With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it's been getting a lot of attention lately. I have been reading "Team of Rivals" and re-watching Ken Burns' Civil War documentary so it has certainly been on my mind. I am waiting until I finish the book to see the Lincoln movie. Like many things, I can't help but to see some parallels with bike racing.
Civil War history buffs will recollect that General George McClellan was one of the first Chief Generals of the Union army, Lincoln appointed McClellan to the position in late 1861. He was arguably one of the worst military leaders in American history. It can easily be argued that with more competent leadership early in the war the Union could have achieved a quick victory instead of a long drawn out struggle that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and wrecked the economies of North and South alike. Ironically, had the rebellion been easily suppressed, Lincoln would most likely never have agreed to Emancipation, which is ultimately what elevated the Civil War from a meaningless slaughter to a higher struggle for the freedom of all Americans. But back to McClellan...
George McClellan was an excellent "preparer". He turned a hundred thousand men with little or no military experience into the most powerful army in the world. The problem was that he lacked the will to use his great army. Time and time again, even with a force that was double, triple and sometimes ten times the size of that of the enemy, he became convinced that the enemy had superior forces. He constantly asked for more men. It was said of McClellan that "If he had a million men he would swear that the enemy had two million and he would demand three million".
Lesson #1: Good intelligence is extremely important
In truth, McClellan did have reasonably good intelligence for his time. He was told by reliable sources that his forces vastly outnumbered enemy forces, he just failed to believe it. Answering why that was requires a deeper psychological analysis for which I am unqualified, but it is certain that he had great difficulty in seeing things as they really were. Admittedly, there were far fewer resources available to the armies of 1861 than for even an average citizen of 2013. There was no internet, no satellite imaging, and the aerial reconnaissance of the time consisted of the generals being raised above the battlefield in tethered hot air balloons. Still, Confederate generals made great use of the knowledge they had of McClellan's personality by sending lone men miles away to fire a couple artillery shots, then disappearing (the sole purpose of which was to make McClellan think that the enemies forces were much larger than they were). Likewise, McClellan famously displayed an unwillingness to use good intelligence when presented with it. In September, 1862, a Union Sergeant discovered an envelope with 3 cigars in it at a campground recently vacated by Confederate soldiers. Inside the cigars were Robert E. Lee's battle plans to temporarily split his forces. In other words, McClellan had been handed information with which he could crush Lee's army and most likely end the war. Yet he did nothing. He did not attack. He didn't even order additional reconnaissance in order to follow up.
Bike racing tactics are often as simple as good intelligence. Know the course. Know where the hard parts are and how the race will most likely be won. Know the rules of the race. Know the what the yellow line policy is and if it is a yellow line rule, if it will be it be strictly enforced. Know if there are any special competitions (e.g. KOM, sprint, young rider) or primes. Know the best lines around the turns. Know the places you can move up easily and the places where you will be stuck where you are. Know where it's important to get to the front and know when it is fine to sit in and relax in the back. Know what tires you should use and what pressure to pump them to. Know the weather forecast so you know what to wear. Know where the wind is coming from to help you conserve energy and which side of the road to move up or sprint on. Know the dangerous or technical portions of the course so you can take them as smoothly as possible and so you are ready to close gaps if there are any incidents. Know the spots on the course where it will be more calm and use these times to eat, drink and recover. Know your competition. Look at the start lists. Know the strong teams. Know if the race is a major goal for certain people. Know if the race is part of a series (even if it's not something you care about yourself) because it may influence the tactics of others.
Poor military leadership on the Union side did not end with McClellan. The Union went through a string of disastrous battles led by Generals Pope, Burnside, Meade, Hooker, Halleck and others before finally finding the leader it needed. That man was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The difference with Grant was not that he had such brilliant tactics. The difference was that Grant kept pushing when he had the enemy on the run, even if his own army had taken huge losses. In the West, General William T. Sherman was equally merciless. "War is cruelty...", Sherman once said, "...but the crueler it is, the shorter it will be."
Lesson #2: When you possess superior forces, exploit your gains
Victory in battle often comes at a great price. When Grant was made General-and-Chief in March, 1864 he was beaten badly at the Battle of the Wilderness, losing 18,000 men to Lee's 7,700. But rather than retreating, he pushed on. At Cold Harbor he lost 18,400 to Lee's 9,000. Again, he continued to advance, crossing the James river and placing Petersburg under siege. Eventually, this would choke off the Confederate Capitol of Richmond for good and end the war. The spring campaign of 1864 almost destroyed Grant's army but because he had kept pushing he ultimately achieved victory because of his relentless persistence. He could do that because the Union still had a wealth of untapped resources to draw from. They had superior numbers, superior weapons and intact supply lines. The North could afford to replace their lost men. The South could not.
When you have to "burn matches" in a bike race, it is all too easy to sit back and lick your wounds. With your heart beating 200 beats a minute, your lungs gasping for air and your legs cramping up it is difficult to see things clearly and evaluate the situation for what it is. Most racers are aware that if they attack when the race is hard and everyone is suffering the most, they stand a much better chance of being successful. But saying that and doing it are two very different things. I think it helps to put things into perspective. Think like Grant. You have worked to create an advantage. Though it may have come at a great cost, it will be worth nothing if you fail to act quickly to exploit it. In bike racing terms, your competitors are suffering. You are surely suffering too, but you have a gap on them or you are in the breakaway. Your body tells you to try and recover and regroup but if you do this you allow everyone else to do the same and when that happens you will certainly lose any advantage you had.
