How to Play Dead in a Road Race and Get Away With It

road race

“You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” ― Harper Lee

Win Craving

Road cycling is a unique sport where a winner is often not the strongest guy in a race. People new to the sport often ask:

“Why doesn’t the strongest guy just smoke everyone and ride away like they do in marathons?”

Indeed, why not? Of course we, the insiders, know about the draft phenomena and all that. But the question still doesn’t go away even after the drafting is explained:

Why doesn’t the strongest guy always win in a road race?

What’s the difference between a winner and everyone else? Is it talent? Can we say that a winner is the most talented rider in a race? I doubt it. There’s always someone just as talented, and often even more talented, than the winner.

What is it then?

I think it is this: no one craves a win as bad as the winner. That’s the difference.

In my experience, a pair of strongest legs isn’t enough for a ticket to the top of a podium. I’ve seen a lot of races won by underdogs, and I’ve seen a lot of races lost by guys who appeared to be unbeatable. I’ve won races that I wasn’t supposed to win and lost where I thought a win was in the bag.

After years of racing, seeing and knowing how road races are won and lost, I started to see this pattern:

  1. “It’s never over until it’s over” is a cliche for everyone else except the winner.
  2. Winners think about winning, not about “doing well.”
  3. Winners believe they can win, not wonder if they can win.
  4. Winners use their heads to make plans about winning.
  5. Winners are determined to win.

Those 5 things describe what I call the win craving:

  • you never stop fighting;
  • you have the winner’s mindset;
  • you use your head to race, and
  • you insist on winning.

You can develop your win craving in many different ways. But if you remember those 5 points and work on them, you’ll reach a point where winning races will be about how rather than if.

Today, let’s talk about point 4: How to devise a race plan (1 of 1,263,840 possible plans).

The Seed of Craving

Almost to the day 25 years ago, in 1989, I stood on a start line of the Ukrainian road championship. It was a cold, wet and windy morning. The kind of morning when you hate yourself for doing something as stupid as racing a bike.

Worse still, I was long overdue for a good result. The credits I have built in the past have all been used up. It was time to prove my worth. Again. I was getting tired of this never ending game of fighting for a spot under the sun. Quitting this circus seemed like a wise thing to do on a morning like this.

My head coach, Yuri Elizarov, came up to me with a bag full of food and water bottles.

“Do you want anything?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“It’s your kind of a race. It’s going to be long and it’s going to be hard. Last man standing will win. Take care of yourself and you can be that man.”

I looked into his eyes. Does he really believe this? It’s only later, after the race was over, I realized how the seed of win craving was planted in my head by my coach.

The Last Man Standing

3 hours later I followed what I knew was the winning breakaway. By this stage, there wasn’t much left of the peloton. The only guys who still had the legs to race were the 3 guys who attacked.

One was a former world champion and a Peace Race regular. He would have won it at least 27 times if he knew when to stop attacking. The kind of a guy who likes to hurt you because he can.

The second one was one of the best rouleurs in the country with superb climbing ability. He was famous for giving away 1984 Giro d’Italia (GiroBio) to his teammate, Piotr Ugrumov.

The third was of the same caliber, a former national road champion. He was the last guy you would want in a break because he almost always won if he ended up in one. Nicknamed Snake, he was one of the most cunning racers around.

They went on the steepest berg of the course. I was lucky I saw them going and had time to respond. They made me dig deep to stay with them.

When we crossed the top, I thought for the first time of a possibility to win this race. Elizarov’s words, “take care of yourself” popped up in my mind and I knew what I had to do. There was a small problem though.

The Road Racing Code

I was on the limit already so swapping turns one for one with these guys was a death sentence for me. Sitting on wasn’t an option either—road racing code did not allow it.

The code is nowhere written but every road racer knows it. One of its rules is:

You shall not sit on in a breakaway unless you have a legitimate reason to do so.

There are 2 legitimate reasons to sit on in a breakaway:

  1. Justified team orders: For example, the guy your team is betting on missed the break. If the break is within reach, you have a legit reason to sit on. Once it’s more or less clear the break is gone, you have to start working.
  2. You’re outnumbered by a large margin: For example, in a 4-men breakaway, you’re up against 3 teammates. Unless your name is Eddy Merckx, you’re allowed to sit on.

None of these applied. My only option therefore was to play dead.

