Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Racing - How I Learned About Racing

I saw a post on Facebook about how things like Zwift might make racing (and riding in general) more dangerous because on Zwift you don't have to worry about turning or overlapping wheels or any of those other "in real life" (IRL) cycling things. On Zwift (and other virtual riding platforms) you just pedal. The thought was that after a winter of Zwifting riders would come out and collide into each other, ride into ditches, stuff like that.

Although the poster had a point, the reality is that we've been experiencing a fundamental change in how new racers learn their craft. New racers nowadays tend to be better prepared physically, in terms of fitness, but there is no longer an inadvertent "indoctrination" process for most racers.

20-30 years ago there wasn't the internet (at this kind of "lemme Google it" level), you had to mail your license and pre-reg payments in using an envelope and a stamp (or two), and it was a big undreground thing to go find a bike race. Velonews was sort of the source for race listings (because USCF had a next to useless newsletter), and you had to go find Velonews because not every shop carried it. And, at some point back there, there were no Barnes & Nobles, and even when they first started popping up, they'd get maybe 3 or 4 Velonews per store. So it was really hard to find out about races and such.

(Back then promoters would buy pre-printed stickers from USCF, by region or state, and then mail flyers out to those addresses. I remember a few of us sitting at the shop stuffing envelopes. Back then the flyer was the key, the prize list, the entry, directions, everything was on the flyer, and everyone's refrigerators were plastered with race flyers. If you were cool you had your speeding ticket taped to the fridge also, the one you got while you were on the bike, ideally for speeds over 50 mph.)

My rule book from 1983.
Yes, you got a rulebook with your license because it was all done via mail (note it's envelope size).
You should still read the rulebook each year.
Or at least Google for the changes.

What this did was it forced those that wanted to race to really seek out races and everything that comes with it. You really had to join a club (because back then you might have paid $10 "Unattached Fee" on a $15 entry fee). Clubs, in turn, had to promote a race to be able to wear their kit (in 1988 I wore a generic kit becuase our race got canceled). This all made it highly unlikely that someone showed up at a race without any race knowledge at all. They had already searched out a shop that has Velonews, they joined a club (or at least were riding with one), they wanted to do some weird sport that involved doing some very un-American (for that time) things like shaving your legs and wearing lycra shorts with nothing underneath.

Generic kit in 1988 (the blue one, in case you're wondering).
I was really skinny back then, in the 110 lbs range.
I believe this is in Middletown in the July 4th Firecracker Criterium (field finish).
I was scared of the faster corners in this race.

Leading through Turn 4 at the Danbury Criterium, I think in 1992.
This time we had team kits.
(4th place in the field sprint/race).
I was much more confident in corners at this point.

This whole set up led to a great sharing of knowledge situation. I learned sooooo much from my first team (1983-1997, various entities), primarily from my first leadout man, Mike H. I learned about group riding, leadouts, tricks for climbing (which generally don't work for me because watts/kilogram), time trialing (ditto, because FTP), etc. When we talked about races I learned about courses and riders. I went to "race school" for 5 hours every weekend, the two 2.5 hour group rides I did with the club. I haven't gone to, or, I suppose now it would be "held", race school in forever. Even on the group rides I did in the last few years, all five or so of them, I've been too wasted trying to stay with the other much stronger riders to do much more than breathe.

When I finally went to my first race back in 1983 I'd already learned about gearing, about tubulars, about drafting, about all sorts of stuff, from my first mentor Ken B. I even learned about speed, but I hadn't grasped the concept yet. I'd already watched the US National Championships in person (because I tagged along when one of my teammates went to do the Junior race). Heck, just that day I learned a few things. First, don't fall over at the start (half the Intermediate field, i.e. 12-14 years old, fell over when one rider couldn't get their foot into their toe clips). Second, I learned that rolling a tubular is a bad thing (Roy Knickman rolled his tire in the sprint but he managed to finish 2nd with his tire flopping around in his frame!). Third, I learned that as a Junior I had to watch my gear limits that, fortunately, my club and shop had set up perfectly for me. I learned that last rule because the guy that beat Roy Knickman to the line had an illegal gear! He won the sprint in a 53x12 I think and the limit at the time was 53x15. So Knickman won after rolling a tire in the sprint because the guy that beat him was disqualified.

As the USCF, and later, USAC, sort of lost their way (I honestly don't remember what year clubs no longer had to promote a race, and it's been eons since I've seen any race with an "unattached fee"), clubs became less a "vehicle to hold a race" and more "just a club". There are clubs/teams around here with 4 or 5 riders because all they want to do is race together. In the old days they'd have to hold a race, and that discouraged such small groups. Now if someone started a business and wanted to wear a kit with the name on it (why not?), another small team would pop up. However there was no extra race, you never saw these people working a race, and you generally never heard of these guys riding together, or, significantly, recruiting and training a new rider.

