing our speed down by about 4 mph. Well played.
“Hmm,” I thought, “that’s odd. He’s going to great lengths to make sure this breakaway succeeds, yet his own team missed it completely.”
Actually, at the time I thought something much less civilized than that. Then I realized that his brother-in-law was in the breakaway. His brother-in-law rides for another team.
When it comes to combines, there is little to say and not much time to say it, which is why we see this occur more in the upper categories. Needless to say, a lot of assumptions are made when this union is formed. For instance, riders who form combines can assume that a rider knows everything I wrote in the first half of this book.
That’s one of many cool things about it.
Picking the right strangers
We’ve finally found something that bike racing shares with the fine art of square dancing: You can choose your partner.
But choose wisely and measure your efforts. It’s just like any other relationship. There are givers, and there are takers.
Forming a combine is not the result of complex decisions. It’s whomever you wrangle in the parking lot, really. The whole idea is to just have someone to work off of. Still, some pairings don’t work too well. For example, it’s not customary for two sprinters to team up in a combine unless one is a pure pack sprinter and the other is a breakaway sprinter.
I once formed a combine with two friends, Tom and Derek, at a race in Wisconsin. I thought it was obvious that I was the better sprinter of our triumvirate, so when the prime bell rang for a $50 gift certificate, I looked around for my combine-mates. I was expecting a leadout. Instead, Tom, who obviously thought he was the better sprinter, flew past me and won the first prime handily. From that point on, I settled into the role of trusted domestique and made sure Tom was protected for the rest of the race. You’ll come to realize — especially when you’re passed by someone going 5 mph faster than you — that you may not be the designated sprinter despite believing that you can sprint.
(Immediately after the race, I did what any self-respecting roadie would do. I checked to see if my brake pads were rubbing on my rim. Alas, they were not.)
A different kind of deal
Sometimes special deals are worked out between opponents while the racing lamp is lit. As an announcer, I saw it many times: The crowd favorite magically wins the race because he or she struck a deal on the back side of the course away from the adoring crowd. This usually happens in a two-person breakaway in a race that is either in one rider’s hometown or in front of one rider’s family. But other deals are possible.
At the 1990 Blue Ash Dash criterium in suburban Cincinnati, a miss-and-out race came down to three women who were also friends. Two were from out of state. The third was from Cincinnati. The last lap took an awfully long time, which isn’t unheard of in a miss and out. It can become a game of cat-and-mouse when it’s a three-person sprint. In this case, though, things slowed down because one rider was convincing the other two to let her win. The rider from Cincinnati succeeded and came out of the final turn to win a sprint that was worthy of a Tony award.
Surely she paid dearly in cash. Winning carries a price.
Years ago, a friend of mine was in a two-man breakaway and asked his opponent if he could have the win. It would be the first of his career, he cajoled. The opponent let him win.
My friend’s coach, Clair Young, who had mentored world champions and Olympic team members, found him after the race and proudly said, “Well, it looks like you finally learned how to win a race!”
My friend nodded and smiled.
“You talked him into letting you win, huh?” said an insightful Clair.
My friend nodded and smiled.
Hey, if you can’t win a race with your legs, you may as well try to negotiate.
Sharing the booty
The real test of character comes at the end of the race, when it is time to share your winnings. You fought hard for that prime. Your combine-mate worked hard to get off the front. You worked very hard to preserve the gap so that he could place in the top five. You managed to sprint for the final paying spot. Awesome. Now, who gets what?
There’s no formula for this. It’s all negotiated on the spot. Until this moment, the assumption may have been that the split would be even. But now that the money is in your hand, how do you divide it?
That’s up to you. And just as in real life, there will be money-grubbers who try to capture every penny they can, and there will be people who don’t really care to split hairs. This is hard to see in advance when you’re making the arrangement. It’s easy to see afterward.
I’ve seen arguments over this issue. I’ve seen casual friends become mortal enemies. I know riders who won’t speak to each other because of a parking lot dispute.
My tip for this situation: Race for the love of the sport. You’ll rarely be short-changed.
How important was it to you to find someone to work with? And for what reason? Were you motivated by money or the need to actually do something in the race?
That’s an important point. We don’t simply want to ride in a fast group; we want to play chess at speed. We don’t just want to be pack fodder; we want to play the game of bike racing beyond what a solo rider can do.
That’s why the combine exists. It’s hard to play chess with just one chess piece.
Breakaways that don’t work
If you’re in a breakaway that just can’t seem to work efficiently, it may be due to a few different reasons.
Chemistry, or lack thereof.
Someone may not want it to succeed. Look around to see if anyone is messing up the rhythm. Perhaps it’s a rider who has been given explicit orders by her team captain to not cooperate with the breakaway. She may be in the breakaway only to keep tabs on it, or she may have something else in mind.
At a circuit race in Kalamazoo long ago, I managed to get into a six-man breakaway, but it wasn’t working very well together. I noticed that one rider was sitting on the back refusing to work while the other five riders worked really hard trying to make the breakaway succeed.
A few laps later, the unwilling rider went straight to the front of the small group as if he had been shot from a World War II cannon (presumably from a local cemetery) and started driving the pace up. We had been joined by one of his teammates, so suddenly he was motivated to make this breakaway stick.
In fact, he had received information from a coach standing along the course that a teammate was in the process of bridging across the gap all alone. That was why he had refused to cooperate. He was waiting for his teammate to catch up. Once he did, the breakaway started to work really well.
Although we think that everything has to do with tactics and teamwork, a more likely explanation for a failing breakaway may be that riders simply don’t know how to run a smooth paceline. That’s why I suggested that you should feel free to give instructions or encouragement. Never assume that everyone has the same amount of experience. Don’t assume that everyone has read this book. And if someone else takes the directorial lead in the breakaway, never assume that they’re the most experienced rider in the group. They’re only proving to be the most verbal at this point.
So, to be clear, the basic plan is to get a breakaway started and make sure that it has enough of our teammates in it to give us a better chance at winning the race. And while our team is represented in the breakaway, we still have work to do in the main pack. Lots of work.