How the Race Was Won Excerpt: Riding in the Peloton

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An excerpt from Peter Cossins’s new book, How the Race Was Won: Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory.

Chapter 4

Inside the Washing Machine—Riding in the Peloton

“Perhaps the single most important element in mastering the techniques and tactics of racing is experience.”

—Greg LeMond

Watching a professional peloton from above is spellbinding. It constantly ebbs and flows as riders move up and others slip back, ripples when it sweeps around both sides of a roundabout or shimmies to avoid a piece of road furniture, the graceful movement reminiscent of a murmuration of starlings twirling and swooping at twilight. As the place where professionals spend the majority of their time when racing, the peloton is to an extent their sanctuary, offering as much shelter as they’re going to get from the elements, a chance to chat and perhaps even relax a little before the action kicks off. Yet any cyclist who has ridden two abreast in a group, trying to follow the wheel ahead while avoiding potholes, stones, and the occasional stray water bottle is well aware of the focus and stress involved, the first time at least. Multiply the numbers of riders involved by twenty, add a competitive element that includes frequent changes of pace, as well as moments when you need to eat, put on or take off a jacket and perhaps even pee, and sanctuary seems less accurate a description. Former pro turned directeur sportif Marco Pinotti puts it better: “It’s like a washing machine, where everyone’s going round and round and constantly changing position.”

According to Australia’s Tiffany Cromwell, “Your level of comfort within the peloton depends to a good degree on what kind of a rider you are. I know riders who’ve come into the sport late who don’t have a good feel for riding in the bunch. They freak out. For some riders, simply being in the peloton is a cause of a lot of stress, anxiety, and really plays on their nerves. They have trouble moving through the peloton, they can’t get through gaps. There is a lot of argy-bargy, and you’ve got to be prepared and comfortable with that,” she says. “You do see GC riders who are good climbers who can’t find their way to the front, and looking after them can be quite a stressful task. You don’t want to be using too much energy moving up through the bunch when there’s a critical moment ahead because it will cost you.”

Most who have raced at the top level will be able to relate to Cromwell’s words. Riding in the peloton has always been a test of character and nerve, especially when the pace ramps up approaching a crucial point in a race, particularly the finish. For most of the postwar years, the peloton had a safety valve in the shape of its patron, the rider, usually the unchallenged star of the era, who imposed rules on what could happen and when. Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi fulfilled this role in Italy, imposing order in a regal manner. Eddy Merckx achieved the same, although more due to his crushing physical superiority than his desire to dominate. Bernard Hinault bent all of his rivals to his will, intimidating them with his personality, deciding when they could attack, chasing them down when they went against his wishes, ensuring that riders who raced for up to perhaps 150 days a year didn’t do so at a frantic pace at all times.

Long-time pros were often complicit in maintaining order, too. When, in 1952, the Tour organizers included summit finishes on the race for the first time, concern among riders about the damage that might be caused at Alpe d’Huez, the first ski station anointed, led to senior members of the peloton preventing riders from breaking away by brandishing their pumps, like shepherds keeping a flock together, until the foot of the final ascent. More recently, Mario Cipollini was renowned for instilling the same unanimity at the Giro d’Italia, making clear to the other members of the race’s gruppo that there was no sense in riding at anything other than a gentle tempo until Italian TV began its daily broadcast.

When the pace did go up, stress levels went up with it, particularly just behind the team setting the pace on the front, who was usually working either for a sprinter like Cipollini or riding in defense of the leader’s jersey held by one of their teammates. Clustered behind this arrowhead were the rival sprinters and GC favorites, each with a cohort of two or three domestiques protecting them, with the rest of the pack sitting in behind.

A transformation came with the adoption of race radios by every professional team. First used in the mid-1990s, race radios linking riders to their directeurs sportifs in the cars trailing behind the peloton didn’t herald an immediate change, partly because only a few teams used them initially. Greater use, though, has resulted in situations when every team ends up asking its riders to do the same thing at exactly the same time, to move up toward the front of the bunch because there’s a pinch point ahead or the wind is going to start blowing from the side. Something has to give, and initially it is composure.

“When I started in the late ’90s the peloton was quite an organic, flowing thing. It’s not that it was less stressful, it was simply a different, more independent stress. Each one of us decided how much we wanted to fight,” David Millar explains in The Racer. “Nowadays it’s robotic. All team directeurs are on the radio telling their riders to get to the front and ride as a tight unit. Fair enough, I can see what they’re trying to achieve, but it ends up being counter-productive, as with so many teams trying to do the same thing it turns into a total clusterfuck.”

