By Keith Payne
For all would be racers out there who haven’t yet embraced competition.
Yes, head to head, a hare is certainly going to out sprint a turtle, but not all races are sprints.
I’ve been racing bikes since 1990. 25 years of riding and racing mountain bikes, road bikes, single speeds, cyclocross bikes and now fat bikes. I’ve met many people over the years while riding and racing, we have different backgrounds, interests, goals, motivations, beliefs, but what makes us alike is our love of biking. Riding a bike elicits various emotions and sensory experiences in each individual, but for most the freedom, adventure, adrenaline, euphoria, and clarity that come through riding make it a lifestyle that takes hold and molds your perspective on everything else.
While many of us have participated in other sports or hobbies in the past, cycling is our home. We love to ride, we live to ride, we think about when we can ride next, we eat in order to be fitter or maybe we ride in order to able to eat those things we perhaps know we shouldn’t. Riding is all encompassing for us because it is our touchstone, our center, our therapy.
Racing bikes is the natural progression for many cyclists. Once we become proficient cyclists we will likely, at some point, be invited or encouraged to try racing. Racing bikes is the same as just riding them, only there’s no waiting. Yet there’s something about the additional element of competition engenders real fear and doubt in your average cyclist. After a casual invitation, of which I’ve proffered many, the excuses start to dribble from the mouths of the uninitiated. “Well, I don’t know.”, “I’m not really into racing.” “I’m not fast enough.” “I can’t spend the money/time.” Somehow they all seem turn into the loveable hypochondriac Bob Wiley from “What about Bob?” In the film he responds to an invitation to go sailing by saying “It just makes my lips numb to think about it.” That’s the sort of response I get almost every time.
I try to hide my incredulity and smile supportively but in my mind I’m thinking, your excuses really don’t make sense to me. My perspective has changed after so many years of being involved in the amazing race community.
I understand family commitments and financial constraints might limit one’s ability to participate in a full season of racing. I also understand personal doubt and concerns about the aggressiveness of other racers, the speed of the field, or the distance to be completed. Being the new kid on the block certainly makes one a little gun shy. However I’m here to tell you that racing your bike will make you a better cyclist, period! But there are many other reasons to consider racing.
Here are my five reasons why you should start racing.
1. You will learn. Cycling is progression. It is driven by momentum and in order to improve you must embrace that momentum. Enhancing your cycling skills is a natural product of racing. You will be forced to ride trails that you have never ridden, with obstacles you don’t normally experience and all at a speed that is faster than you are used to. This will demand that you learn how to be a better bike handler, how to corner at speed, how to climb efficiently and much more. Stopping on your personal plateau that you’ve reached as a cyclist to enjoy the view is fine, but there are more mountains to climb. Racing will help you improve and go further than you though possible.
2. You will get fit. Sure you might not go out and crush the field your first race but racing requires you push your limits and by doing so you make your body do things it hasn’t before simply because there’s someone in front of you trying to ride away, and for some reason you want to catch them. As you continue to race and push your pace you will become fitter AND faster and that will only serve to make cycling more fun.
3. You will make friends. Shared experiences create bonds of friendship. You will meet people with whom you might never have typically engaged. Over time you will get to know them. They will challenge you and you may challenge them. It’s a great opportunity to expand your circle of friends and learn from others. Your fellow competitors will push you, encourage you, taunt you, tease you, congratulate you, and if that’s not the definition of a best friend I don’t know what is!
4. There’s a race for you. In today’s cycling community the variety of race opportunities are numerous. There are weekly races that are relatively inexpensive and close to home. The distances are short and time constraints brief. There are typical cross country or criterium or road races on Saturdays that are a bit longer, a bit more money and perhaps more competitive. There are endurance style races where distance is the challenge and just completing the course can be a major accomplishment for you, regardless of who actually wins the race. In short there are race venues, distances and prices that will accommodate your sense of adventure, experience, and budget. There really are no excuses. Start small and work your way up. Be forewarned, it’s more addictive than chocolate…ok, maybe AS addictive as chocolate.
5. It’s hard, but oh so worth it. Yes riding your bike fast and making yourself uncomfortable in the process is not what most would consider “fun.” It is physically taxing and requires some preparation and skills development. It’s certainly not as simple as strapping on a pair of running shoes and run/walking 13 miles down the pavement (which I don’t do anymore). Hence the reason fields of cyclists are significantly smaller than your typical running race in the city. But the sense of accomplishment, the improvement of skills and fitness, the beautiful venues, make cycling a more rewarding and hence more engaging experience for the long term.
How to prepare for your first race:
Are you convinced yet? There’s no better teacher than experience so here’s what you do:
1. Get your bike prepared. Make sure it’s functioning properly, tires inflated adequately, brakes working, shock functional. Your local bike shop should be able to run through it and ensure it’s ready to race.
2. Ride your bike, perhaps with someone more experienced who can coach you a bit. Do this more than 1x/week.
3. Pre-ride the course of your first race. Find the map or find a friend and have them show you the course. Then ride it, more than once if possible. Re-ride technical sections a couple of times until you feel confident about your line.
4. Register for the race. Plunking down your money commits you mentally and helps you anticipate and prepare.
5. Eat and Sleep. Eat properly, downing a Double Double from In and Out the night before your race is not typically a wise strategy. Get plenty of sleep the night before and remember to hydrate.
6. Go have fun. Who cares if you are first, last, or middle of the pack. Just ride your best, measure your effort and challenge yourself. In time you will improve and will need to move up to a harder category with a longer distance and stronger competition, but for now just do your best and finish.
7. Don’t quit. Unlike most sports, there are no time outs, no medic to spray your cramping legs, no water boy, no mechanics, no pit crew, few spectators, and no coach yelling from the sidelines. It’s just you and your ability to pedal. So just keep spinning!
8. Finally, repeat the process, next race, next year, wherever and whenever you can. Over time you will be able to measure improvement and that will build your confidence.
For many years I taught snowboarding and the three rules we had for our students were these: 1. Learn something, 2. Be Safe, 3. Have fun. If you aren’t learning you aren’t progressing, there are always ways to improve your cycling so never stop learning and improving. Safety is critical, no one wants to be injured so improving your skills and your fitness helps prevent injury, assuming you ride within your limits and don’t take silly risks. Finally having fun is what cycling is all about. Despite the exhaustion, the hunger pains, the cramping, the feeling of being utterly spent, I get to the end of every race and think wow, that was hard, but so worth the effort.
Yes I know some of you consider yourself purists and just ride for the sheer enjoyment and don’t want to be bothered with race plates, fees, timing chips, arrogant racers who won’t yield, and race directors who aren’t well organized or bark out instructions like a marine sergeant. But if you can look past all these minor issues you will see an opportunity to improve your cycling ability and thus enhance your riding in a way that just can’t be done by going out on your average Saturday group ride. I invite you to try a race, or two, or ten this summer and see what happens. You may feel like the turtle, but just finishing one of these races makes you a hare compared to most of the world.
“When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man's convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man's brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.” ~Elizabeth West, Hovel in the Hills