Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.

This principle is really the predecessor to Race Rule #3 – “Win it at the Line”.  You can’t ‘win it at the line’ from 60th place. 

So, what are the key mechanisms that enable the Walden rule of “Get into position to win?”

1)      Shift down. This is the single most important part of moving through a crowded peleton. Tired limbs and ragged lungs prefer slower RPM’s, but, having the discipline to pedal rapid circles and taking on the additional aerobic burden it carries it provides the reward of being able to take advantage of opportunities before that of your fellow riders. When riders suddenly divide in front of you creating a Tetris-like body space – only the swiftest acceleration will garner that spot. Be that rider that fills in the gap…Do it 20 times and you can move through an entire peleton without feeling the wind…

2)     Never move up on the “hard parts” unless out of desperation or it is the final sprint. For me, the dozens of laps preceding the finish are like a giant science project – how does the peleton move? What are its weaknesses? Where does it consistently slow? Most courses have their Achilles heels – places where the dynamics of the race create opportunities. Elk Grove had no Achilles heel – the whole thing was scary, fast, and dangerous. I had to use other opportunities.

3)      Get a better view: ride on the hoods (upper part of the handlebars) with your head up. I never even realized I did this until someone gave me a hard time about it a few years ago. Riding head down makes perfect sense when in the front of the field or on a breakaway, but when trapped in the compression of the peleton, use the draft to get a good look around. This is probably the single easiest thing to do to aid you during this critical portion of the race. Visibility of the swaying patterns of the peleton is critical to being able to ‘read the tea leaves’ of the race and find a space to move up.

4)      Broadcast your intended movements – herd the cats. Oddly most riders seem intent on maintaining their position – and if you, through your body language and the occasional hand gesture or touch on the hip – indicate a direction you wish to go, more often than not they’ll accommodate. For myself I use a combination of the “slow drift”, the flip of the hand, and the touch on the hip to try and create my path. Sometimes you’ll encounter the cycling equivalent of the ‘Chicago driver’ who actually goes counter to your intended movement and shuts you down – but they too are creating space and sometimes you can anticipate this reaction and quickly swing around them on the other side.

5)      Use EVERYTHING to get into position: finally, and most importantly, be willing to use everything you have to get into position. As your body moves beyond its VO2 max and enters oxygen debt, it is easy to give into the physical and mental malaise that accompanies this searing agony and ‘settle in’ and hope that somehow, somewhere, an opportunity to get into position will emerge.

The single greatest lesson to be learned from this Walden rule is that you have to make it happen – and if necessary use every single ounce of energy at your disposal, sacrificing your actual sprint to get into position. Said differently, a ‘non-sprint’ from 3rd position as you blow up and drift backward is 99% more likely to land you a top ten position than a somewhat rested move from 25th. 

Let me say this again with more urgency: there is NO POINT to sprinting from 30th… (unless you have just moved up from 60th with every ounce of your power.) The first priority for every single available ounce of your energy is to get into striking distance of the win – after that the subtleties of 10th vs. 5th vs. 1st around the final corner is a luxury to be considered for Walden Race Rule #3 (Win it at the Line!)

 Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom of the pool or lake – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.

Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks normally reserved for breaking back to the surface – but instead use them to knowingly enter a tunnel: a darkening culvert with the water rising - the dark spirals of the galvanized ceiling pressing down – lips pursed to capture a breath just above water in the dark as the air disappears. The sprinters choice – continue these death throes or back up and hope for more air?

Often the right choice is forward: thrashing forward under the dark nape of the water and all air gone, the horizon closing. Lungs are on fire, legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for a surface that is no longer there – asphyxiating paroxysms of panic threaten to undermine your survival…

This is fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – that deep inner panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers.  Instead you must discipline yourself, duck lower, and kick through to the other end of this tunnel of pain before you can rise to the surface.

 It is as a result of exactly these kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at various races – usually not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning rider panicking – groping, and pulling me under.

It is this element of fear that makes this probably the hardest of all the Walden rules to follow...

The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of various high speed nervous exercises to move up. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final miles - coasting, sprinting, braking, bumping, crashing and sweating through those narrow boulevards at over 30 mph – sudden sways echoing through the field, the sudden hiss and burning smell of brakes, and rapid swings to avoid wheels and limbs. Nonetheless, what the video does capture is the suffocating closeness of the field preparing for the final sprint, the closed road ahead when it comes to moving up, the proximity of other riders, and the press of bodies blocking any forward progress.


2008 Race Report #5: Winfield Master's National Championships

2008: Race Report #5: Winfield Master’s National Championships (ABR)


Sunday, June 1. ABR Masters’ National Championships, Winfield, IL. Category: Masters 30+/40+ combined. Weather: 78 degrees, 9 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, large (80 ft vertical) hill, 22 miles, 58 riders, average speed – 26.5mph, average pulse 171 bpm, max pulse 192 bpm. Sprint speed 36mph.