Yet, while radios have added to the pressure when the peloton begins to ride flat out toward the finish, the determination to be in the thick of the action has always been a fundamental part of road racing. Riders still employ the same tools and tactics as their predecessors did back in the 1920s, particularly in the northern Classics, which explains why Belgian riders are generally so adept at battling for position and renowned for finding their way through to the front even on the narrowest of roads.

“Holding your place in the bunch does mean using your elbows a lot and asserting yourself. You do try not to be sketchy, perhaps by chopping people’s wheels or pushing them onto the grass, because then you’ll lose the respect of the other riders, but ultimately you have to be quite ruthless,” explains Tiffany Cromwell, who relishes races like the Tour of Flanders for precisely this reason. “You’ve got to be willing to fight to stay on the wheel you’re on, otherwise rivals will take advantage and move into your space because they know you’re not prepared to defend that position.

“You do often need to use your body weight to assert yourself, but you would never take your hands off your handlebars and try to push someone out of the way—that’s an unwritten rule. As long as your hands are on the bars, you can use your elbows to let everyone know, ‘Hey! I’m here! This is my spot.’ That said, there are certain riders in the peloton who will still try to come over you, and that’s an especially key moment when you have to be strong about holding your place, about making others realize that you won’t give up that easily, that you won’t be bullied out of your space. If you can do that, other riders realize and it makes holding your position a little easier.”

Like Cromwell, Marco Pinotti underlines that the secret is not simply being able to ride in the middle of the bunch, which he says is easy, but of holding your position. “The degree of difficulty depends on what part of the race you’re in. If it’s in the last 30 k and the race is on, you have to constantly try to move up simply in order to retain your position. If you don’t do that, you’ll go backwards,” says the Italian. “You want to move up but remain out of the wind, but everyone wants to do that. You have riders trying to come in on both sides of you all of the time, and they’re dealing with the same thing. That’s when you get the washing-machine effect.”

Pinotti, a time-trial specialist who was prized as a domestique for his ability to provide a long and high-powered pull on the front of a lead-out train or tow one of his team’s protected riders to the front of the peloton at a critical moment, admits fighting for position wasn’t something he enjoyed.

“Some riders find it easier to hold their position or move up than others. Sprinters go through gaps that you don’t think are possible. When I had to get to the front, at 10 k to go if we were setting up a sprint, I’d press the accelerator button and make a big effort to pass the bunch on one side, then do my bit as hard as I could, then, boom! I’d pull out of the way. It takes a real toll mentally making efforts like that in that kind of intense situation. Some riders find it comes naturally, but I wasn’t one of them,” Pinotti confesses.

“You get the same kind of fight coming into a climb. It’s better to be in 10th position than in 20th, and there’ll be a fight to gain that advantage. So even the climbers will fight to get on a wheel, especially when it’s a [20 percent finishing] climb like the Mur de Huy in Flèche Wallonne. There’ll be a constant fight going into a climb like that, elbows everywhere, and if you don’t get involved you will end up too far back—even being 20 meters back at the start of a climb will make a real difference. It costs you energy to close that gap, so it’s better to learn how to defend your position, unless you’re an awful lot better on the climbs than everyone else.”

Pinotti smiles and adds with a laugh, “That’s one reason I love time trials so much. You don’t have all this pushing and shoving, all these tactics being played out. You do have a tactic, but you don’t have anyone messing around with it.”

Some pros, though, have an intuitive feel for these high-octane moments, an ability to pick their way through from back to front with a minimum of fuss and incredible speed. Charly Wegelius, a British pro who had a long career racing mainly in Italy as a domestique, picked out his former teammates Luca Paolini and Oscar Freire as having this innate ability “to be in the right place at the right time. Other guys will be fighting for position 20 or 30 kilometers before the key point in a race, but Luca could be coasting at the back and leave it until the very last minute to move up. He’s one of a very small number of riders who can move through the middle of a peloton and not have to scrap in the gutter. That comes from incredible spatial awareness and confidence in his bike handling.”

For his part, Paolini credited some of this ability to the grounding he’d had with one-day specialists such as Peter Van Petegem, Johan Museeuw, and Stefano Zanini. “They were all riders that you would see right at the back of the bunch but who at the crucial moment in races were somehow in the right place . . . I tried to copy them. Now young riders will say to me, ‘How come you’re up here suddenly when a kilometer ago you were at the back?’ The answer is that you just sense a kind of nervous energy in the bunch and you just feel that it’s time to move up. It’s instinctive. Some have it and some don’t,” he told Procycling.

