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Learning to Race: From the Pain Cave to the Podium

For some people just getting on a road bike and going for a ride, be it on their own, with a club, or with a group of friends, is all they’ll ever need to get maximum enjoyment out of the sport. For others, the more competitive types with an itch to go fast, racing is the next step in their cycling Odyssey. But what does it take to go from being a weekend recreational rider to making an explosive race winning acceleration toward the finish line against 40 other well-trained riders? In this post I’ll go through the three key elements of transitioning from recreational riding to racing.

Join a Club
The first step is to join a cycling club. Not just any cycling club, but a racing club or a club that holds weekly training races. Racing involves riding in a peloton or pace line in close proximity to other riders at high speeds. If you’ve never ridden with a group, weekly club rides will give you the opportunity to learn the basics of riding in a pack. Club rides are generally slower than a race, although you will on occasion work hard, and do not feature the constant surges in speed that are common during races. These smooth rides with experienced riders will help you learn how to draft properly, pedal smoother to maintain a constant speed, and how to lead-change and form echelons. Even before you start to work on your gut-busting sprint, you need to learn how to ride in a group with superb bike handling skill and understand the dynamics of pack riding.

If you have experience riding in a group or catch on quickly, you can then graduate from the Saturday ride to the weekly club race (or local race series). Most clubs offer an ‘A’ and ‘B’ race so you won’t have to go up against the Cat 1 and 2 racers quite yet (note: if you are used to Zwift categories, A and B training races do not correlate well with Zwift categories). Start out in the ‘B’ race to gain experience and to learn from the other riders (some clubs even offer ‘C’ and ‘D’ levels depending on the size and variation in skill of the club). Be warned, however, that ‘B’ races will feature other riders like you who are inexperienced and haven’t fully developed their bike handling skills. Only ride in the ‘B’ races as long as you need to but don’t jump to the ‘A’ races too quickly or you’ll be yelled at and dropped by the more experienced racers when you inevitably make a mistake or block someone’s move.

Most importantly, get to know the other guys you are racing with in the club. Some will be at the same level as you, some will have been racing for years and can be a wealth of knowledge. Remember, however, that everyone has a different philosophy about racing and training, take whatever advice you’re given and make your own decisions and judgements about it’s worth. The more experienced the racer, the more sound his advice will be. You can even stick around and watch the ‘A’ races taking note of the differences in how they ride versus the ‘B’ riders. Don’t race for first place in your first few races. Watch how the other riders setup their lines and positioning from the back. This will give you a better idea of how to sprint toward the line safely without cutting anyone off and will also help you to recognize what a winning move looks like.

Training
As a rec rider, you’ve probably attacked a hill or sprinted for a town limit sign in your local club rides or even on your own and you might even put a lot of kilometres on the bike. Preparing your body for racing requires specific training. You don’t have to train to be the best but proper training can mean having fun during a race, or struggling to hang on and getting shot out the back of the pack. In my first race I was dropped after just a few laps because my fitness was lacking. Racing involves constant surging in speed ranging from 35km/h to 42km/h. While it is easier to ride at these speeds when sitting in a draft, when you reach the front of the pace line you want to make sure you have the legs to push that pace for a minute or two while you pull up front. In addition, when the pace picks up to chase down a breakaway or when riders are ramping up for a big sprint, you don’t want to get dropped because you are already riding at your redline.

It’s time to start doing intervals. If nothing else, incorporate a handful of 30 second to 1 minute all out intervals into your normal rides so you can develop your ability to cope with the constant surges in speed. If you really want to get into it, hire a coach and start doing research on your own. Look through posts on this blog, there are plenty of great tips for training and racing. The weekly club races are excellent training if you plan on riding in bigger sanctioned races.

