In the third and final edition of our series on the counter attack, we covered the infamous “lull”. The “lull” is the period of a race when the pace drops significantly. Today, we discussed how to take advantage of this to try to steal a victory or at least set up a teammate. Again, thanks to Castelli Cycling for selecting one lucky winner to receive some Castelli swag for completing the SDR event.
Every race is different, and the way in which a team(s) elects to control the pace can, and often does, determine how a race unfolds. In many IRL races, and occasionally on Zwift, a break gets up the road. As teams work to pull back the break, riders get used up and the strength of the team weakens. If the chase is especially hard or long, the teams and individual riders who participated in the chase often need a breather once the catch is made. That breather is the lull.
In other instances, no break escapes, but the group sets an infernal pace, splitting the field with what in effect is a sustained attack. About two-thirds of the way through the race, the lead group has consolidated its lead, and the winner is almost certainly in that group. At that point, the pace drivers begin to think about conserving energy for the final kick to the line. That point when the group lets off the gas to recover before the final push is also the lull.
Counterattacking during the lull is an art form, as it rarely works unless a rider goes at the beginning of the lull before the stronger riders have the opportunity to catch their breath and look around. Once the lull gets to that point, any attack will be followed either to be shut down or to create a smaller group. Thus, using the element of surprise is the key to success, as is the ability to conserve energy by sitting in the draft and limiting the amount of work you do. More on that later.
Getting to today’s class, we started out as normal with our 1.5 W/kg warm-up, practicing riding in a group. After this period, we got to the crawl and walk phases of the class. Like in the previous two weeks, I set an artificial cap of 2.5 W/kg as the “infernal pace” to use to demonstrate the lull. We held the 2.5 W/kg pace for 3 minutes just to get everyone used to the pace and to feel the sensation of a sustained pace. At the three-minute mark, we dropped the lead pace to 1.5 W/kg to simulate the easing of the pace. During the first iteration, we did not launch a counter attack, as I wanted the group to feel and see what happens when the pace eases. Almost immediately, riders at the front and middle of the group bunched at the front and/or overtook the lead riders. Those riders followed suit and sat up, thus creating the lull. That, I explained, was the point in which we would attack.
For iteration two, we conducted the same drill, but I called out the lull and directed riders to launch a 30-second effort at 1 W/kg over FTP, in this case 3.5 W/kg as our artificial cap. After the short surge, we regrouped at 1.0 W/kg. That 30-second surge simulated the move to escape at the onset of the lull. Remember, as the pace begins to let off, riders will begin to grab a drink or a snack or look down to take a breath. This period of vulnerability only lasts for a very brief moment. That is why the surge needs to be quick and violent. We repeated this drill one more time, but I did not call out the lull, requiring riders to identify it on their own.
After a brief regroup, we got to the run phase of the training. I removed the artificial FTP cap and explained the plan for the remainder of the class. Riders would ride at their individual FTP, hanging with a group if possible, for two minutes. The time at FTP simulated the chase or high-tempo action at the beginning of the race. At the 2-minute mark, riders would reduce power by 20 percent to simulate the easing of the pace. Once the speed of the small group began to drop, the riders would sprint for 30 seconds to simulate Phase I of the counter attack, the escape. Immediately following the sprint, riders would settle into a 110-percent of FTP effort to simulate Phase II of the counter attack, the consolidation. At the end of the two minutes, all riders would sit up to a 1.0 W/kg recovery effort. We conducted this drill two times before moving to the full on sprint phase.
Three Phases of a Counter Attack
During the last recovery period, I discussed with the riders in further detail the three phases of the counter attack, starting from the point of recognition of the opportunity. As I stated earlier, Phase I is the escape phase. This phase is pretty simple: Hit the gas and get a gap. Without the gap, there is no counter attack. It simply becomes a resumption of hostilities and a hard pace. Phase II, consolidation, is arguably the critical phase of the move. During Phase II, a rider has to go hard enough to maintain or grow the gap, or the counter attack will fail in short order. The attacker uses Phase II to communicate to the group that any chase at this point is either futile or too hard to consider. Often, if the group does not see positive movement in the time gap in a relatively short amount of time, the will to chase fades quickly. Assuming that the conditions of Phase I and II are met, we then transition to Phase III, sustainment. The key to the sustainment phase is balance. A rider needs to push hard enough to keep the chasers from making any significant gains but easy enough to be able to maintain the effort until the end of the race. Ideally, the rider will keep a little left in reserve for a final kick, just in case.
Wrapping It Up
To close out the day, we executed one counter attack simulation from start to finish. Like in the previous drills, I instructed riders to go at FTP effort for 2 minutes, followed by a 20 percent reduction in power to create the lull. Once the lull began, riders executed the escape and consolidation phases as we had done during previous iterations. After the 2 minutes at 110 percent FTP, though, riders only reduced to an FTP effort and held it for to more minutes to simulate the sustainment phase.
To wrap up, I just need to reiterate that the duration of each phase is determined by how the race unfolds. Also, the success of any counter attack depends on many factors beyond the control of the attacker. All you can do is be tactically smart and willing to suffer.
This concludes our three-part series on the counter attack. I know that many people assumed that counter attack was simply going over the top of an earlier attack, but that is a very simplistic way to look at it. If executed properly, a counter attack can be a glorious move. If not… well, you get to be off the front for a bit before being dropped like the schmoos who sprint off the line at the Boston Marathon.
Next week, we will backtrack to some of the basic group riding techniques, specifically looking at working in a paceline and rotating through the front to share the workload. It will be a much easier pace than the previous three weeks, so feel free to join in, even if you’ve already done a harder ride earlier that day or plan to do one later. Until then, RideOn!