“It’s like you’re a psychologist or a mind-reader and you can sense the peloton’s mood. You know what certain riders are going to do, how certain teams move. You see a curve coming a few hundred meters away and you sense that there could be a crash or a split. These things stay with you regardless of course changes over the years. And some things never change: knowing how to approach the Arenberg Forest [in Paris–Roubaix], the Kwaremont [in the Tour of Flanders] . . . You never stop learning because new riders come along and approach the races differently.”

It’s no coincidence that all of these riders have a strong Classics or sprinting background, as these are races and situations when this intuitive ability to assess what’s coming before it does, and to pick the best path through the bunch accordingly, is most essential. Koen de Kort, who spent a number of seasons as a key member in Marcel Kittel’s lead-out train, is another in this mold. “When you’re in the peloton, you become aware of the guys who have a feel for what’s happening and are able to react to it easily and those who find it a bit more stressful because they don’t have that kind of insight, or perhaps foresight,” the Dutchman explains.

“When an obstacle is coming up, I can see the riders in front of me and who belongs to which team, and I can predict pretty well where everyone’s going to go and where the space is going to be. That just comes from experience I think, but I was once told by a teammate, ‘It’s really easy following you. It’s as if there’s a wake behind you, because you’re flowing through.’ But it’s down to the fact that I’ve done this job for 15 years and during that time I’ve always had someone, a teammate, on my wheel and it’s like pulling a trailer through an obstacle course. You’ve always got to bear in mind that you’ve got that trailer behind you, and you know when you can push on or when you’ve got to hold back. Teammates do tend to stick together, so you can usually predict where they’re going to go.”

De Kort spent the back end of 2017 putting his experience at the disposal of Alberto Contador during what were the final months of the Spaniard’s racing career. “When you start to work with someone new, like Alberto, it takes a little bit of time to get used to it. We’re kind of nailing it now just as he’s about to retire,” says De Kort, who admits that working closely with a GC rider is a little different to the lead-out role he’s principally renowned for.

“With them being sprinters, I know they can go through gaps that are quite small and they will always follow. In general, there’s no time to look back. I’d just shout their name, they’d shout ‘Yep!’ or something similar and we’re off. If they lose my wheel they’ll yell, so I’m just trying to listen. And there’s all kinds of yelling going on, so it’s noisy. There are all these trains and they’re all yelling at each other. I’m yelling at the teammate in front of me and telling them what they’ve got to do, and then trying to communicate with whoever is behind me. It’s frantic. There’s so little time to think and react. There are no rear-view mirrors, and even if you did have them, you wouldn’t have time to look into them. It’s all happening instantly—reaction, reaction, reaction,” says De Kort.

While some riders breeze through a peloton, there are plenty who find the same process a battle that costs them much-needed energy. Interestingly, a number hail from outside the sport’s traditional European heartlands. American Tom Danielson, once tipped as the USA’s next great stage racer after Lance Armstrong, admitted he struggled to adapt to the European peloton after racing at home in smaller fields on roads that tended to be much wider and straighter, which made for a less claustrophobic experience, and where moving up to the front was usually a case of accelerating up one side of the bunch.

Danielson, who was very much a climber, admitted to being intimidated in certain situations when he first began to race in Europe. “When I tried to move to the front, I’d waste all this energy and come to the last climb really exhausted. I started to learn tactics and how to move through the peloton . . . once you begin to figure it out, it’s amazing how much energy you save—and people at home often just don’t understand how big of a battle it is on the road. If you start a climb ten bike lengths behind someone else . . . you have to make a huge acceleration up to them—it’s like attacking just to get up to the front of the peloton.”

According to Wegelius, who is now a directeur sportif, one of the USA’s new generation of climbers, Joe Dombrowski, has had similar issues. “Joe’s engine and his physiological capabilities aren’t going to be his limiting factor, but it’s the racing environment, with lots of pace changes, that can be a bit tough for him. A rider can place himself at the correct place in a race with a big energy cost or they can do it efficiently,” Wegelius has said of his experiences of working with the American, highlighting that Dombrowski has “struggled with the constant high-torque efforts when a peloton sprints out of corners and when the crosswinds blow.” At these points, riders often need to sprint hard to hold their place and avoid being exposed in the wind on their own.

How the Race Was Won  investigates the fine details of bicycle racing through extensive interviews with the sport’s brightest minds. Author Peter Cossins has interrogated the riders, managers, and directors who have shaped the sport, and reveals how they learned to navigate the invisible undercurrent that sweeps their riders to the finish line.