USA Pro Challenge: Talking strategy with Amy Charity

Joel Reichenberger
The peloton thunders across Rabbit Ears Pass during the 2013 USA Pro Challenge. When the peloton puts its collective mind and muscle into catching a breakaway group, it can make up time very quickly.
Joel Reichenberger

— Sure, she loves the thrill of competition, the endorphins of a big workout and, most simply, going for a good, long bike ride, but Steamboat Springs professional cyclist Amy Charity said it’s the strategy of a bike race that really helped secure her addiction to the sport.

“It’s very different than other sports,” she said. “It takes awhile to understand, but the more people do understand, the more interesting bike racing becomes.”

She’ll get the chance to exercise her accumulated knowledge when the women’s portion of the USA Pro Challenge begins Thursday in Breckenridge, but she’s plenty familiar with the roads and tactics the men’s racers will encounter in the two stages around Steamboat and she agreed to breakdown several of the key strategies fans could see.

The Breakaway:

A breakaway group is a regular part of a major team cycling race and is likely to be a key element to both days of racing in and around Steamboat Springs.

Whether it’s comprised of five, six or 20 riders, how well it rides compared to the peloton will decide the day.

There are many different strategies that could motivate a rider to try to break away from the peloton.

Getting an early lead

One of the week’s top general classification (the yellow jersey) contenders could break away Monday or Tuesday hoping to take an early lead in the week-long contest. If that happens, however, teammates of that rider’s rivals are likely to try very hard to keep the breakaway group from ever getting true stage-winning separation.

Going all in

A rider with smaller, less ambitious, GC (general classification) goals could decide to go all in on winning the stage. Since he wouldn’t be a long-term yellow jersey threat, there wouldn’t be quite as much desire to chase him down from the other GC (general classification) contenders, but teams hoping to win the stage in a bunch sprint would have major incentive to catch that group.

“Really, what people care about is getting on the podium,” Charity said.

Believe it or not, a great way to get on that podium is to ride faster, break away, build a cushion and maintain it.

Racking up the points

Even if a rider doesn’t hope to win the stage, there are prizes to be had. There will be two King of the Mountain checkpoints on Stage 1, plus two more on Stage 2 to go along with two sprint checkpoints. Each of those award points for special jerseys, King of the Mountain to honor the week’s best climber and sprint to award the week’s best sprinter. Getting out in front is a sure way to get a jumpstart on those points and to earn a spot on the King of the Mountain or sprint podium at the end of the day.

Making moves:

A rider can join a breakaway without trying to fulfill personal plans but as a part of a larger team strategy.

“The big teams are the ones who will have to bring back a break, so then you’re forcing them to burn matches,” Charity said. “The whole bike race is about conserving matches and burning them when it makes the most sense.”

The strategy could be even more devious than that.

“If you’re caught, another team had to work hard to bring you back, and then one of your teammates can counterattack, and it’s making that other team chase them down, too,” Charity said. “You’re making them waste energy they didn’t intend to waste.”

Doing the math

Riders in the peloton know just how dangerous a breakaway can be, and they’re constantly made aware of how far the leaders are in front of them.

“It can be very calculated,” Charity said. “The men know how fast a break can go relative to the peloton, how much distance is left, and they can calculate when they really need to lay the hammer down and go for it.”

The Sprint

If a bold attack doesn’t alter the outcome, Monday’s race is likely to end in a sprint — the third such finish in as many stages in Steamboat Springs.

It will unfold in stages with machine-like precision, at least if everything goes according to plan.

The Sprint:

If a bold attack doesn’t alter the outcome, Monday’s race is likely to end in a sprint, the third such finish in as many stages in Steamboat Springs.

It will unfold in stages with machine-like precision, at least if everything goes according to plan.

5-kilometers to go:

(On River Road, just east of town)

Assuming they’re not chasing a plan-wrecking attacker, teams will be thinking about setting up the sprint as the race nears Steamboat, and Charity said they’ll be full-on setting things up as they come near the 5-kilometer mark.

Teams hoping to get a sprinter onto the podium will set up in a long line with their sprinter at the rear, setting up that rider’s lead-out train.

“They protect their sprinter,” she said. “Ideally, they’ll all want to get to the front and have their entire team there. You don’t want anyone else in your lead-out train. You don’t want another rider to come between you and your teammate.”

3-kilometers to go:

(Riding up Mount Werner Road and turning onto U.S. Highway 40)

The front riders will be going as hard as they possibly can, leading the race and allowing their teammates to draft off of them.

“You go as hard as you can, and when you can’t possibly pedal any more, you pull off and your position doesn’t matter anymore,” Charity said. “The next person is on the front and they’re drilling it.”

A team is supposed to work like a boxcutter with breakaway blades — a new, fresh rider at the front as soon as the one in front of him dulls.

200-meters to go:

(Two or three blocks from the finish, in front of Natural Grocers and bistro cv)

The final lead-out rider will wear out, and the sprinter will rocket around him and charge as hard as possible toward the finish line.

It’s a complex process that rarely works exactly as planned. If there are no more teammates to draft off of, a sprinter will find the strongest rider he can to follow, hoping to be able to pop around at the last second to steal the win.

Riders are paying attention to every detail.

“It can get very hectic in the last 200 meters,” Charity said. “People are just trying whatever they can to get up to the front.”

Anything but easy

A perfect sprint is a lot harder to set up than it is to talk about.

“It’s very tough to execute,” Charity said. “You notice which way the wind is coming in, and you’ll decide which side of the road you want to be on relative to other teams. You’re thinking through everything that could possibly help get your sprinter across first.”

If a team does everything right, it will have something to celebrate.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.