A Tutorial on Attacking

Jul 11, 2005
Outside Magazine

A rest day at the Tour de France provides a brief opportunity to catch your breath, but the riders and the team staffs really only experience a modest reduction in activity. There is still food to be prepared, three hours spent on the bikes, massages, laundry, and a long list of other chores that need to be completed to keep a Tour de France team running smoothly. For the journalists and commentators, the rest day is a chance to reflect on the race to this point, and take some time to address subjects beyond the day's stage.

The audience for the Tour de France has grown dramatically over the past few years, especially in the United States. Just as there are nuances to every professional sport, there are some details that newcomers to cycling may benefit from as we move into the mountains.


In order to finish in front of your rivals, you have to leave them behind, and that's where attacking comes into play. An attack is a sudden acceleration designed to open a significant gap between you and the group you're riding with. During the flat stages, there were a few attacks early in the day to establish the day-long breakaways, but in the mountains, riders will launch multiple attacks throughout the day.

If you want your attack to be effective, you have to be very careful about the place and time you choose to launch off the front of the group. The effort required to break away from the riders near you takes a lot of energy, and most riders only have enough energy to launch two or three attacks in a day. You have to be patient and carefully select the time and place where you can get the maximum benefit for the energy you expend.

As you watch the Tour de France on television, there are a few guidelines you can use to anticipate attacks in the mountains:

1. Attacks occur when the pace is high. Racers who are already riding as hard and as fast as they can won't be able to accelerate and chase after you. Of course, this is also the hardest time for anyone to attack, and that's why you'll see the Discovery Channel team setting a hard pace on the front of the lead group. They ride at a pace Lance can sustain, with the idea that it will put other riders into difficulty. Once the group whittles down to a select handful, riding at a high pace, the final and decisive attacks of the day are launched.

2. Attacks happen on the steepest sections of the climb. When it comes to getting the biggest bang for your buck, it's best to attack when the road is at its steepest. Your explosive power separates you from your rivals more quickly, you open a bigger gap more quickly, and it's more difficult for your rivals to accelerate and come after you.

This is where lightweight riders gain the biggest advantage. By having less weight to lift against gravity, more of their power can go to moving the bike forward. A rider who generates more power, per kilogram of bodyweight, than another rider, is said to have a greater power-to-weight ratio (P/W). Lance Armstrong's P/W is higher than Jan Ullrich's because Lance is lighter than Jan. They both produce about equal amounts of power (Ullrich most likely produces a little more absolute power than Lance does), but since Ullrich has to drag more weight uphill, he can't accelerate as rapidly on steep pitches.

3. Attacks happen late on summit finishes. When the race ends at the top of a mountain, you want to gain as much time as you can over your rivals and then get to the finish line before they start to eat into your advantage. Lance Armstrong learned this the hard way in 2001. He attacked Jan Ullrich at the steepest portion of Alp d'Huez, when the speed was very high, and he opened up a two-minute lead in five kilometers.

Unfortunately, Lance's lead stabilized at two minutes once Ullrich got up to speed, and the two men rode at the same pace for the remaining five kilometers to the finish. Lance burned a lot of energy in those final five kilometers, just to keep what he had already gained. Since then, he's focused on attacking later in the climbs so he gains the maximum time advantage and then gets to the finish line without wasting a lot of energy maintaining a breakaway effort. Of course, by doing so, he may not be getting the fullest possible effect from his attack (he could theoretically take more time if the gap is still opening when he reaches the finish), but foregoing that little bit of time is better than wasting energy to keep a lead you already earned.


Timing is everything when you launch an attack. Since your goal (especially in the mountains) is to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to be able to come with you, it's best to attack when everyone else is gasping for breath. A counterattack is a response to a breakaway that has just been chased down. The rider who attacked initially is tired from his effort, the riders who chased him down are tired from their efforts, and many of the other men in the group just had to dig deep into their reserves to keep from dropping off the back. This is the perfect time to launch a counterattack.

As you watch the Tour de France ascend major mountain passes, you'll see someone attack the lead group and gain 15-30 seconds, maybe more. Slowly, the group will reel that person back in. Just as the group gets within 100 meters or so of the now-struggling breakaway rider, another man will launch out of the group. In a flash, he'll bridge the gap to the rider out front and then blow right by him. The group will struggle to respond, especially the rider or riders who have been doing the majority of the chasing already. This is a winning opportunity because the counterattacking rider has left behind a group that is already tired from chasing someone else. If they hesitate or fail to respond to the counterattack, you win.

Andreas Kloden and Alexandreer Vinokourov pulled a classic attack/counterattack win during Stage 8. Vinokourov attacked on the Col de la Schlucht and Discovery Channel's Paolo Salvodelli chased him down, but there was no real counterattack. Then Vinokourov went again, and this time Lance Armstrong had to chase him down. As Armstrong reached Vinokourov's back wheel, Kloden launched himself up the side of the road and was gone. No one in Armstrong's group had gas to chase him down because they had already responded to the earlier moves.

Discouraging Attacks:

Attacks and counterattacks are inevitable during the mountain stages, but when a team wants to discourage attacks, they line up on the front of the peloton and set a blistering pace all the way up a mountain pass. This was the strategy Lance's team utilized to perfection last year, and may try to employ again this year. Team riders take turns driving the pace at the front of the peloton, trying to keep the speed so high that no one would be able to attack and maintain a faster pace off the front. To do this, they have to ride at a pace they can only sustain for three to six 3-6 minutes. When those minutes are up, the rider is done. He pulls over and lets his teammates continue at high speed while he slows down and rides his own, slower, pace to the summit. If that was the last climb of the day, he just rides to the finish. If there is another mountain to come, he has to regroup and try to catch back up on the descent and through the subsequent valley before the start of the next ascent.

Dealing with the Aftermath:

The manner in which a rider responds to an attack says a lot about his strength and his wits. The worst thing you can do is push yourself over your limit in the process of responding to a rival's attack. If you redline yourself and your engine shuts down, you can lose big chunks of time in a matter of one or two kilometers. There is nowhere to recover on a big climb, so you have to keep yourself under control. If it's relatively early in the climb, it's better to let a gap open and then gradually increase your speed to close it.

If you're close to the finish line, you just have to dig deep and accelerate as hard as you can. You don't have time to gradually close the gap, so you have to do your best to close it quickly or at least minimize the damage.

At some point during the mountain stages, we're also going to see a rider "crack,", or suddenly lose power. It happens with amazing speed— one second a rider is pedaling smoothly with the group and the next he's rocking the bike back and forth, drooling, and barely turning the pedals over. You might wonder how teammates can be helpful at such moments, since they can't push their leader and they're typically not going fast enough to worry about drafting.

Rhythm is very important in climbing mountain passes, and when you crack, you lose all sense of rhythm. Having a teammate's wheel to follow is very helpful for reestablishing a decent climbing rhythm; you just focus on following his wheel and his pedal strokes and you gradually rejoin the living. Teammates can also provide food and water bottles for a teammate who has run low on energy or fluids.

Of course, the only aftermath Lance Armstrong wants to deal with is the hassle of having to stick around for the yellow jersey presentation after the stage, so he aims to utilize his team, his tactical savvy, and his power to contain the attacks launched by his rivals and launch decisive attacks no one can respond to. He'll get his first chance Tuesdaytomorrow on the monster climb to Courchevel, and so will his rivals.

Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong's personal coach and founder of Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). His latest book, Chris Carmichael's Fitness Cookbook , is now available and you can register for a chance to win a ride with the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team at www.trainright.com.

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