Are We There Yet? (AKA: The Chase)

Whereas most of my posts focus on casual riding, I’ve been doing a good amount of racing in the past year, so I’d like to cover a racing topic. More specifically, I’ve been doing a lot of criteriums (fast, short-course races), that contain breaks, chases, and – more often than not – failures of chases to catch breaks. These events got me thinking:

  1. How long would you have to work to chase down a break?
  2. How hard would you have to work to chase down a break?
  3. At what point does it become unfeasible to chase down a break?

Racing often speaks in seconds – the break is 10 seconds ahead of the peloton. And of course, depending on the speed, you can translate that 10 seconds to distance. For example: if the peloton is traveling at 24 mph, and the break is 10 seconds ahead of the peloton, then the break is 352 ft. ahead of the peloton. Might not sound like much, but that’s about the length of a football field (including the goal posts). Because my teachers always yelled at me when I didn’t, I’ll show my work:

24 mi/h x 5,280 ft/mi = 126,720 ft/h ÷ 3,600 sec/h = 35.2 ft/sec x 10 sec = 352 ft

Now that I’ve bored you with math, if the peloton and the break are traveling the same speed, that gap of 10 seconds won’t change, which means the distance won’t change. In order to close the gap, you have to go faster than the break. But how much faster?

24 mph is pretty fast in our highly-non-pro ranks. Let’s say we kick the speed up to 25 mph. That’s a 1 mph difference. At that rate, we’ll catch them, but when?

352 ft ÷ (1 mi/h x 5,280 ft/mi = 5,280 ft/h ÷ 3600 sec/h = 1.47 ft/sec) = 239.46 sec, or 3.99 min

You read that right. If you put only 1 mph more into the speed of the peloton, it’ll take 4 minutes to chase down a 10 second break. Another way to look at it is that it will take another 1.66 MILES at 25 mph before you catch that break. If each lap of a criterium is a mile, that’s almost 2 laps of racing used in just chasing them down.

Power-to-speed progression is exponential.
Power-to-speed progression is exponential.

I can hear you already saying, “But wait, we can just increase the speed, cut down our chase time!” Yep, true enough. But what will that cost you? An increase from 24 to 25 mph is a 4% increase in speed. Let’s say it costs you something like 280 Watts of power output to maintain 24 mph. That one additional mph can take your power up to some 325 Watts or more! That’s a 16+% increase in power for a 4% increase in speed. Why? Because the power required to overcome air resistance increases as the square of the speed. It’s exponential: the faster you go, the worse this gets. That’s a pretty large jump in effort, also known as “burning a match.”

In a criterium you often have teammates or friends – or the announcer – yelling at you about how far ahead the break is. Let’s take an example from a race this year: the course was 1.2 miles. We were averaging almost 25 mph. That means we’d cover that distance in just under 3 minutes. When the break was 10 seconds ahead of us, it would’ve taken us almost 1.5 laps to catch them, assuming we could add 1 mph to our speed. That means unless we started the chase 2 laps out, they’d already won. Even adding 2 mph – which is a pretty Herculean effort at those speeds – would’ve required 3/4ths of a lap to catch them.

In road races, you usually don’t have people shouting out the time gap, but you can figure it out on your own. Choose a marker (like a light post or sign) and once the break passes it, start doing your “1 One-Thousand, 2 One-Thousand” thing, until you pass the same marker. Without doing all the math above you can still get a rough idea of how long it’ll take to catch them. For example:

  • I count that the break is 5 seconds ahead
  • I know that a 10 second break takes ~4 minutes to cover if I increase by 1 mph (from what we did above).
  • But we’re travelling a little slower – say the pack and the break are doing about 22 mph.
  • A decrease from 10 to 5 seconds I can think about being like a 2 minute chase (by going 1 mph faster), but since we’re going slower, I can guess it’ll take us less than 2 min.

Now, let’s see if my guess worked out:

22 mi/h x 5,280 ft/mi = 116,160 ft/h ÷ 3600 sec/h = 32.3 ft/sec x 5 sec = 161.5 ft

161.5 ft ÷ (1 mi/h x 5,280 ft/mi = 5,280 ft/h ÷ 3600 sec/h = 1.47 ft/sec) = 109.9 sec, or 1.8 min (1 min, 50 sec)

And there it is. Now we start getting a rough feel for the breaks and how long it’ll take to cover them with just a small increase in speed. Maybe from 22 to 23 mph. A good team can easily work together to ramp the speed by 1 mph. Or, you can attack and attempt to bridge the gap on your own – maybe increase from 22 to 24 or 25 mph. That would mean others would be less likely to follow, and you’d have to spend significantly more energy, but you’d do so for far less time (maybe 30-40 sec instead of almost 2 min).

I’m not saying you need to do all this math each and every time you try to gauge a break. But getting a feel for how long it’ll take to chase a break – and keeping track of whether they’re pulling away from you or getting closer – has to be on your radar. The long and short of it is that racing is as much about tactics – understanding your position in the race – as it is about actual riding ability. Knowing where you are, where your opponents are, and how much of the race is left; those three components can dictate your winning strategy.