Book Excerpt: How to shed a wheelsucker

Chris Horner and Jamie Smith have tips for finding the dead weight in your breakaway and ditching them before they beat you at the line

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. 

As your breakaway presses on toward the finish, you need to continually assess your companions and make sure that everyone is contributing evenly (Figure 6.1). Learn to read the other riders’ faces to see if they’re in pain or just pretending to be. If they aren’t working, you need to find out to why. Are they indeed cooked? Are they along for a free ride? Or are they saboteurs intent on ruining the breakaway?

Roll Call

There are a few tactics we can use to dissuade saboteurs, but it’s difficult to overcome someone with devious intentions.

If the rider who refuses to contribute is indeed dead, then you must decide if you want to carry him and let him finish with a good result or, a less friendly option, get rid of him.

If you graciously decide to let him sit in and hang on for, say, fifth place in your five-man breakaway, what assurance do you have that he’ll really accept your gift when the time comes? There’s no guarantee that he won’t sprint around you at the line. It’s amazing how many riders seem to find their second wind in the final few miles of a race.

In this kinder, gentler time we live in, it’s likely that he is indeed telling the truth when he says he’s cooked. I’ve heard stories of riders who sit on the back of a breakaway for the entire race, accept their gift, and then thank the rider who granted them the free ride. In the olden days, it was vastly different. Riders would make it their goal to get into a breakaway, do as little work as possible, and then sprint for the win even if they hadn’t taken one pull throughout the entire race. There was no shame in that. The common thought of the day was that if the other riders weren’t smart enough to figure out how to get rid of me, they didn’t deserve to win. Or perhaps more correctly, if the other guys are stupid enough to let me sit on without working, they don’t deserve to win.

So don’t pull a wheelsucker all the way to the end and then get upset because he sprinted past you in the last few meters.

If you’re in a five-man breakaway with one rider who begs you to let him sit on for fifth place, think of this: You have teammates behind you currently fighting for sixth place. If you drop Mr. Deadwood, your teammates might get a higher placing.

That’s how pro racers think.

Getting Rid of Them

Your first course of action when dealing with Mr. Deadwood should be to yell at him. Verbal razzing doesn’t cost anything energy-wise. It may be enough to get him to contribute. It’s sure worth a try. You can do this as kindly or unkindly as you like. Anything said in a bike race is exempt from most local bullying laws and is usually forgotten during the cool-down ride after the race. Don’t worry about insulting every aspect of his life. He’ll get over it.

Another plan for getting rid of the deadwood is to attack. At the very least, push the pace. Only the strong survive. If he’s really cooked, he’ll have difficulty responding. If he’s able to respond, then he should be able to contribute. Feel free to yell at him again.

If attacking or yelling doesn’t work, try this: As you drop to the rear of the paceline, Mr. Deadwood will likely open up a little gap in front of him and allow you the privilege of slipping in front of him, thus preventing him from ever rotating to the front (Figure 6.2). When you get in front of him, slow down. A lot. Allow a huge gap to open in front of you. Let it grow as large as you can. Wait for Mr. Deadwood to jump around you to close the gap. If he wants to stay with the breakaway, he’ll eventually decide to go around you. When he goes past you, jump on his wheel and let him tow you back up to the group. This is a complex tactic that requires a unified effort by everyone in the breakaway to help out. If you’re the only one who’s concerned about the freeloader,
this tactic will not work.

All riders in the breakaway must do the same thing to Mr. Deadwood every time they rotate to the back. That is, take him off the back and make him chase to regain contact. This requires him to work very hard to stay in the break, or die trying. Not literally, of course. We don’t want anyone to die in pursuit of a pair of socks and a TGI Fridays gift card.

This tactic is effective but extremely rare in the amateur ranks. It relies on every rider knowing how to successfully gap another rider and have the strength to survive in the process. Most riders in a breakaway are at their limit already.

Well, some are.