This led to many clubs, not that many races, and less racers feeding into the system. It led to smaller clubs, to less organized ones, and to all sorts of clubs all over the place. A new racer now had a wealth of (typically less quality in terms of mentoring, race promotion, and group ride) choices as far as clubs went, and honestly, there are many groups that don't want to ride with new or non-racers (unless the rider in particular might be so strong as to make the team better).

With Lance Armstrong, road cycling became significantly more popular, more so than when Greg Lemond was racing. Significantly Lance also helped market, through Carmichael Training Systems, the concept of "power training", and riders started thinking "Oh, if I can do 250w I can race". A huge thing that happened is that riders working on their specific programs started skipping group rides, or they'd do their "own ride" within the group ride. "Sorry, I have to stay in Z2 today". This led to less group riding skills, less shared knowledge. Now riders started to ride on their own, doing intervals, etc, getting stronger.

However they lacked access to that pool of knowledge that clubs used to bring to the racer. Yes, they could find races now, thanks to the internet, and they could even register for them. They could buy a license immediately, at the race, instead of committing to racing a month prior by mailing in forms to get a license via mail. But this didn't help them find clubs, or, more significantly, mentors who could teach them some basic things.

It's one of the reasons why I post such long things here, in Facebook, and in forums and stuff, to try and brain dump my knowledge for others. These very fit, very strong, very optimized riders would show up at a race and not really have any idea how to race.

One significant thing that is missing out there is a book on HOW to race. Not "how to do a paceline", which is a technical thing (sit in another rider's draft, pull at an even speed when you get to the front, wiggle your elbow and pull off to the opposite side, drift to the back, start accelerating up to speed as you pass the last rider's cranks). What no one says is WHEN to do a paceline, which is a tactical thing. Do you do a paceline at the start? How about a break? What about at 1 lap to go?

The application of the technical skill, the paceline, is just as significant as the skill itself. In fact I'd argue, because it's easy to learn about pacelines but hard to learn when to apply them, the tactics are more significant. Obviously you have to learn one (the technical bit) before you can do the other (the tactical bit), but if you don't learn the tactical bit, you are at a major, major disadvantage.

There are books that claim to be tactical books but they don't actually talk about when to apply the technical stuff. Yes, there are isolated examples and such ("in such and such race, I did such and such because such and such and I won"). Generally speaking, though, you can't apply that to your world, because you're not some pro in some race with a given set of competitors with specific strengths and weaknesses and history and all that jazz.

Someone needs to write such a book. I've been on idle for about 10 years now, but I have just under three hundred pages of such stuff written over the course of about 15 years. I started writing stuff in about 1990, when I'd write notes for the team before races, with course maps, how to do the corners, what to watch for, historical race outcomes, etc.

The manuscript just sits there, waiting for me to finish it. Part of the problem is motivation. The other part, significantly, is that I keep learning more and more about tactics and how to apply different techniques, and I think, "Oh, this needs to go there, I need to add that there, " etc.

The other part is that I'm still trying to figure out what I take for granted, and how to describe to someone how to do those things or handle those situations. I had an epiphany in 2010 (which was long after I'd written most of the manuscript) when my then rival (and still a good friend) Bryan H opened a gap while I was on his wheel.

My "move" described below happens just after 4:35.
I'm cracking because of the action that started at about 3:00.

I'd been responding to attack after attack, I was absolutely on the edge of cracking, and if I'd made an effort at that moment, I'd have blown up.

(If I'd just pulled through, like a paceline, it would have been the end of my race. Therefore it's a tactical thing I had to apply, because doing the simple technical thing would have ended my race.)

I immediately, without any thought, moved over and waved everyone by. I knew I couldn't close the gap so I made it clear to the others that they needed to do it. A number of riders streamed by before both he and I picked up the pace a bit and got back on wheels.

I realized after the fact that this was a standard response for me. It was a situation where I reacted in the same way the same way given the same situation (me cracking, gap opens up one rider in front of me, single file field).

Someone asked me if I thought bike racing was so "algorithmic". He didn't use that word but he asked if we should race like a computer program. "If this, then that." I told him, yes, racing is like that. Problem is that I've been racing long enough that many of my reactions are automatic now, and I'm trying to figure out what they are and the situation that triggers them.

Yeah, so I have some work to do.