When it comes right down to it, your start doesn’t matter. Your first lap, and who’s leading who through the cones, don’t matter, either. All that really counts is the last lap?for that matter, the last inch?of a race. That’s when you want to be in front, or at least doing as good as you can do. All the other stuff just makes getting to that point a little easier.
Once you understand that you don’t have to lead every inch of a race to win, the task is a lot easier.


For me, the race strategy changes dramatically after the first lap. That’s when the race really begins. On the first lap, everyone else is, basically, practicing, so it pays to be as aggressive as possible. Take advantage of them before they can warm up. You have to pass right now?don’t let the leader get out of sight. If you wait around, someone will pass you. By the second lap, though, everyone is going to be up to speed. They all know where they are going, so if you are overaggressive, it doesn’t accomplish as much. At that point you have to assess your situation and come up with a plan for the rest of the race.

Here’s the problem: No one can ride at their absolute top speed for three hours straight. I can’t, and neither can the guys I race against. If I could, there would be no need for strategy of any kind. I would just hold it open at the start and never look back. When you are going all out, however, you are taking chances and hanging it all on the line. Those kinds of chances will eventually catch up to you. Also, you are using up energy reserves and, no matter how good your conditioning is, you will have to back off eventually to recuperate?even if it’s only for a minute or two. So the trick is to know how long you can ride at an absolute sprint, and to know when to do it.
Usually, I pace myself so that the last lap can be my fastest. Remember the prime directive?leading the race only counts at the checkered flag. There are a million different situations that can arise before then, and all of them call for a different strategy. The worst plan of all is to have no plan. Then you will just ride hard until you run out of steam. At that point you are easy pickings for the guys who did have a plan.

The best plan of all would be one that never calls for running at your limit. If I could get through an entire race without ever pushing myself to the limit, I would love it, but that never happens. Even if I’m the fastest rider on a given weekend, I might not always know I’m the fastest rider. You don’t always know what your competition is up to. That’s why you need good counterintelligence. Get one of your counterintelligent friends to hold a pitboard for you. You have to know if you are catching the leader or losing ground to him. If you are the leader, then you need to know if you are pulling away. You need to know if your current speed is enough.

Let’s take a pop quiz. Here are some situations that might come up in a hare scrambles.
1. You have led the first two laps, and are going full speed. Your pitboard says someone is catching you fast. You should:
A. Continue to ride full speed. He must be hanging it out even farther and he’s likely to crash.
B. Take a breather and let him pass you, then follow him and find out where he is picking up so much time.
C. Back off a little so that he’s catching your roost, then try to hold him off. He will get tired twice as fast.
D. Have no plan at all and be amazed when he blows by, sucking your goggles off.

2. You are catching the leader halfway through the race because you have a great line through a mudhole that he doesn’t know about. You should:
A. Pass him and try to get away as soon as possible, or it’s likely that someone will pass the two of you.
B. Follow him, but don’t take your great line until the last lap when you pass him.
C. Pass him some time immediately after your super line. By the next lap you may be far enough ahead to keep your secret.
D. Have no plan at all and everything will be just fine.
3. You and another rider have been dicing for three laps, riding at about nine-tenths. You should:
A. Wait until he stops for gas, then ride all out until you have to stop for gas. With any luck, you will still be in front (and out of his sight) when you get back on the course.
B. Continue to ride at the same speed when he stops for gas. Save your sprint for the end of the race.
C. Stop for gas on the same lap so you can continue where you left off.

D. Pull into his pit and knock over all the gas cans.
4. It’s late in the race and you are close to the front, but tiring quickly. You should:
A. Back off a little so you can finish strong.
B. Use lip absolutely every ounce of strength you have.
C. Lose the race, go home and train harder.
D. Pull off, looking at your rear shock and shaking your head.

Any plan is better than no plan, remember? I’ll give you half credit for any of the questions where you didn’t choose D. Amazingly enough, on the track most riders do opt for ‘D,’ the no-plan answer.

For the first question, where the other rider is catching you fast, I think the best strategy would be ‘B,’ let him by. It’s still early in the race and if he’s going so much faster, he must have a trick. If you wear yourself down before he passes you, you might not have the energy to stay with him long enough to figure out what he’s doing.

In the next question, you are the guy who’s making up time on the leader. I would like to say ‘B,’ pass him on the last lap. The only trouble is that you are taking a big risk that he won’t learn the line in the meantime. I would more likely go with ‘C,’ pass him and try to get away before he learns from you.

The gas-stop question raises 100 different possibilities. I almost always try to get out of my competitors’ sight when I have the opportunity. Once I get away like that, I feel it demoralizes them and they aren’t likely to push as hard. So I would choose ‘A,’ and try to make time while they are in the pits.

It’s late in the race and you are struggling, huh? The truth is ‘C,’ you have to train harder. However, that answer does not help you much in this race. Strategy becomes less important later in the race. The positions are already established. You have nothing left to save your strength for, so you might as well give it all you have (B) and let your girlfriend drive you home.

Of course, I can’t have a multiple-choice question for every conceivable possibility. The whole point is that you have to have a plan. Never stop thinking about your situation and how to make the best of it. Never stop thinking about your competition’s plans, either. Remember, whoever passes this test wins the race.


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