Bike raceDetermining how much you want racing to be a part of your life will determine how serious you want to take your training. If you want to race beyond your weekly Tuesday Night World racing series, you will have to develop a yearly plan of training to get you up to fitness to race at that level, even if you are in the Masters 3 category –those guys are fast. Planning out your workouts and knowing what each workout is doing to make you a better racer is key to training effectively. If you just want to have fun at your local club races, you may still want to follow a training plan and learn how different types of intervals and workouts affect your fitness, but for the most part, one long endurance ride per week, and two short tempo rides with some intervals will give you the fitness to hang with the B riders.

Common Mistakes of First Time Racers

Sitting in the back

New racers are usually timid and lack confidence in their handling and fitness. They tend to stay in the back not wanting to make themselves known to the more experienced riders. This is generally a mistake. You will end up working much harder by sitting on the back. When you go over a climb in a large group, the front riders will crest the hill early and start gaining speed, each successive rider will accelerate to hold the wheel in front of them. This means that for those at the back of the pack who are still climbing the last few meters, they have to put out absurd wattages just to hold the wheel in front of them while the front riders are soft pedalling on the other side of the climb. A similar effect happens in corners. The front riders tap their brakes a little and cause a ripple effect where each successive rider has to brake a little more. The trailing riders come almost to a stand still and have to accelerate hard to stay with the pack.

The effect is augmented by the fact that new riders aren’t able to gauge their fitness and resistance to fatigue. You might find the first few climbs or corners manageable at the back of the group and not realize fully how much energy is being sapped from your legs each time this happens. 20min into a hard Crit race and you’ll be OTB.

Holding a good position in the pack requires work and confidence. There is a saying in racing, “if you’re not moving forward in the pack, you’re moving backward.” Bike racing is a constant fight to maintain position. If you want to hold your position in the bunch you need to be thinking about how you can move up. Try to avoid finding yourself on the front but get somewhere near it.

In crit races, you can take advantage of the accordion by tail gunning. This takes some skill and precise timing but its one of the few instances where sitting on the back actually saves you energy. About 50-100m from a turn, ease up slightly and let a small gap open between you and the back of the pack. When the pack slows through the corner, you’ll roll up on them (assuming you don’t brake) and catch them just as you come through the turn. If timed it correctly you can take the turn at higher speed and not have to accelerate as hard as everyone else on the other side of the turn.

Panic Surges

Relax. The peloton isn’t going to ride away on a whim. New racers tend to worry too much about getting dropped and expend a lot of energy trying hold wheels and close gaps. Never close a gap that someone else can close for you. If you are sitting mid pack and a gap opens in front of you, it’s almost always a sure thing that someone else will come around you and try to close the gap, jump on his wheel and enjoy the ride.

If you do need to close a gap, don’t panic. The gap was likely the result of a surge in pace at the front. Someone attacked, or tried to attack, a fresh pair of legs hit the front of the group.. something.. the point is, relax, find a steady rhythm and gauge your effort to close the gap slowly. There’s a good chance that in about 30s the surge will abate and you’ll find yourself rolling up on the group and having to brake. This happens all the time in racing. On big climbs that last more a than a minute or so, you might lose a wheel and never get it back if you’re not careful. On short punchy climbs, there’s a very good chance that over the crest the pack will ease up and you’ll be able to catch easily on the downhill. It helps to know the course.

Overestimating your energy

Everyone feels fresh and strong at the start of a race. Unless its a crit where the pace goes nuts from the gun, races usually start somewhat easily. It can feel like a casual group ride for the first 20min-30min (or until the first climb). Don’t let this fool you. New racers tend to take this casual demeanour to mean that they’ll have no problem hanging in and they relax their energy saving tactics. It’s common to see people rolling up along the outside of the pack in the wind when the pace is easy. They feel confident in their fitness. They’re either the strongest riders in the bunch and they’ll be in a breakaway shortly, or they’ll be shot out the back when the race goes full gas. Either way you’ll never see them again.

