I was thinking about this as I was warming up for last night's workout (which was a very good workout that if you told me six weeks ago I would have been able to complete I would have laughed at you - more on this at the end). Say you're doing a race like Page Valley, in the masters field. The masters field always has a pretty wide strength range in it - you have former pros, you have very good guys, you have garden variety guys like me, and you have guys who aren't that strong.
A race where I'm trying to do well has usually gone poorly for me if I get to the end with everybody else. There are rare exceptions to this but my better results have come in breaks, and often ones I start. So I'm working through this scenario last night where I'm riding Page County in the masters race, and I've gotten out of the field and I'm doing that "pedal hard and hope the right people come up" deal, and only one guy comes, and he's a monster. I had a particular former pro in mind. So it's me and a dude against whom I am COMPLETELY overmatched. Figure there are two laps to go at this point. How do you play it?
First, why are we there? I'm there because history shows me that making the field smaller increases my odds - the old Jens Voigt "in a field sprint I have zero % chance but in a break maybe I have a 10% chance and 10% chance beats zero % chance" thing. I'd hoped that there would be more guys to carry the weight, but it didn't work out that way. Now I'm there with one guy who can carry the weight just fine, and who can pretty well drop me at will.
He's there who knows why? Because he knows he'll win from a break but there are some guys who can beat him in a sprint? Because he likes winning from a way out better than from close range? Because he thinks he'll get some value out of me and then get to a point from which he can reliably take it solo? In any case, there we are.
Realistically, I have no shot at winning. I'd love to win, and if we stay away I have a theoretical 50% chance of it, but that's like if I happen to hang with him and he slides out in the last corner and stays down for more than a couple of seconds. So my upside is really second, which given the field that will probably show would be solid. I'd be happy with it. This pretty well means going as hard as I need to in order to help the break get a solid gap, and forestalling getting dropped long enough to ride the last however much by myself.
So what's the play? If I take my pulls straight through, I probably drop myself before my "safe point" is reached. Blown up and dropped too far out to limp in ahead of the field pretty well means an ugly finish. If I take short pulls or fewer of them in such a way as to help the break while not blowing up, then I last longer and am probably not so fully blown at the point when I'm forced to fly solo. The question here is how much of this is tolerated by the other guy before he says "screw this I'm out of here." The other play is to just straight wheelsuck. This sucks from a couple of perspectives - why did you start a break if you are going to wheelsuck it, it's a lame way to race, etc.
On the other hand, knowing that I'm overmatched in the break and that the worst case is me blowing up and having the whole field blow by, I'm sort of in the position where I want the break to get pulled back. That would mean sitting on. Given the course at Page Valley, I'd have to do amazing feats of strength in order to stay on over some of the bumps.
Now of course what I WOULD do is to try and man up to an equal share and then when that became unfeasible I would scale back. This is both valiant ("the way you should race") and pragmatic. Pragmatic because if you've put it all out for however long and your pulls are obviously becoming somewhat weak sauce but you are putting ass into it still, then you've earned the gap that's there and probably you aren't going to get blowed up out spite. You're probably going to get attacked at points so the other guy ensures his win, which is as it should be from his perspective.
Anyway, I thought it was sort of an interesting play to run through.
About last night's workout... It was 6 efforts, at a duration/intensity mix that was a bit intimidating. I'd recently shown that I could go longer and harder by a healthy bit for one effort, but that one effort was up a hill where I always find it easier to go hard, and it was just one effort. This was six, and I was supposed to step it up a bit on the back half. Benefits of a coach 1) I don't know that I would have given myself this ambitious of a workout 2) I was able to convince myself that if HE thought I should be able to do it, I should be able to do it, so suck it up 3) I wanted to make it through for myself but the extra accountability made sure that "harder than 350 if you can" meant 366 and not 351. When you're going to be accountable to someone else for every second of the workout, it adds a bit. You don't want to show off that you're coasting through the finish line, you know?
That is all.