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Is it faster to chase or be chased?

Chase or be chased
Michael Donlevy
12 Apr 2016

What makes you ride faster - the thrill of the hunt or the fear of the chasing pack? We examine the law of the jungle.

We all like to dream that we’re professional cyclists. Even when we’re alone on a weekend ride, who hasn’t indulged in the fantasy that we’re either making a heroic solo break or hunting down the race leader on Alpe d’Huez, rather than around the soggy streets of Basingstoke (for example)?

For anyone who has raced at any level, however, these are two very real scenarios. Winning can depend on staying ahead of the bunch or in reeling in a breakaway before the finish line. Which leads us to the question: do you generally ride faster when leading from the front or when chasing down the leader from behind?

‘Fundamentally, it’s down to the individual,’ says Greg Whyte, professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University. ‘That’s not to say whether you prefer to lead or chase can’t be learned, or based on experience, but some of us like to chase and others prefer to be chased.’

So far, so indeterminate. It’s time to break the subject down into its physical, tactical and psychological elements.

Closing in

‘It’s generally better to be just behind for 98% of the race because wind resistance is lower,’ says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton, addressing the physical aspects.

‘Being protected from the wind and sitting in the slipstream means that, in cycling, you are much more efficient when chasing,’ adds Whyte. ‘In a long race you’re conserving energy but it’s not just about that. If you look at track races, you’d invariably see Chris Hoy manoeuvring himself into second place to become the chaser so he could outsprint his opponent. That’s about tactics, not energy saving.’

Just remember one thing – we tend to remember solo wins because they’re so rare, says Whyte. ‘A lone breakaway very rarely succeeds for one very good reason: the cards are massively stacked against you when you’re out on your own and being chased down by a pack or an individual who has conserved their energy better. The laws of probability dictate that you’re better off chasing.’

Probabilities and practicalities are all very well, but what about the mental side? Will the drama of going it alone ahead of the bunch spur you to perform at your best, even if you increase the risk of losing as a result?

A a little while ago, Cyclist interviewed Claudio Chiappucci, the combative Italian ex-pro who was well-known for making heroic breakaways that were usually doomed to failure. He knew he couldn’t win in the sprints or time-trials, so all-or-nothing attacks were his best option, and he also had a strong incentive. He knew that his attitude made him a favourite of the crowds, and that he only had to make a lone break work once to attain legendary status. Sure enough, on Stage 13 of the 1992 Tour de France, he attacked on the first climb, 245km from the finish, and held off late charges from Miguel Indurain and Gianni Bugno to win the stage. It made his career. 

Gaining momentum

Chase or be chased

The desire for greatness, and the impact of success (or inversely, defeat) can have a significant psychological effect on a sportsman. A key concept here is ‘psychological momentum’ (PM), a controversial phenomenon that some sports scientists refuse to acknowledge because it’s so hard to gauge. But examples exist in all sports: one tennis player winning a string of points, a batting collapse in cricket, or in football the old saying ‘goals change games’. And it’s there in cycling too, working both ways, whether you’re pulling away from the pack, reeling in the leader or the one being dropped.

‘PM encompasses changes in the athletes’ sense of control, confidence, optimism, motivation and energy,’ says sports psychologist Simon Hartley of Be World Class performance academy. ‘From my experience working with athletes, it’s clear that for many of them loss of PM coincides with loss of focus. It normally starts when we make a mistake. Many athletes will analyse it and start to overthink their performance. Keen not to make another mistake, they will also start to try harder. The combination of thinking too much and trying too hard invariably leads to more mistakes. And so a spiral develops.

‘There are two parties involved in the shift of momentum,’ he adds. ‘This begs the question: is momentum lost or gained? Does one side wait until the opponent makes mistakes and loses the momentum, or can an opponent affect the swing of momentum in their favour?’

Lee Crust, senior lecturer at Lincoln University’s School of Sport and Exercise Science, points to research at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada, which found it was better to chase than be chased. 

Participants competed in one of two 12-minute bogus bicycle races and were randomly assigned to either a no-momentum race (tied) or a positive-momentum race (coming from behind to tie). ‘Faster peddling was associated with perceptions of momentum. Perceptions of momentum were greatest when coming from behind to tie in a ficticious bike race,’ says Crust. When participants lost the lead, their perceptions of PM plummeted. When participants regained the lead, their perceptions of PM increased.

It’s not all straightforward, though. ‘Two constructs are likely to add to the complexity of entangling the influence of psychological momentum,’ says Crust. ‘First, “positive inhibition” reflects situations where athletes may have caught up with opponents, but this momentum actually leads to negative changes in subsequent performances due to “coasting”. Additionally, “negative facilitation” occurs when an athlete falls behind and this poor performance acts to motivate an increased effort. Psychological momentum is clearly difficult to quantify.’

Clearly. Whether practically or psychologically, it seems that chasing is the best option for most people looking to perform well and get results. But the lone breakaway will even if it’s doomed, still get the glory.

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