How to Ride a Prologue
This year’s Vuelta Espana begins with an individual time trial, although it may as well be a prologue it’s so short, yet it can’t be because a prologue is only a prologue when it is an individual time trial of less than 8km, then it’s a prologue. Now from what I can see from the race information Stage 1 is exactly 8km, so it’s a stage and not a prologue, hence why it’s called Stage 1 and not the Prologue. If that all makes sense? I’m probably wrong somewhere in there, but hey, cycling’s complicated.
There’s a certain art to racing prologues (I’m going to treat Stage 1 as the Prologue, sorry, not sorry), because although they’re short they’re still an aerobic effort. Many make the mistake of thinking that because they’re a few minutes long they can sprint them, in theory, you only make that mistake once or twice, yet some choose to make a career out of going too hard from the start.
Unlike time trials, which can be anywhere from a 10min to a 90min effort, a prologue rarely lasts longer than nine minutes. Starting fast in a prologue is imperative – there’s no riding into it and finding your rhythm, as is the norm in a time trial; the old adage of start fast, accelerate in the middle, and sprint to the finish is actually appropriate in a prologue. Technical mistakes can’t be made because the results at the finish are usually decided by the tiniest of margins. Detailed pre-race recon can often make the difference between winning and losing. I’ve won prologues in the past by less than one second, and I could have told you immediately after the finish where I gained that second because I will have practiced one corner a dozen times in training beforehand knowing that was where it could be won.
I can vividly remember what it used to feel like when I was at my best. Everything felt controlled. I would spend much of the first half of a prologue trying to hold myself back, spinning a high cadence, waiting the inevitable accumulation of workload that I knew would come. That’s essentially the golden rule of riding a prologue: never chase it, let it come to you. When we roll off the start ramp our muscles are fresh and fully loaded and we’re pumped with adrenalin. That can only get us so far, so we have to anticipate that our initial sensations bear no resemblance to the reality. Even the most experienced elite athletes can fall into this trap. The perception of their effort is totally wrong due to their level of excitement and feeling of strength.
If you get the first kilometre wrong there’s next to no chance of remedying it – because of the short distance of the event you’re given no time to recover – so in an ideal world you ride a prologue as an exercise in accumulation: lactic acid should build in a steady curve over the duration of the race, peaking out as you cross the line, not after the first kilometre. At my best I would hit 15mmol of lactic acid at the end of prologues, which was my max tolerance and meant I was blowing up as I crossed the line. It took a lot of training, recon and discipline to be able to time an effort that precisely. For many years it was my speciality, if you can call nuking yourself to the point of collapse at the end of a bike race ‘special’ – well, it was my sepciality when I won; it just sucked when I lost, at which point I didn’t care whether it was called a time trial or a prologue.