One of the things I've really enjoyed this season is watching the bounty of team tactics being put into play by a number of schools.
You can see this in lots of places, in big and small actions. An early, clear, simple example was the Men's A crit at Stevens, with Tom Coupe (UNH) waiting until Josh Lipka (UNH) was well clear of the field, devastated by the brutal climb every lap and unable to match Josh's breakaway, before launching his own attack. Josh then visibly took his foot off the gas just long enough for Tom to join him, then the two motored away to an assured 1-2 placing for UNH.
Another was the finale of this weekend's Yale criterium, where no less than 3 different UVM riders gave an excellent, very obvious leadout from several hundred meters out to put Colin Jaskiewicz (UVM) well ahead of all the conference's strongest sprinters and riders in the final push for the line. It seems to have taken the Catamount's Men's A team a while this season to figure themselves out and get some organized team dynamics going, but now that they're on the ball it's a tough group to beat.
Of course, this is hardly the case in the Men's B field, where the UVM squad has seemingly had their act together the whole season. It's sometimes not been clear when they were using real tactics and when they just had so many people in the field it looked like they were doing something smart, particularly when they've struggled to contain breakout riders and some good team dynamics from UPenn, MIT, and a few other teams, but every now and then they really get it together.
My favorite though has been watching the USMA Men's A squad. Between them and Courtney Rehwoldt (USMA) in the Women's A field, they've done an awesome job at holding onto the lead spot in the ECCC Nationals Qualifications for some time now, an impressive feat for a D2 team. A key aspect of the squad is that any member can do really well on any given day, and each also has their own strength---climbing, sprinting, or covering---that complements the others' well.
One of my favorite races to watch so far this season was the Men's A crit at Army, precisely because it both showed off their strengths and the extent to which they all work together as a group. Early, early in the race Derek Merkler (USMA) and Nick Wheeler (USMA) found themselves in a breakaway with Vinny Scalia (UVM) and Chris Redmond (Rutgers). At first I gave it only marginal odds of succeeding, but the break found a good rhythm and held it together with apparently no infighting until the very end of the race, each member putting in the work to make sure it stuck, especially the USMA guys. There have been very few breakaways this season that Derek has not been involved in this year, covering every serious looking move with seemingly limitless energy, and it was great to see this one pay off big for him and Nick.
Just as importantly, back in the field, the other half of the squad immediately adjusted to defend their guys in the break. Steve Pingree (USMA) quickly switched into the cover role, launching out of the field to bring back any counterattacks or bridging attempts. Erik Wilburn (USMA) meanwhile played a cool defensive role, helping with the blocking and trying to conserve some energy to hedge their bets for the field sprint in case the breakaway was brought back.
All in all, I thought it was a fantastic display of teamwork and group dynamics, each sacrificing and switching around roles a little bit to support each other and bring in some big points for the team. I think it's fitting that the team from the USMA are the ones to really pull together some of the best teamwork and coordinated riding seen in the conference recently.
Hopefully as our fields continue to get bigger and faster and teams keep growing in both size and sophistication we'll see more and more of these sort of coordinated efforts, as that's really what makes crits and road races more than just a mass time trial. Impressively, we've already started to see some slight beginnings of riders looking out for teammates in the Intro races. Next up though I believe is the Women's A field, where we're just starting to have some schools in there with enough riders to really work on a team plan. In particular, I think the MIT Women's A squad now has the numbers, the nature, and the consistency to work some team tactics. More to the point, I think they're going to have to if they hope to cover some of the breakout individual riders in that field, and it should be awesome to watch them do so.