Lead outs, part 1: Planning, Communication, and Assessment

Sooner or later, every racer who has more than one person from their club at a race wants to set up a lead out. Inevitably, racers have watched Le Tour on TV and think that they'll just say, "Let's do a lead out," and magically this train of riders will emerge at the front with a force that shreds the field and leads to certain success.

The sarcasm used and magic required in this scenario come from the inevitable collapse of the plan before more than three riders get within 20 feet of each other any time in the last 5 km of the race. So why the difficulties? Why not streaking trains of coordinated beauty?

Pure and simple, lead outs are hard. They require high levels of planning, practice, communication, fitness, commitment, and discipline. This is the first part of a series on lead outs that will cover the details needed to plan, communicate, and execute a lead out. But keep in mind, knowing how and doing it are two different things.

Planning, communication, and assessment are the first things to consider in setting up a lead out. These need to be done before, during, and after an event to implement and improve a team's lead out.

The first part of planning, communication, and assessment is developing a common understanding. To some, a lead out is one guy drilling it for 300 meters while a second guy waits to jump around in the last 150 meters. To others, it is 6 riders in one synchronized effort to ward off all attacks, minimize battling for position, and provide shelter to launch their star to the finish line. In reality, both of these are legitimate lead outs.

So which lead out is the team planning to do? That depends on a lot of factors: type of race, length, weather, likelihood of a pack sprint, riders' fitness, and more. Start with an assessment of your team's fitness. If you have two strong riders who can get to the front and finish well, but everyone else is pack fill just hoping to hang on, it is not realistic to think the team can orchestrate a team TT on the front for the last few kilometers. On the other hand, if you have a group of riders who are all strong enough to get to the front, then planning a train may make sense if you also have a sprinter to finish off the effort.

Next, what type of lead out makes the most sense for the team's overall race plan? If a few riders are targeted for a break, then the lead out is likely to be a 2-3 rider effort. Of course, having a plan B is good if the break doesn't work, but a lead out for the final sprint needs to be part of the whole-race plan.

After assessing your team's abilities and race strategy, the plan needs to be developed and communicated so everyone knows their role during the race. All too often a team says, "We're going to lead out Bob for the sprint," then has one of its own riders attack with 2 laps to go. That's not a well defined plan. Races are like the weather—the forecast is always subject to change, but to every degree possible, you need to create a specific plan so each rider knows when and where they are supposed to do something. As teams and riders gain more and more experience, this becomes more fluid to adapt to the immediate race conditions, but let's suffice it say, if you aren't a category 1 or pro, plan more and improvise less.

Future posts will go into detail about what the various roles may be, but as a team plans a lead out as part of their race strategy, each rider on the team should know their specific role and when they are supposed to act. Schedule a time before the race to meet, discuss the race, develop a plan, and define clear roles for each team member that fit their ability level.

Meeting at least 30 minutes before the start, if not an hour or more, is a good idea so everyone can focus on the team plan, not registration, getting dressed, their bike, or getting to the line. Make sure that when the team meeting is done, every person knows what their role is and understands the general team strategy: what he/she is supposed to do and when in the race. This helps make sure there aren't any last second surprises from your own teammates that could derail a lead out.

During the race, continue to communicate with each other. Make sure people are feeling good and remain capable of fulfilling their role. If someone's having a bad day, it's good to know that early so the plan can be altered rather than a critical link in your lead out being left out as you start the effort. If changes are made to the plan during the race, make sure your teammates know so one rider doesn't just do their own thing while the rest of the team is expecting something else.

After the race, it is important to meet again to assess what happened during the race and how the plan and execution worked. Any team strategy, including a lead out, is a gamble. Everyone could have executed their role perfectly and another ride could have still taken the win. I have enjoyed numerous other teams' lead outs that happened to be perfect for me. Just because you organize the perfect lead out does not mean your team will win. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it—it may be your team's best shot an ensuring a high placing. But that's why you need to meet after the race to assess what worked, what didn't, and why.

One last tip: meeting 20 or so minutes after the finish is a good idea. Little rational thought occurs in the first few minutes following the race. Grab some food, a brief cool down, then meet at a pre-determined location to talk about the race and how to change for next time.

What roles should riders play in a lead out? How long should a lead out be? What can throw a wrench in your train? These questions and more will come in the following parts of this series on lead outs.