Since the start of our local criterium series, I have been asked a few questions about tactics, both individual tactics and team tactics. In almost every conversation the rider(s) and I discussed the difference between "chasing" and "bridging a gap". These two tactical moves are, in my experience, some of the most misunderstood in the game of bike racing. I hope the following discussion will draw a distinction for you and your team help you to garner more results in the future.
A bridge and a chase have very different end results. Which one you use will be determined by your goal at the time and what your strategy is in the race.
The goal of a chase is to bring a break away back towards the main field or chase group. Whether you absorb the break, or just get it within shooting distance of the field is another story. But, long story short, a chase is a steady effort that results in bringing a breakaway back to the chasing group. Depending on the distance to the finish and the pace of the race, a chase can be a gradual increase in the speed designed to slowly bring the break back to the chasers or it can be fast burst. The key is to remember what the desired end results is: bring the break back to the chase group.
Bridging a gap to a breakaway is usually a much more intense effort. The goal when bridging a gap is to place yourself or other riders in the break while maintaining the breakaway's gap to the field. The most important aspect of a bridge is when a rider attempts to bridge a gap, he/she has to be careful not to bring the whole field across the gap with them. This would defeat the purpose of bridging the gap. Sometimes, depending on the situation, bringing one or two riders across with you is ok. But the biggest mistakes I see riders make when trying to bridge a gap is that they charge hard to get up to a break and bring the rest of the field with them. When they do that, they have neutralized the break. If their goal was to be in the break they have shoot themselves in the foot as the group is now all back together and they have really ticked-off the guys who were in the break. Not a good way to make friends. When bridging a gap, always give a look over your shoulder to see who is with you. You may have to try several times to get across alone or with just a few passengers.
One very important aspect of the bridge is that the length of the gap needs to be one you can get across and not just get stuck riding in "no man's land". Sometimes it is a combination of a chase and a bridge that is required. Chase for a bit to get the gap to a manageable distance and then bridge to the break and drive the gap out again.
So when do you use one tactic or the other?
That's a pretty complex question. Your strategy for the race will dictate which tactic to use but here are a few examples (In all the following examples, there is a break of four riders up the road, working well together):
Example#1: Your team has strong field sprinter in the race. He has been showing his winning ways over the last four weekends by taking out 6 field sprints in local criteriums.
Chase or bridge?
As a general rule, your team organizing a chase would be the best option. For your sprinter to try and bridge to the break and then still hope to have legs left for the sprint might be stretch. Organize your team at the front and set a pace that will bring the break back before the finish. The break doesn't need to come back right away. But you should try and get them back in the fold early enough that you can then set you sprinter up for the final. While the chase is on, your sprinter sits in and rests for the final.
Example #2: The break up the road contains 2 teammates from an opposing team, one of your teammates and a rider from another squad. The rider you have in the break is strong but gives it up to the opposing riders in s sprint.
Chase or bridge?
It is always nice to have a rider up the road in break that looks like it will make it to the finish, but in general, it is never good to be out numbered in a break. If the opportunity presented itself your team might try to bridge a rider across to even things out. If that bridge takes one or two riders from neutral teams across that is ok, so long as it isn't so many riders that the break would swell to and unmanageable size (10 or more). Be aware of who is coming across with you when you bridge. If you ended up taking a rider or two across from the team that already has 2 riders in the break, the tactical advantage again swings in their favor.
If bridging across is unsuccessful, then chasing the break back might an option. Unless your team would be happy with third place, bringing the break back might be your only option.
Example #3: Here's a no-brainer. Your team is not represented in a strong breakaway. The end of the race is coming quick. Your sprinter crashed out early in the race.
Chase or bridge?
BRIDGE!!! BRIDGE!!! BRIDGE!!!
The examples above are designed to illustrate a point. There are many subtle levels to using these tactics. Just keep in mind your goals and strategies for the race and it will be pretty obvious what your next move should be.