What it takes to be a racer

12Apr07

The Team Bike Hugger
blog prompted questions from readers as to what it takes to start road
racing. I hope this inspires at least a few of you to get out there and
experience the thrill of racing first-hand. Here is my take on the
fundamentals of racing:

  1. Anyone can race. You can be a successful racer.
  2. Racing isn’t rocket science. The rules are simple, many are common-sense.
  3. You do not need to train like a pro or be a talented athlete (aka a freak of nature) to begin racing.
  4. You must be passionate about riding your bike.
  5. Racing is addictive. After you race once, the habit is usually formed and very difficult to break.

These are true for men and women racers, though there are significant differences in the men’s and women’s fields.

Anyone Can Race

Just a quick word on how I started: Four years ago, I bought my
first road bike. Prior to getting the bike, all I did was walk my dog
after work. Once I got the bike, I commuted to and from work for 2
months, did a few group rides and, on a whim, signed up for my first
race. I dabbled with racing that season in Seattle. The season after
that, I had a blast racing cat 4 (beginner) in Colorado. Last year I
got serious about racing (I got a coach
and read every article and book that I could about racing) so as to
continue to enjoy it as a cat 3. The more I race, the more I want to
race and the faster I want to go. At this point, my lifestyle is very
bike/racing-centric and I can’t imagine going back to the “normal” life
I used to lead since this one is so fun and fulfilling. And I still
have a lot to learn and a long way to go. The stamp shown here was on
the envelope that contained prize money for winning a race two weeks
ago. What I’m saying here is anyone can do it, you just need to start.

I saw a quote recently that went something like:

“A year from now you’re going to wish you started today.”

That being said, bike racing is for people of all ages so don’t
despair if you wish you had started years ago. It’s not too late. One
of my racing heros, Tina Pic was born in 1966. And don’t forget Ned Overend who is over 50 and still racing, coming second to Scott Moninger (BMC) in the Mt. Evans hill climb by 5 seconds last year.

There are different categories of racers, where the beginners are
cat 4 (for women) or cat 4 or 5 depending on state (for men),
intermediate racers are cat 3 and the most experienced and faster
racers are cat 1/pro or 2. Sometimes there are “open” fields where all
categories of racers race together. This means a pro/cat 1 racer could
be racing against a brand new cat 4 racer. This often happens with
women’s fields in the early season races. I really don’t think it’s a
good idea, if you’re just starting, to race against competition that is
so much stronger. It won’t be a race, it’ll be a mental beating down. I
made that mistake once. It caused me to stop racing for a couple of
months. Luckily, the guys on the team I was racing for were really supportive and they helped build my confidence back.

That reminds me to mention—it is far easier to start racing as a
woman. Women racers are generally supportive of each other and I’ve
found the men to be very enouraging and supportive of the women, too.
Usually, though, women are scared to ride with the guys or have some
excuse that I can’t understand.

Mike Magnuson, author of “Heft on Wheels” said it well: “Nobody wants to hear you whine.” My experience has shown that guys respect the women who ride hard, even if they are riding slower than the men.

Hopefully, you now see that you can race. It’s all a matter of whether or not you want to.

Racing Isn’t Rocket Science

Check out the rulebook
of USA Cycling. Sorry, it’s 138 pages long, but actually doesn’t take
too long. Check it out, you’ll learn a lot. There are a few major rules
to follow, and usually they’ll be explained to the racers prior to the
race start. The biggie is the yellow-line rule. There are so many
things to learn about racing, for example, how to corner properly,
sprint, work in an eschelon, etc. It certainly helps to talk to people
about these things prior to racing so you know the basics, but most of
this stuff will be learned while racing. Every race I enter, I learn
something new. So don’t worry about not being prepared at first.
Experience is the best teacher. A few things, though, that are good to
be proficient at going into the first race:

Know how to “hold your line”
Be able to drink and ride with one hand
Be comfortable riding in the drops through corners and while descending
Be comfortable getting out of the saddle on climbs
Know how to draft and be comfortable riding close with people on all sides of you
Stay relaxed, elbows bent at all times.

It’s helpful to pre-ride the course just for peace of mind. The less
nervous you are, the safer you will be and you’re more likely to enjoy
the ride.

You Don’t Have to Be a Freak of Nature

There will be people out there who are insanely strong, but the
majority of cat 4 racers are fairly new to racing, and competing. You
will meet others who are similar to you. Bike racing is a unique sport
in that there is no stereotypical body type that defines the successful
racer.

Love Thy Bike

Many people get into bike racing because they like competing. This
is a good reason, but think about it, only a tiny fraction of time will
you actually be racing the bike. Many hours a week, even as a
recreational racer, will be spent on training and group rides. You
gotta love being out there on the road, sometimes doing intervals
alone, to have fun and be successful racing…and to guard against
burn-out. Years from now, I know that I won’t be racing, but I also
know my quality of life won’t be the same if I’m not going on long bike
rides. So my top priority is to love every minute on the bike and not
do anything to jeopardize that.

Racing is Addictive

Ah, c’mon, try it, you’ll like it. One thing, though, if you really
don’t feel like racing, don’t let anyone talk you into it. Get to know
your body and your gut instinct. Racing can be dangerous and it’s
important to listen to your subconscious. But do try that first race
and meet other addicts, you just might be surprised at how difficult it
is to stay away from future races.

Obviously, these are just the basics. There’s so, so much more to
racing. I think that’s one of the things that really attracts me to the
sport. It’s something I was able to do when I was really new to bike
riding, but I’m always learning and growing as a racer and as a person.

Good luck!

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