It’s a long time since I last pinned a number to my cycling jersey. Back in my day (when MTB wheels were all 26 inches and fluro lycra wasn’t retro) I entered a lot of cross-country races. The only tactic I observed, with mixed to middling results, was to ride flat-out from start to finish. My only ‘glorious’ road-racing memory involves failing to ride my breakaway companions off my wheel on a climb, then leading out the sprint, ignoring my inner monologue, which was breathlessly shouting, “you shouldn’t be leading out, you shouldn’t be leading out!”
I have no immediate intention of returning to competitive ways and so picked up Full Gas – How to Win a Bike Race: Tactics From Inside the Peloton, to give it its full title, unsure if this book was really for me.
It didn’t take long for those doubts to be dispelled.
I may no longer race but I do watch a lot of bike racing on TV. My sofa-based palmarès is second to none. I don’t watch races to cheer on any particular team or rider (I’m too old, wise and cynical for that); I watch for the history, the parcours, the big mountains old and newly discovered. Some races leave me on the edge of my seat, some reaching for the espresso, others scratching my head, wondering of the losers, “what were they thinking?” or marvelling at the winner’s racing smarts.
Full Gas is Peter Cossins’ look behind the bike racers’ mirrored lenses and the D.S.’ windscreens to examine the technical and mental methods the successful cycling teams put into practice. He’s observed, examined and interviewed current and former racers and team managers, and the result is a book insightful, informative and thoroughly entertaining.
From breakaways, to sprints, mountain stages and team time-trials, the breadth of road racing is covered, and not just the modern era. The whole history is covered, from the tactics of the early Tours, to Coppi’s loyal band of gregari, Merckx’s la course en tête attacking style, right through to the current Sky train, which itself is an update of the methods employed by Anquetil in the ’60s.
There’s a look at how patrons of the peloton often used to decide events on the road (such as Mario Cipollini’s insistence that there was no point in riding hard until the live TV coverage started), and how the doping of the EPO era devalued tactics (doctors becoming more important than domestiques).
Women’s racing isn’t ignored either, with plenty of quotes and a chapter on how tactics tend to differ from the men’s peloton, shaped by the realities of fewer and smaller teams, and riders who aren’t afforded the luxury of specialising: the top women are necessitated to ride the whole season, racing everything from Classics to tours.
And by no means does Cossins serve up a dry training manual, there are some tasty morsels for enthusiasts to get their teeth into, such as breakaway-supremo Thomas De Gendt explaining his method for testing which riders in a break (here’s looking at you Rui Costa) aren’t pulling their weight.
I also particularly enjoyed sprinter Jan Svorada’s angry exhortation to his leader, Raimoundas Rumsas, for riding his teammates off his wheel during the TTT at the 2002 Tour de France: “E ora puoi fare tutto, campione!” (And now you can do it all, champion!)
The final chapter discusses how race organisers’ attempts to manipulate the racing by means of changing the parcours may actually backfire, altering and limiting the scope of tactics that willing racers can employ and viewers at home can enjoy (in a Vuelta crammed with summit finishes we’re unlikely to see much of the sprinters, baroudeurs and rouleurs and the gamut of tactics specific to their particular crafts).
There’s a lot here to think about and enjoy, to educate aspiring saddle-based racers and keep sofa-based observers like me better informed. Full Gas, to use the current cycling parlance, is a super-good read.
Full Gas – How to Win a Bike Race: Tactics From Inside the Peloton is published by Yellow Jersey.