At the start of the race find the biggest rider you can at mid pack and sit on his wheel. If he starts to drift backwards move over to the next biggest rider. For new racers the only tactic you should be worried about is saving energy. Stay out of the wind. Soft pedal as often as possible.

If you know a big climb is coming up, it will have paid off to have spent your time fighting for a position near the front. The close you are to the front, more you can drift back through the pack before being well off the back.

Overestimating your competition

In an amateur race of 40-80 riders, about 10 have a good shot at winning. Over the half the pack is going to spend the race suffering and hanging on for dear life. You won’t be the only new racer. You won’t be the only rider with questionable fitness. You probably won’t even be the weakest rider.

In crits the race goes full apeshit in the first 10-20 minutes. You’ll be thinking to yourself, “Holy shit. I’m out of my league. I can’t sustain this. Holy shit 400w? 450. 500. What’s happening? This is madness. I’m going to crack. I’m going to get dropped.. Shit.. shit.. shit..”

Don’t worry. Everyone else is thinking the same thing. Just hang on.

In a few short minutes the race will suddenly ease up and you’ll be able to recover. Crits are the most frustrating races for mid-pack riders. It’s like the sadistic bastards on the front know exactly how long it will be before you crack and they ride hard 20s longer than that. Someone will inevitably come up to you after the race and tell you, “Just after you got dropped the pace went down to 30kph and we rode pretty chill for awhile.”

Remember that everyone in a crit is riding at or beyond their known limits at the start of the race. They’re all thinking the same thing as you. They’re all suffering the same as you. Don’t let it get into your head that the rest of the pack must be so much stronger than you to be able to ride this hard.

Road races are a little different. The pace doesn’t start so frantically. It gradually ramps up until the group is riding at full gas. But don’t worry. A flurry of attacks and counter attacks will come about 25% through the race. Follow wheels, hang on, pray to your god. In most amateur races below 1/2, riders panic when they see a group going up the road and will chase everything down, even that one guy who takes a flier and cracks after 20s. They’ll chase him. But not you. You’re smart. Sit on wheels and let other people do the work. If you think you should be the one in the breakaway, be realistic. In safety of the draft in a big group you might look down at your power meter and see 120w. You think to yourself, “I can easily ride at 250w for the next hour. I bet I can get away.” You can’t. In these situations you need to look at the speed of the group. If the pack is sailing along at 40kph and you know that on your own in training you’ve never seen 40kph on your speedometer for more than a few minutes on a flat road with no tail wind, you’re not getting away.

The point is that at any given time, if you are suffering and thinking about giving up the ghost at least 50% of the riders around you are thinking the same thing. Just hang on. The pace will either ease up or the race will end.

Giving Up

In crits with short courses, if you get dropped, you’ll probably get pulled. But you’d be surprised at how often riders dropped in the first ten minutes can form up a little group, settle into a solid rhythm, and catch the main group once they ease up. Don’t leave the course until they pull you from it.

In road races even if you’re the first guy to get dropped, settle into your rhythm and ride tempo. You’ll pick up stragglers, they’ll join onto you and before you know it you’ve got an nice little groupetto. You might not ever catch the main field but that doesn’t mean you should drop out. You’re not a pro. You don’t need to save it for the next race. You need those races miles in order not to get dropped next time. The groupetto is usually where new racers learn the most. The slight chance of catching the main field forces these little groups to ride at their limit and learn to work together. The only difference between a groupetto and a breakaway is position on the road. Spend a few races riding in the groupetto and when you do develop the fitness to attack and break away, you’ll know exactly how to make it work.

One last thing

Bike racers can be assholes in races. They’ll yell at you. They’ll try to get you to do things you don’t want to do. They’ll want you to pull. They’ll want you to chase. They’ll want you to close gaps for them. Unless they’re yelling at you for riding dangerously or for doing something really stupid, ignore them. If someone is dissatisfied with your ability to close a gap, let them show you how to do it properly.. 😉

 

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