Originally Posted by petereps
I did pretty well with a pack finish in my first race but have gotten dropped on my last three crits. I think a big reason why i get dropped is the constant sprinting out of corners. I noticed in this last race that i had to brake before almost every corner to avoid hitting the persons wheel in front of me. This would always cause me a loss of momentum and an inevitable sprint to catch back up. Questions:
1.) How can i avoid losing momentum without crashing or overlapping wheels? Whenever i tried to let a gap form before the corner so i could coast and not brake, people would fill the gap causing me to lose places. Also, whenver i tried to go by the person in front of me instead of braking, i would overlap wheels and almost crash a couple of times. How can i not brake and not crash?
2.) How normal/frequently should braking happen? Is it normal to brake on almost every 90 degree turn?
3.) A little off topic but curious: should i be out of the saddle after the corners when the speed surges or is it better to stay seated. I tried to stay seated but felt like i couldn't put the power down.
The short answer is that if you're not surging on the pedals (closing gaps too quickly), if you don't need to brake frequently on the straights (means you're able to follow pace without overreacting), if you just follow the rider in front of you through a turn, even if it's a foot to one side, you shouldn't need to brake any more than the riders around you.
However that really doesn't address the cause.
My first thought is that your Sphere, what I call the area around your bars and front tire that you need clear to feel comfortable, is probably a bit large. This means that you need to be further away from the others compared to the other riders around you.
For example, as an extreme example, say your Sphere is 6 feet by 2 feet. You need 6 feet in front of your front wheel and 2 feet to either side of you to feel comfortable. That's about a full bike length in front and a full bike width to the side. Therefore when you go into a turn you brake if you get closer than 6 feet, and "leaving a gap" might mean 8 or 10 feet or more.
Let's take an experienced rider's Sphere. It might be more like 1 foot by 6 inches. They only need a foot in front of their front wheel to feel comfortable, a few inches to the side. They see you leaving 6 feet x 2 feet (or 10 feet x 4 feet) and to them it's like an invitation. They move in, you back off to clear your Sphere, another rider moves in, and suddenly you're at the back scrambling for wheels.
The solution for reducing your Sphere is to do some close quarters riding drills. Practice bumping to the side. You'll use your shoulders, upper arm, everything above your wrist. You shouldn't use your hand because you need to retain control over your bars. You can't retain that control if the back of your hand is hitting something. You can practice the motion even while sitting at a keyboard - move your elbow out while you're typing. You can still type, you have fine motor control over your hand's position, but you can push away with your elbow, lean with your shoulder, or even tilt your head to the side.
The drills aren't complicated - just ride along and bump another rider. Lean into them. Do it slowly, on a closed type of road (dead end works well), and have a lot of clothing on plus your helmet and gloves in case you fall. Remember you need to protect your bars and front wheel, and since your hands are on the bars, you need to protect your hands as well. Bump with stuff above your wrist (and for me that really means at least halfway up my forearm).
Once you're comfortable side by side then you'll be smoother in the field.
Getting closer fore-aft is harder. That's a combination of experience and, if possible, wheel touching drills. However wheel touching drills are much harder to set up and guarantees you a few falls (therefore you want to do it on grass at 8-10 mph max). I'll describe more if you like.
With drafting you'll find that initially you make too big of an input into the bike to adjust speed. You accelerate to close a gap, you close it too quickly, and then you brake. But you brake a bit too hard so you accelerate. But that's a bit much so you brake. Etc. Not very efficient.
I'm assuming that you play some kind of video games where you control movement of your character/vehicle? In any of those games it helps to be smooth, to ease off the forward instead of just slamming on the stop. It's like that with bikes. When you close a gap you should do it with just enough to bring you up to the wheel, don't launch yourself like it's the finish line to close 4 feet to the next rider. Likewise if you are inching up on the rider in front try to avoid using the brakes. Coast, ease to the side (and into the wind), just 6 or 10 inches, just enough to not lose the wheel. The sideways thing is best done either in group rides or near the back of the field because I found out the hard way that it's an invitation to take my spot (and I've lost spots because I did that and another rider took advantage of it).
As you do more races and group rides you'll find yourself able to better judge how much of a surge to make or how much brake you need (or don't need) to keep from running into the riders in front.
A huge factor in all of this is where you are looking while you're in a group. If you're focusing mainly on the rider in front then you lose the overall picture and you will be surprised when someone slows. That surprise means you're much more likely to overreact, open a gap, and then have to close it.
Instead of focusing on the rider in front of you try to focus a bit further up. I know it's very, very, very hard to do. Initially look up every 15 seconds or so, like a swimmer taking a breath, and look up and around and see where everyone is, sort of what they're doing (setting up for a right turn vs dead straight for the next 500m, etc). As you get more experienced in the field you should be able to keep your eyes a bit higher than staring at the cassette in front of you. If you're shorter than look through the rider's legs, perhaps looking sort of in line with their rear brake. If taller then look over the rider's shoulder. If about the same height then you may need to move to the side and look past their arms.
To answer your questions:
1. If you're fighting for position every corner then you're probably working too hard. If you're near the back, especially in a smaller Junior field, you should be okay for a bit. I find fighting for position to be very hard and I have to avoid it to avoid getting shelled.
2. Light braking is normal but unless the riders up front are slowing an abnormal amount you shouldn't need to brake for every turn. The further back you are the more likely it is that you need to brake.
3. In/out of saddle depends on the rider, the rider's energy/fatigue level, and the importance of the corner. If you're a bigger rider then standing takes a lot of energy. If you're a smaller one then it's not as demanding to stand, and in fact it can increase your leverage significantly. For Juniors I figure a bigger rider is 140-150 lbs or more. I was under 100 lbs and I was out of the saddle seemingly all the time.
Energy/fatigue. Is it the beginning of the race and everyone is going absolutely bananas out of each turn? Then you need to get out of the saddle to maximize your power and stay on wheels. You'll be reasonably fresh so you should be able to do that. In the middle, when things calm down a bit, it may not be as critical, plus you may be getting tired. Towards the last part of the race it's imperative that you stay with everyone so you should do whatever it takes, regardless of your fatigue level. Later you can worry about saving something for the sprint, but until you're finishing regularly you should focus on finishing. I seem to find hidden reserves in the last part of a race and I will use that energy like there was no tomorrow. It doesn't help to be fresh but off the back. It's better to be absolutely cooked and unable to contest the sprint so you finish at the back of the field.
Importance of corner. In some races there's a pivotal corner (or hill or whatever). In crits it's usually the sharpest or narrowest corner. The corner really stretches out the field so it's critical to stay on wheels after such a corner. If you're dealing with a pivotal corner like that then you use everything you need to use to stay on the wheels. I've made the mistake of "saving for the finish" and then leaving just enough of a gap that I end up off the back. Again, it's better to be in the field than off the back, even if you're in the field just one more lap. When you get shelled you should be so blown that time trialing around the course shouldn't even be a thought, at least not faster than 12 or 13 mph. If it is then you weren't trying hard enough.
Hope this helps, good luck with your next races, and post questions as you have them.