Control & Neutralize: The Art of Blocking

By Mark Deterline

Shut It Down

Blocking is an essential component of team racing. Generally it happens when riders have a teammate up the road and they are seeking to protect that breakaway or pack split by controlling the pace back in the pack or in a chase group. Blocking can also be implemented when a teammate has been dropped due to a technical, or is trying to bridge back up to a group that contains awaiting members of her/his squad.

Blocking is sometimes criticized as a less exalted component of racing than others, yet its efficacy is proven race after race, and can be implemented ethically in a variety of different ways. One exciting aspect of blocking is the role it can play as an equalizing element when smaller teams implement it against bigger teams.

Once you have a rider in a move, you should do your best to ease the pace and control the pack. Riding tempo at the front is one way to do this: Keep the pace high enough to make it harder for opponents to recover from previous efforts and therefore more difficult for them to attempt to bridge or reel in the move, while keeping the pace slow enough so that riders up ahead – including your teammate(s) – will continue to gain ground on the pack or at least maintain the lead.

One form of blocking is “checking” or neutralizing opponents’ initiatives. Teammates ride at or near the front, ready to follow opponents’ moves then sit on the rider or group attempting to bridge up to the breakaway or a front group.

Taking away options before they even materialize is another effective form of blocking. Opponents and opponent teams inadvertently “broadcast” their intentions with body language, directional movements and gear shifts as they prepare to improve their position, launch an attack or significantly lift the pace. Take the initiative and neutralize such threats before they materialize by subtly closing down angles or by filling potential openings. Sometimes it takes significant effort on your part in the form of a strong yet subtle acceleration.

These impending threats represent important opportunities for teammates to gather at the front and ride tempo. Riding tempo means setting a pace that will discourage attacks by being strong enough keep opponents on their heels, but slow enough to allow one or more teammates up ahead to continue gaining ground, or at least to maintain their lead.

As always, the safety of your fellow riders is the absolute priority. You must be able to safely move among your competitors and quickly, smoothly position yourself where you need to be before anyone else can, without cutting people off or “chopping (front) wheels”. Ethical blocking doesn’t imply – nor does it require – aggressively taking competitors into a barrier or curb. On the contrary, it requires assertiveness, initiative and often hard work as you and your teammates proactively position yourselves where you can inhibit other teams from getting organized. This makes it possible to dissipate threats before they happen, or to quickly check and neutralize competitors’ moves as they develop.

Break Through

Conversely, a rider can also take the initiative to beat a team’s effort at blocking. Blocking efforts are likewise broadcasted and therefore be anticipated by an assertive rider who is willing to put in a little extra effort at just the right time.

If a team gets one or more of its riders up the road, you can generally count on them to begin gathering at the front, ready to cut off angles and gradually slacken the pace. If you don’t have a teammate in that move or are riding on your own, seek to counter these efforts by moving decisively toward openings while they still exist and launching an early bridge attempt while you still can. The longer you hesitate, the bigger the gap you’ll need to try and close.

This can be referred to as “punching” through. Remember the concept of a decisive moment in a race? When a team gets a rider away and is setting up to block when you don’t have a rider in that move, it’s a decisive moment! If you’re strong enough on your own or have teammates to support, immediately work your way to the front and punch through before the blocking team can seal off openings.

Work with teammates or now friendly opponents unified against the common enemy – i.e. the team(s) with one or more riders up the road. Ideally, you won’t let the pace of the chasing group slacken, but will ride right past blocking riders and keep the momentum going.

After getting to the front of the chasing group, or peeling off from a slowing bunch to lead a newly formed chase, organize a paceline with other willing riders and set a strong tempo. Work smoothly and steadily together to conserve energy, calmly reeling in the escapees.

It all goes back to working with teammates – or other allies – to control a race, keying off of opponents’ moves and leveraging their efforts to your own benefit. The more numerous and better organized the teams, generally the more dynamic and strategic the racing. And the savvier each rider, even those competing on their own, the better equipped each will be to anticipate and participate in the unfolding strategic drama that is bike racing.

Mark Deterline coaches some of Utah’s and California’s top cyclists, as well as triathletes, distance runners, cross-country skiers, motocross racers and boxers. Leadout Endurance Coaching provides completely customized training plans, bike fitting, biomechanics and performance testing for athletes of all backgrounds and levels. Contact: [email protected]

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