Of course, this principle won't work very well if you do not have superior forces. Here, it is important to remember that while the North was plagued with a series of indecisive, incompetent and possibly even treasonous Generals before Grant, the Confederacy did not win battle after battle simply because of Union blunders. Unlike the Union, the Confederates were blessed with brilliant leaders including Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee. In each case, they knew how to defeat an enemy with superior numbers. It certainly helped that for the most part they were fighting in their own territory (see Lesson #1) but the scores of Confederate victories (especially early in the war) were due to much more than superior knowledge of the land.
Lesson #3: When you possess inferior forces, attack strategically where the enemy is weakest
More than 2000 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote "If a battle cannot be won, do not fight it". The Southern military leadership understood that attacking the Union army head to head on equal ground would be suicide. Instead, they used intelligence about the positions of the size, strength and locations of the opposing armies to attack them at their weakest points. In fact, the strategy of "out flanking" is based on the idea that an army is like a snake. The head is the most deadly point and what you have to watch out for, but if you can come in from the side (the supply lines & non front line forces) you can cut off the body of the snake. This principle was used successfully time and time again by Jackson and Lee. Nathan Bedford Forrest was famous for his daring Calvary attacks that smashed through enemy lines quickly by surprise and caused great destruction.
In bike racing, one must recognize the weak points of the competition. Even the most dominant teams have weaker riders. If you have the weaker team, look to place your strongest riders with the strong team's weakest riders in a breakaway. This can only be achieved by taking the initiative and staying on the offensive. In other words, attack and see what happens. If you don't like the mix of the break, don't work with it. Let the race come back together, then roll the dice again and see what happens. Eventually you will end up with a scenario that favors you and when that happens, be ready to press your advantage. This principle can be used with individuals as well as teams though. If you know that your main competitor can't sprint, do your best to make sure that things stay together for a sprint. If you know they can't climb, attack them on the climbs. If they are a poor technical rider, push the pace on the turns and descents. Again though, the only way to ensure that you neutralize your competitor's strengths and force them to play your game is by taking the initiative and staying on the offensive. If you let your competition take the initiative, you will be forced to play their game and you will lose.
We all know now how it ended. After 4 long years of the bloodiest war in American History, the Union did ultimately prevail. Some have suggested that the South never really had a chance due to the superior numbers, weapons and manufacturing capability of the Northern states. Others believe that England, Russia or other European powers were very close to entering the war on the side of the Confederacy in the early years, which would have turned the odds. Some think that if the South could have won a few crucial battles in northern territory the people of the North might have lost their will to fight. Of course, they did not. The Confederacy's last best hope was ended at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 when Lee marched 12,500 across a field and hurled them into the center of the well-entrenched Union lines that held the high ground. The result was a massacre, with over 50% casualties for the Confederates. Though overall casualties for the 3-day battle were nearly equal on both sides, Lee was forced to retreat back into the South. He would never again advance so far North.
Lesson #4: Don't get cocky
Perhaps Gen. Lee had had so many early successes that he believed he was invincible. Perhaps he held a mistaken belief that he was "destined by God to be victorious". Perhaps he was so hungry for a victory on Northern territory that he was blinded to the realities of the situation. Or maybe it was his style to defy the odds all along and this just took some time to catch up to him. Whatever the reason, Pickett's charge was a predictable mistake. Lee had been advised against the attack, most famously by Gen. Longstreet, but he decided to go ahead with it anyway.
I often say that the sport of bike racing requires an unusual combination of extreme confidence and extreme humility. A competitor must be confident enough to believe they have a chance to win, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Yet they must also have the humility to respect their competition, be gracious in defeat and never let pride or fear of embarrassment get in the way get in the way of doing what they need to do. This combination is rare. Most athletes are off balance to one side or another. They either possess superior confidence but underestimate the chances of their competition or they possess great humility but underestimate their own chances. Inflated confidence is a natural consequence of victory and inflated doubt is a natural consequence of defeat. Unless you actively work to keep the two sides balanced the lack of one or the other will be your undoing. A simple way to do this is to choose your group rides carefully. Though many cyclists make group rides too big a portion of their training, it is important to test yourself against others from time to time. Not all group rides are equal though. If you are a cat. 4 and you constantly ride with a bunch of pros, you will surely get stronger and learn a lot but your confidence may suffer as you will never have the experience of being the strongest rider in the group. Likewise if you are a pro and you always ride with the cat. 4s, your humility may suffer (not to mention, you may not push yourself enough to really get stronger). When choosing which group rides to attend, it is important that you take into consideration the psychological factors as well as the physiological factors. For those that do not have as many choices as we do in areas with large cycling populations, strong riders can make an easy ride harder by using a fixed gear bike or gear-restricting, riding beforehand or even carrying extra weight in the form of a backpack, heavy wheels or thick thorn-proof tubes. Making a hard ride easier is a little more difficult but it is possible to only join up for part of the ride or using light and aerodynamic race wheels instead of your standard training wheels.
Luckily, when things don't go well in bike racing, no one dies (well, not usually). Still, successful Generals and bike racers alike must be able to think clearly in any situation. They must retain awareness when there is a lot of excitement, danger and suffering going on around them. They must be able to think outside themselves even if they are suffering, nervous or anxious. They must know where they stand against an enemy, crushing them with superior strength when they have the advantage and acting with great care and strategy when the enemy is superior. They must be confident enough to execute but not so confident that they think themselves invincible. Not an easy job, but if it was easy anyone could do it.