Don’t Crack

September 13, 2007

“I was hanging with the leaders until the second climb when I cracked about halfway up.”

“I just kept to my pace on the climb and passed three guys who cracked trying to ride with the front group.”

The use of “to crack” in cycling is different from “blowing up” in that it implies, to me at least, a psychological component. “Blowing up” just means you rode yourself beyond your sustainable level of effort, roughly speaking over into the anaerobic side of the power station. In contrast “cracking” is applied to situations in which the going is tough  (generally climbing) and a racer (or rider) just stops maintaining the pace which is otherwise sustainable. There is a slowdown in speed, of course. A loss of cadence and of pedaling smooth circles. A dropoff of HR from the max sustainable threshold for aerobic activity. The rider drops a gear and just plods on at a survival pace. In other words, quits. It’s subtle because after all you are still technically riding up the hill or finishing the race; the difference is that you aren’t really trying anymore. You aren’t at maximal (or targeted) sustainable effort.

In bike racing you spend a fair bit of time trying to crack the other guy. To make him give up. Or, at least I always did. For one thing the benefits of drafting mean that racers stay together more, unlike running or nordic ski racing. Which means that putting your competitors out of competition isn’t a simple equation of ride-as-hard-as-you-can. Also, the bike is a great equalizer in some ways. So there you are, suffering like a dog with a pack of other racers. Who comes out on top? Well, often enough it is the one who can tough it out, keep on sustaining the effort until the competitors have given up. It is also the one who can out psych the opposition. Remember all that talk about Lance’s “The Look” in the 2001 Tour? I think most non-cyclist probably though this was pretty dumb, sketch or some media invention. Not so. Always a rule in cycling to never to let them think you are suffering.

Train your strengths. Duh. Climbers like to go out and climb hills. Big guys like to hammer the flats. Most coaches (even beyond cycling) have a constant mantra to train your weaknesses. They are right. This is to keep others from cracking you. But never neglect the one that brung ya! This is the tool you use to make the competition suffer to the point where they might crack.

Attack. In cycling the “attack” is when you are going along with the pack of riders and a given speed and you decide it isn’t fast enough. So off you go at a higher speed and see who comes with you. Sometimes, the whole pack is right on your ass. Sometimes they let you go and you decide, “er, I’m not riding 50K on my own hook” and come back to the pack. But sometimes, part of the race comes with you and part of it decides their race day is over. You’ve cracked ’em.

It applies to the more recreational riding too, from training to cycle touring. It’s kind of a rule of cycling that it is going to hurt at times and part of the satisfaction is in sustaining performance despite the discomfort. This is how we get faster, how we ride those hills we’ve never made it over, how the data nerds make their usual ride with a 0.5 mph improvement in average speed and how we manage to finish that century ride. One of the life lessons of cycling (as with other sports) is that your mind is a Big Fat Liar! In other words, you learn a lot about just what your body is capable of doing when you shut down that little voice saying “but it hurts….wah”. (No, I’m not talking about riding with actual injury people.)

In my on-again phase of training, I am reminded that this is a skill, just like any other and it atrophies without practice. I use this as an explicit training goal. The point being not to climb the old training hills at the old speed. Rather it is quite simply to ride them without cracking. A modest but necessary goal. I did a couple of Soledad repeats today, that’s why I’m thinking about cracking.

There’s a lesson for research careers in here somewhere.

2 Responses to “Don’t Crack”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    The classic crack for me was Indurain in his last tour, when he violated a rule by taking a can of Coke from his team car on the climb, because he knew that the penalty was a lot less than what he would lose in time if he didn’t do something. If I remember correctly, that crack was a combined result of “blowing up” and “hunger knock”. I’ll let you define those terms.


  2. bikemonkey Says:

    Interpretation of whether someone dropping off the pace is a “blow up”, a “crack” or “hunger knock” is ultimately internal. They know. You know when you are quitting for that matter.

    Indurain was never a wuss and he was team leader….I’d tend to believe the hunger knock or blowup hypothesis first in his case. Pro racing is so tactical, and these guys are such professionals, that it is really hard to say the other one “gave up”. We’re willing to believe it of Ulrich of course because he always seemed to under-perform his apparent physical talents and so we reach to “deficit of will” explanations.

    The “hunger knock” for anyone who cares, is also referred to as the “bonk”. I.e., when you’ve fully depleted your ready energy stores (circulating glycogen) and your muscles won’t do it anymore. You can prove this to yourself by not eating and riding until your body just shuts down. Pound your favorite replenisher (can’t beat the banana and Coke routine, but I hear them new-fangled gels are the beans) and see how your body comes back to life in about 15-20 min. If it does, that was a bonk. If it doesn’t, you really reached your (current) limit! er, you do have the cell phone with you, right?

    Cyclists get there more frequently than runners because it is relatively easy to sustain very long-duration efforts (1.5-2hrs on average) necessary for glycogen depletion. You don’t just automatically fuel up from fat stores because this is a much slower process of getting energy to the muscles. I can imagine a couple of posts worth of stuff in here on fat burning and training your body for the same. anyone see Vaughters’ “lawyer not approved insane training techniques” in Bicycling a few issues ago?

    It is actually one of the problems for family-career-RealLife get-in-shape efforts because you can’t get the time for enough long workouts. (not to mention you do NOT want to get back from your ride totally whipped and tell your long suffering spouse that you need to nap for another 2hrs). So you have difficulty training into the state of fat-burning that you need for longer cycling events. And, if one of your goals is dropping excess bodyfat, well, you can’t optimize the effects cycling has on body fat. And in fact biking can be counter productive if, say, you always ride enough to deplete glycogen and upgrade your acute hunger state without getting much fat burning going on. Spouses tend not to understand these physiological subtleties…


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