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Test to destruction: The Keith Bontrager diary 2005

Keith Bontrager is best known as the bike and component design guru behind his eponymous road and mountain bike components, but behind the scenes the man universally known as KB is an enthusiastic and well-respected endurance mountain bike racer.

KB has taken part in a over 50 24-hour races in the last few years, and in his diary takes us inside the mental, physical and technical challenges of long-distance mountain bike racing, starting with one of the sport's greatest tests, the seven-day TransRockies Challenge.

Index to all entries

August 11, 2005

Team strategies and a tough decision

Today was a tough stage. It was long, there was a lot of climbing, there was plenty of sticky clay in all the wrong places. It went off on pavement for quite a while too (we covered the first 30 km in a little under an hour) which meant the start was punishing. To be fair, it was also a very good day on a bike, with some fast rolling gravel roads to help cover the distance, a very brisk (nearly waist deep) splash through a raging river, and some very choice singletrack in the middle.

The results were all over the place. The riders' bikes were getting thrashed so mechanicals became more common. And many riders ran out of patience, or just cracked. The two minute rule was soundly abused. That is the sort of thing that happens deep into these things. They are not only about pedaling the bike.

This is a team race. A team consists of 2 riders. The riders are supposed to ride together, no more than two minutes of each other on the course, with penalties assessed if they are found to be too far apart.

As far as I know, the team format was the brainchild of Uli Stanciu, the inventor of the Transalp Challenge. He didn't want individual competitors out on the own everyday in the Alps, in part because it would be unsafe, and in part because it would be a pain to go out and find them when they didn't turn up at the end each day. Seems very reasonable to me - if someone gets hurt or breaks down, there is someone else there to help out. In theory no one is out overnight. It seems to work well in that regard.

There are open men's and women's teams, typically dominated by pros. And there are age group categories for men's, women's and mixed teams based on the sum of the ages of the individual riders, 80+ and 100+. The age groups keep things interesting for the amateur riders.

But the team aspect of the race is a tricky one. It can be a huge benefit, or a curse, depending on how you play it.

Team strategy is completely different than in pro road racing. Pro road teams ride for one or two (or seemingly too many in the case of T-Mobile) riders. The domestiques ride for the team leader, sacrificing their place in the overall results in a wide variety of ways in order to propel the leader over the road as quickly and efficiently as possible, and make it possible for him or her to win. The only result that really counts (ignoring a few technicalities) is the leader's finishing time.

In the TransRockies, the time given to a team for each stage is the sum of both rider's time. Given the two minute rule, riders will finish together at roughly the same time, so the team time will be twice the time it takes for the individual riders. Simplifying this, it is the slowest rider that matters, not the fastest.

I've seen many approaches to team strategies in these races. The simple one is that both riders ride their own race, with the faster rider waiting for the slower rider at suitable intervals. Simple enough. Both riders get to ride the course at their own pace and the entire strategy comes down to not violating the two minute rule.

There are teams that race with each other the entire race too. It's as though they are not in a team race.

But neither of these really works if you want to get the best possible result in the event. The best strategy is for the stronger rider to help the weaker rider along whenever it is possible, as much as possible. The roles are reversed when compared to pro road racing - the strong rider is the domestique and the weaker rider the team leader. The strong rider does everything they can to get the weaker rider to the finish line as quickly as possible, taking pulls at the front on the fast sections, pushing or pulling the slower rider up hills (tow ropes are legal!), carrying their teammate's bike up steep hiking sections, carrying the bulk of the food and tools, whatever it takes to make the day easier for the slower rider. In that way the total time out on the course for the team is a minimum.

One helpful way to look at it is that if the two riders are very evenly matched starting out, there will always be one who is going a bit better on a given day. That role will probably change at some point, and then change back again, or even change a few times within the stage. It doesn't matter. If one rider is riding much faster on the day, they do the support role.

It's not a surprise that this is not an easy one in the thick of things, especially for the slower rider. Some people can't seem to make it work at all. The problem seems to be with the declaration that there is a slower and faster rider. Given human tendencies, racer's egos and cycling traditions that makes sense. But to be as fast as possible, you have to do it. The pros do. I suppose it is simpler to accept when there is a victory with a fat payday at the end of it all.

If you ever decide to enter one of these races, choose your teammate wisely. Then work the strategy you want to use out beforehand. If you want to do well in the GC, you know the best approach. It's important.

We are out of the competition now. Steve had to abandon this morning. He had been suffering for the last two days, and we were working together to get him to the end each day, hoping he could recover. But last night the doc said he had some sort of problem with his lungs that would not get better if he kept riding, so we discussed it and decided it was smart for him to stop.

This is a very difficult decision to make. He is a very strong, experienced rider, not the sort to abandon. He came here very fit and ready. It was bad luck to come down with something like this (especially while still on the podium in the GC). But grinding along slowly while suffering a lot isn't that much fun, and the prospect of being off the bike for a long time if it gets worse isn't either.

Tough luck.

There are two stages to go, and I am going to carry on "out of the competition". They accommodate situations like this and allow riders to form informal teams and ride the course, even though we are no longer in the GC. I need the miles...