If At First You Don’t Succeed

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Matthias Kessler got his revenge on the sprinters this afternoon. After getting swarmed by the pack just 50 meters from the finish line yesterday, he struck out on his own again today, and this time those 50 meters worked to his favor. His attacks over the past two days were textbook examples of good last-minute tactics. They also illustrated that even when you have the fitness and make the right move, you still need a little luck to cross the finish line first.

A week ago, Kessler thought he was coming to the Tour de France to ride in support of Jan Ullrich’s bid for the yellow jersey. With his T-Mobile team leader excluded from the race just 24 hours before the start, the team’s objectives changed and Kessler was freed to hunt for individual stage victories. He’s not a great sprinter, nor a featherweight climber, and his training prior to the Tour de France was most likely focused on the role he was going to play for Ullrich: riding hard at the front of the peloton to keep the pace high and discourage attacks from rival teams. Without a leader for whom to set the pace, surging off the front of the field close to the finish line is just the kind of move for which Kessler’s training has also prepared him. Last-minute attacks are a great way for daring riders to win races, and you just have to look at Kessler’s winning move today to learn how to do it.

Wait for It…
Timing is critical for making a successful attack in the closing miles of a bike race. As odd as it may sound, the perfect time to attack is when the pace is the highest. If the pack is going slowly when you launch off the front, a lot of riders will be motivated to accelerate and come after you. On the other hand, if you go off the front when people are already going flat out, they’re more likely to wait and let someone else chase you. And if no one reacts soon enough, you can get far enough ahead and win the race.

Attack Hard
When he decided it was time to go, Kessler fully committed to the effort and accelerated as explosively as he could. It’s important to open a significant gap between yourself and your pursuers as quickly as possible because it makes riders think twice before coming after you. If you’re only a few bike lengths ahead, they can get to you with a few hard pedal strokes. If you open a 30-meter gap in the first ten seconds of your attack, that’s a big enough space that it would take a committed effort for anyone to accelerate and come across to your back wheel.

Don’t Look Back
In both Stage 2 and today in Stage 3, Kessler’s fate was sealed the moment he launched off the front. A last-minute attack is an all-or-nothing move, and if you get caught you’re going to lose the race. But since you can’t control what’s going on behind you, the best thing you can do is grit your teeth and go as fast as you can. There’s no point in looking back to see how you’re doing… you’ll know soon enough.

More than anything, the final miles of the past two stages show that even though a perfectly executed move can fail, you have to have the courage to risk losing in order eventually to win.

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