So… now there are three ‘national championships’… – ABR (American Bicycle Racing) decided to run their version of master’s nationals this last weekend in Winfield, IL. For the USCF (United States Cycling Federation) their version of Masters’ nationals will be in late June in Kentucky, and then Category 1/2/3 and Pro (ageless) will be in Downer’s Grove, August 17/18th (my favorite race.)


I didn’t really care about it being ‘nationals’ or not (except for the cool jersey you get to wear for a year as ‘national champion’) and just showed up for this race only 15 miles from my home, more excited about being able to race with my friend and 2nd season racer, Matt Dula.


I was chagrined to find that it was a course I’ve done before with a significant hill – and that every lap I would be forced to go up it. Matt was diligently warming up on his rollers in the parking lot by the train station when I arrived – his daughter Rosemary had taken second in the teen girls group earlier, medal dangling proudly from her neck.


I took a warmup lap, climbing the hill, following the sharp left at the top.


It hurt. I hate going up.


The race began. I was conservative. I focused on my strengths: drafting, tucking in on the downhill, pedaling some corners and cutting up the inside on others. Mostly I followed Walden Rule #2 (shift, dammit!) and shifted down for the climb. Each lap as we approached the daunting hill, I clicked my left shifter down from the big ring to the little ring, while double clicking with my right hand to bring my gearing on the rear cog into a relatively appropriate range, spinning over the top.


Early in the race I told Matt to do the same, and for the next 15 laps or so we both were amazed by the glaciating masses drifting backward on the uphill, calving riders trapped in their big ring, struggling to adjust to the steep incline – as we both buzzed around these riders, finding opportunities to sling forward 5 or 10 spots each lap. I had mounted the camera to my bike but totally forgot to use it except for recording one lap behind Matt to capture his technique.


Suddenly it was 2 laps to go: ‘my time’ and I’m sad to share that I was a terrible helper to Matt in his first Cat 1/2/3 race, (and he was staying the pack without any difficulties). I should have had him follow my wheel as I set up for the sprint, but suddenly I was in the zone, instinctively following those race eddies and slotting up into the front – and all I could do was say “hey – time to move up” as I passed by on my way into the top 12. Meanwhile a breakaway of 2 bided their time out front.


Unlike last year’s races, I felt complete control over my placement – not too far up – but not too far back. I could have easily shot to the front of the pack (and then some) up the hill with 1 ½ laps, but I refrained and saved my strength. I felt that roiling, powerful energy of my sprint legs ready to be let loose and merely sidled up to 10th over the top and then followed a wheel down the hill to the finish line as they rang the bell indicating one lap to go.


Lots of movement took place in the first two corners, but I just ping ponged forward to maintain my position as other riders shot forward and others fell back. I maintained 10th place at the base of the hill sliding to 8th halfway up, and then 6th at the top – but still I had not used much. As we headed for the final long downhill corridor, preceded by a hard and tight left turn, I stayed on the inside, knowing that the outside curb on this downhill corner was a death trap (I had warned Matt earlier).


The field spread wide around the corner, and a just to my left a rider accelerated hard coming off the corner. I accelerated and followed his lead. He was fast, and the wind on the downhill section must have had a downdraft to it – I didn’t really feel much protection from my leadout man as we sped down the hill, heads down against the wind, and running first and second, we surged away from the mustering field.


I waited and waited and as we neared 100m to go, accelerated up the inside – but my leadout man had some in reserve and matched my move and I only made up a half a wheel on him before the line, finishing in second in the sprint, fourth overall.


Still – I felt good. This was a tough course and I really had no true difficulties. Matt and I chatted and then returned to the finish area for the awards ceremony. This is where things got a bit funny. I was not familiar with the rules of this ‘other’ cycling federation, so when I filled out my forms in a rush, I didn’t bother to ponder a potentially important question: “age?”. I had written 39.


As the announcer was beginning to separate the 30+ masters results from the 40+ masters, Matt and I had the same thought simultaneously: are you a masters 30+ or a masters 40+ according to ABR rules? (under USCF rules, my racing age - set on Dec 31st of the coming year - is 40.)  So I wandered over and asked the officials whether I should be a masters 30+ (the category they had me registered in) or a masters 40+. They consulted the referee and then decided that my ‘racing age’ was 40 and hence they had me in the wrong group. I was unsure whether this would help or hurt my results.


After some deliberation one of the refs motioned to me and let me know, “you probably should have just let sleeping dogs lie – you were just about to be crowned the masters 30+ national champion, but instead you came in fourth in the masters 40+ - the top 5 places were all masters 40+…”


I laughed and then joined my fellow racers on the podium for the awards ceremony as Mike Dienhart took some film with the helmet cam. Again I walk away from the race with confidence – my sprint was there, I was able to make it up a significant hill, and I was able to move into position for the sprint exactly where I wanted to be.




podium 1


podium 2 

My next race will be back with the Pro I/II’s – in Sherman Park on the 14th. We’ll see how my fitness lasts for the longer, faster races…