Cycling: Why Race?

Racers at the start line...some laughing, some nervous, but all wanting to do their best! (Susan Marean photo)

I’ve been asked the question plenty of times.  “You’re old, you don’t win…why do you want  to race on a bike?”  Good question…and there are so many different answers, it’s hard to sort through them.  But, the fact is, there are great reasons for anyone to race…and different types of races to suit each person’s needs.  So, saddle up for a ride through the whys and which’s of bicycle racing

First, why.  The most obvious answer to that that one is “fitness.”  And before anyone says “but I can work out at the gym/ride my bike/walk the dog”, let me just say this:  Nothing you do will get you in the same kind of shape that racing, and training for racing, will do.  If you have one ounce of competitiveness, you’ll find that when someone goes by you, you’ll push yourself harder than you ever thought you could to try to stay with them.  And you won’t…they’ll leave you behind like you’re a complete novice.  And that’s when you’ll start getting that little extra bit of fitness!  You’ll go home, train harder and faster than you ever have before, and just wait for the next time that rotten jerk tries to drop you.  And it’ll happen again, or it’ll be somebody else this time…so you’ll train harder…and then if you get to the point where you are the fastest one, you’ll train even more obsessively to make sure that nobody catches up.  Okay, so you’ve got to be a real nutcase to go that far…but you get the general idea.  There just isn’t anything else like it for motivating you.

Another reason is the camaraderie.  Bicycle racing is a team effort for the most part, but even in individual contests, racers tend to love to talk about what’s going to happen, what happened, what didn’t happen, what should have happened, who did what they should have, who didn’t…ad infinitum.  Road racers do it over recovery drinks; mountain bikers, over microbrews; cyclocross, over Belgian beer.  There’s a sense of shared accomplishment and effort, the understanding of possible danger, that leads to a “brothers in arms” atmosphere.  If you want even more fun, join a local team, and race with your mates; it adds a whole new dimension.

The third reason is one you don’t want to tell your significant other…it gives you an excuse to get the really cool new toys you’ve been dreaming about.  “Honey, I need that $5000 Unobtanium frame, and my shades weigh 63 grams; if I get the latest style, I can shave 26 grams off that, and the two combined will save me minutes in the state championships.”  Yeah, right.  The funny thing is…they’ll often believe you. Or pretend to.  Maybe they just love us, or look at us as pets that will do the dishes more often if we get our toys.

And the fourth reason is that racing has lessons that you can use in your everyday life.  Not just “living in the moment”, which you have to do if you want to ride safely, but the ways of thinking that make you a safe and successful (successful, by the way, means finishing, NOT winning; that’s just a bonus) racer transfer to normal life situations.

Now, how do you choose what kind of racing to try?  Well…here’s a basic guide to the various types.

You don't need the strange helmet or bike to time trial, but they're good toys! (Jay Beauchemin photo)

Time trialing:  The simplest, safest form of bicycle racing, and a great way to start…regardless of what you see in pictures like the one here, you can do it on any bike.  It’s you against the clock…or so they say.  Basically, you line up and wait for your start time; when it comes, you get on your bike with someone supporting you, wait for the countdown, and GO!  Then, for the rest of the race, you “simply” try to push yourself as hard as you can, crossing the finish line gasping with nothing left in the tank.  Sounds easy, right?  It isn’t.  The race isn’t you against the clock; it’s you against you.  Daydream as you’re riding along, and you’ll find your heartbeat’s come down 10bpm and you’re nowhere near your top speed.  Push too hard climbing a hill, and you’ll burn your legs out and need a couple of minutes that you don’t have to recover.  Personally, I find this is the single toughest discipline, as I have nobody to blame but myself if I don’t do well.  There’s a bonus to time trials, by the way…if you ever want to do triathlons, TT is what you’ll be doing.  Main benefit: Focus, focus, focus.  Learn to never give up, and to push yourself far beyond what your imagined your limits to be.

Feeling the "flow" of a road race is hugely exciting (Susan Marean photo)

Road racing:  This includes road races (long) and criteriums (short), with every once in a while a circuit race (medium) thrown in.  This is the stuff the Tour de France is made of, and every rider who does these races imagines himself on the podium at the Champs Elysees.  The bad news on these races is that if you do enough of them, you will crash.  The good news is that it usually doesn’t hurt as much as you think it’s going to.  But, make no mistake about it, there’s an element of risk.  You’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other riders, working through a pack that can sometimes have more than 100 people in it.  It can be scary, but it can also be exhilarating.  Even though I regularly swear I’ll never do another road race, I still find myself out there doing one a few times a year…it’s the adrenaline.  There’s an incredible beauty at times to it; I remember my first really big race, and coming over the top of the first hill to see over 150 riders filling the road in front of me, wall to wall colors.  And, this is where that acceleration to pass someone really comes into play; you’ll never forget the first time you set yourself up and make that fast move to go by a rider that has been stronger than you have in the past.  Warning:  Before you consider doing this kind of racing, LEARN how to do it!  Start with local group rides, learn who the good racers are, and watch them.  Try to follow them, see how they move and behave in a pack.  Talk to them…ask them to show you how they do things.  Every racer hates a novice that won’t learn, but virtually all of them are happy to help someone become a good, safe racer.  Main benefit:  Learning strategy (preparing before the race) and tactics (when your strategy falls apart during the race), and to be quick and decisive in your thinking.  Also, you’re reacting to multiple inputs simultaneously; the rider in front of you, the one moving up your right side, the pothole that just appeared (ride through it or try to make a sideways move?)…training your mind to sort out conflicting information and make sound decisions.