The Art of Playing Dead

When you’re dead, you’re allowed to miss some turns as long as you contribute to the breakaway as much as you can. The logic here is that it’s better if the dead guy pulls 4 turns out of 5 all the way to the finish than if he pulls 15 turns straight and then drops dead for good and contributes nothing.

Of course, this little proviso opens the door for abuse so it’s up to your conscience to decide if you’re really dead or not.

If you are, as I was on that day, then the boundaries of how much you’re allowed to save your legs are not clearly defined.

I started playing dead as soon as I followed the attack. As I said already, I had to go full throttle to stay with the kings. At the top of the berg, I left a 3 meter (10 foot) gap to send a signal that I’m in trouble. The signal was well received. Each one of them looked back at least once and saw me dangling behind in pain. The pain was real but I wasn’t on the rush to close that gap.

I rested on the descent in the slipstream and they gave me another 3-4 km to recover because they wanted me to last as long as possible.

By now, I knew they thought I was here to share the load and nothing else. So I played along. I missed a turn every 2nd or 3rd round. That steep berg, I would get dropped, sometimes for real, then have a free ride on the downhill and get another 2-3 km recovery break on the flat before I started working again.

And here’s an interesting psychological twist—they even felt pity for me. I was holding on with my teeth but kept helping the breakaway anyway. I wasn’t faking anything, but instead of deteriorating lap after lap, they let me keep myself alive.

This, in turn, gave me a huge psychological boost. I started to believe I can win this race. The longer we rode, the more I believed. The more I believed, the better I felt. It’s a great “vicious” circle to be in.

The Showdown

When we came to the steep berg for the last time, one of them attacked. The finish was about 2 km away with one more hill to climb, a short descent and a 400 meter false flat drag to the line.

The other 2 didn’t even look at me. In their minds I was a goner. Except I wasn’t. Not anymore. I had them on the hook and I knew they will now do all the chasing for me.

We came over the top about 5 seconds down on the first guy. I was gapped again but this time it was a genuine gap—the hummer was down all the way. I closed it on the descent and got back on their wheel again at the bottom of the climb. This climb wasn’t too steep—about 5-6% so there was some slipstream I could use to save my legs for the final kick while they kept shooting rockets at each other.

The 2 chasers pulled a huge turn each and they caught the first guy at the top of the hill. I saw he was done and out of the game. Podium was in the bag but I craved for more.

We turn right and it’s 400 meters to go. False flat, head wind.

For a brief moment, they look back to check what’s going on behind and I see their faces full of pain. They’re on the limit. We all are. I know they just emptied their magazines on the last hill and the proverbial “now what?” is on their minds.

I still have a few bullets left. Not in my legs—in my head. I want to beat them. I’m dying to win.

We hit the finishing straight and someone shoots a bucket of adrenaline into my legs. I’m still smashed into a pulp but I don’t care anymore. I love every second of it because I now know I’m going to nail them.

I learned later that the guy who attacked first figured he had no other options. He thought Snake would beat him in a short sprint because he was a better sprinter so he decided to go early hoping Snake was dead and wouldn’t be able to follow him. He didn’t worry about me at all.

When he went, Snake missed him and had to chase. With 200 meters to go, he was still busy closing the gap. With 150 he relaxed for a second once he caught the guy and then kicked a gear and passed him.

I was still in the saddle when we flew over the 100 meter mark. But now I was picking up some speed as I started to come around him. Once my front wheel was near his pedals, I didn’t need him anymore. I jumped to the left, head down and dumped everything I had left in me on the pedals.

I won by half a wheel.

“I thought you were dead,” Snake said shaking my hand after we u-turned. “I was,” I said “but I rose up.”

To Wrap it All Up

What I’d like you to take home from this 25 years old story can be summed up by this 10 points:

  1. Never discount yourself in a race. Ever.
  2. If you want to win races, think like a winner and you’ll act like a winner.
  3. Think like a loser, and you’ll act like a loser as well.
  4. Believe that you can win. Maybe not today, maybe some other time but never stop believing.
  5. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will.
  6. You don’t have to be the strongest guy in the race to win it.
  7. You don’t have to be an Einstein to win a road race but you’ll win more if you use your head more.
  8. Make a habit of analyzing each race. What have you done wrong and why. What worked and what didn’t. I didn’t learn how to play dead in one race. It took me years of trial and error to make it work. Once it did, I used it over and over in many road races.
  9. Uphold the road racing code. You’ll lose respect of your peers if you race like a jackass.
  10. If you want to win, you must want it more than anybody else in the race. Crave it and one day the craving will be satisfied.