Bert Garcia in his Friday Ramblings makes a smart observation about success as a bike racer: winners hang out near the front. He shows picture after picture from the 2009 season of guys at the front who later moved up to Cat 3 or even Cat 2.
At first glance, it seems obvious that those strong enough to hang out at the front would get the most points, but hanging out at the front has a huge cost: namely, efficiency. You'd think, then, that winners would be the guys who tuck themselves into the pack and save themselves for the finish. But Bert makes a convincing emperical argument that this was not the case in 2009.
A bit of analysis. In Bert's view, hanging out at the front causes these riders to be winners. From another point of view, these riders are strong enough that they can win despite hanging out at the front. I know from having ridden on the front that it does take its toll. I've rarely placed or won when I've been on the front for most of a race. For a comprehensive analysis of frontin', see my brother's post on the subject.
Point 1: riding on the front works if you're relatively stronger than everyone else
I'm thinking of Walkersville last year. It was my first race coming off a sedentary Winter (maybe 3 hours of training per week) and I came in completely undertrained and 20 pounds overweight. My strategy was to expend as little energy as possible and try not to get dropped. Meanwhile, Rugg, Brown, Sexy Tony, Lance and Martin were on or off the front repeatedly. Lance, for example, went on a solo 8 mile break practically from the starting gun. Lance was strong enough so that when the winning break did go, he was able to launch after it--and nearly catch it. Rugg and Sexy Tony (who had spotted us two minutes while he was reading the paper in the port-a-potty) blew up trying to launch an attack of their own.
I finished 2nd in field sprint and 7th overall because I didn't take one pull all day. To be honest, I couldn't. 7th isn't great for most people, but for me, it was a result way beyond my fitness level at the time, only made possible by entirely avoiding the front. Lance finished on the podium, yes, because he rode on the front for most of the race, but even more, because he was ridiculously strong that day.
Point 2: riding on the front works if you're not in a "last one standing" kind of race
The premise of the BBC / Discovery Channel series Last One Standing is quite simple: take six Western pseudo-athletes, send them to different locales around the world and have them compete with locals in local sports.
The Western athletes typically have their asses handed to them in seconds. So what they're competing for--against each other--is the ability to stay in the ring with the locals the longest. Just endure.
Some races are like that: Conestoga, Mt. Nebo, Page Valley, and Lost River. No one actually wins these races; they just survive. Here, it's best to conserve your energy. I'm terrible at these races, probably because I'm way too heavy to do the climbing they require. Front, back...who cares? If you're still around with 200 to go, you've got a chance.
Most MABRA races--the kind Bert analyzes--are not last one standing races; they're first-to-the-post kind of races. If you're strong, it may be smart to be near the front on a technical course (Ft. Ritchie), a flat course where the tempo is moderate (Trade Zone, RFK and other office park crits), or a narrow rolling road race (Murad, Coppi, and Walkersville).
But it all depends on winds, on tempo, on the other riders and the choices they're making. Are they Dean Wagner-ing* on the front? Are they Bike Wrecking in the pack? Are they Ryan Simpson-ing** off the front? Are they Tim Rugglesworthing in the grass? Is there a DJ Brew in the pack who makes sprinting an exercise in futility? Is your team willing and strong enought to pull for you?
Point 3: ride on the front if you like smart gambles
If you rode with Lance Lacy last year, you probably rode in his draft for nearly every race: Reston, Ride Sally Ride, and Dawg Days, for example. He was at the front for most of these races. Seemed strange to me, but then he won at Dawg Days in the most dominating way possible--on a massive breakaway with Brown, outsprinting our boy in the end.
Brown was smart to team up with Lance L., because Lance had been pulling the pack all year--the guy can ride tempo. Both ABRT and Bike Rack had a large team representation in the race. Both riders made the right choice about riding on the front in a race where the odds seemed stacked against them. They made a smart gamble and it paid off.
In sum, Bert's right--it pays to gamble on the front. Those who ride on the front tend to win. But if you can't ride on the front, don't give up hope. Sexy Tony can be caught in the can. Lance Anderson may (and probably will) blow several tires during the race. Ruggs sometimes get walked on.
*Setting a crazy-high tempo and dropping the Freds off the back.
** Like Dean Wagner-ing, except three hundred yards off the front of the pack.