This says it all about 'cross! And yes, I did throw the socks away (Susan Marean photo)

Cyclocross:  Literally, a cross between road and mountain biking.  These are short, brutally hard, messy races that are held in the late fall and early winter.  And, they’re about as much fun as you can have and not get thrown in jail.  Seriously.  ‘Cross racers just plain love what they do.  You get to the start line in a mass, just like a road race…and about 30 seconds later, you’re strung out a half mile deep on a course in a field, the woods, whatever the promoter has decided to put together for a course.  Unfortunately, you don’t get to stay on your bike…a mandatory part of any cyclocross course is at least two points where you have to get off your bike, pick it up, run with it over or around some sort of barrier, and then jump back on and take off again.  Sounds easy, and it isn’t, when you have no oxygen in your brain.  It’s often muddy, icy, or snowy; I did one race last year where there was a good 6 inches of snow on much of the course.  However, the spectators made up for the misery by handing up doughnuts and beer as you went past the start/finish line every lap.  People really didn’t care who won…they cared who managed to cram a doughnut in their mouth and still grab a beer to drink farther down the course.  Now, how much more fun could you possible have on a Sunday morning???  Yes, I said morning.  Cyclocross racers are NOT sane, but they’re fun.  Pretty much every photo that’s ever been taken of me in a race, I look like I died about 6 weeks earlier, and I feel about the same…but deep inside, I’m laughing.  Try it, you’ll see.  Main benefit:  Learning to not take yourself, or anything else, too seriously.  And adapting to pretty much everything that can go wrong, because it will, and just rolling with it.

It took me 3 years to dare to ride this bridge...but what a sense of accomplishment when I did! (Susan Marean photo)

Mountain biking:  Well, depending on how you do it, it can be fun or painful.  I’m stupid, so I’ve virtually always opted for painful…as in broken bones.  There’s NO reason for that, other than a total lack of skill and too much fitness.  I started racing without learning how to ride a mountain bike.  So, in fast sections, I’d be fast…then hit a technical section, go over the handlebars, and crack goes the rib.  Don’t be like me.  Get out there, learn how to ride…learn how to go over logs, how to ride smoothly through babyhead rocks, how to not do my favorite thing, “target fixation” (that is what actually has caused virtually all of my crashes).  Mountain bike racing, like time trialling, is pretty much a solo discipline…you get on the trails, ride at whatever speed you can through each section, and hope that you’re enough faster at one part of it to beat someone who’s faster than you at other parts.  I was always good at climbing, horrible at descending…so, my goal was to get up the hills far enough ahead of my competition that I could take it easy on the steep downhills, and they couldn’t catch me.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  After a few years off to let my bones heal, I’m back to it now…more than any other type of racing.  Why?  There’s just something amazing about flowing through singletrack in the woods, using arms, feet, head, and a little hip english to negotiate a tricky section of rocks and roots…I probably feel more pride in myself for finishing a mountain bike race (uninjured) than I do any other type.  Bonus:  There are “endurance” races out there; I do one in Maine called the “Bradbury 12″.  Bradbury, for the mountain the race is held at; 12 for, yes, 12 hours.  It’s not just about how far I go, it’s how long I can pull off riding at any sort of a race pace.  Exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.  You see different people at these races…father/son/daughter teams, people on tandems, 70 year olds.  Professionals and semi-professionals pass me like I’m a turtle, and tell me how well I’m doing.  There’s a camaraderie here that’s different than anything else; it’s actually closer to cyclocross than it is to “regular” mountain bike racing.  Main benefit:  The acceleration of your thought processes in what business writer Malcolm Gladwell would call “blink” moments; you learn to make snap decisions and trust your instincts, and to see how you can improve every lap.  And then you actually DO it, rather than blaming someone else for why you couldn’t!

Racing certainly isn’t for everyone, but trying it can add a whole new dimension to your riding.  And, to the joy you get from it.  In the final analysis, isn’t that what life should be about…trying new things, testing ourselves, finding joy in the attempt rather than just the victory?  We’ll be bringing you stories of races, venues, and adventures; we hope you’ll enjoy the different perspective.  And, we’ll hope to see you out there!  If you find me after a ‘cross race, I just might share some of the Belgian beer…

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About David Shedd

David Shedd is a lifelong resident of New England, and has been skiing, kayaking, mountain biking, and trying anything that anyone throws at him for most of his life. A 2001 Maine Mountain Bike Association State Champion, his current goal is to learn to break fewer bones.