Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Racing - Why I Race

Why Do I Race?

Someone in a forum posted a link to this post in singletracks.com - 10 Reasons Why You Should Not Race Your Mountain Bike.

I thought this was very interesting. I read it partially because I don't race mountain bikes anymore (and I wondered if my deal killing reasons were in there), but partially because I figured whatever they mentioned in the post might apply to racing road bikes as well.

The main reason I don't race or even ride mountain bikes (or cyclocross ever) is poison ivy and ticks, Lyme disease, and whatever that new disease is that is worse than Lyme disease.

Another is that it's usually pretty messy, meaning it takes forever to clean the equipment after the race. Bike, yeah, whatever, but muddy kits take forever to clean.

I really like that there's a technical aspect to mountain bike racing. Tire tread choice, tire pressure, shock settings, they all make a noticeable difference. I never raced enough to get into the nitty gritty of bike set up; I think if I got into that aspect of things it'd be all consuming. Just before I stopped racing mountain bikes I'd already gotten a whole bunch of springs for my full suspension Jamis Dakar mountain bike, both for the frame (different lb/in but only one shock) and the Judy fork on it (air spring, elastomer spings, and I was about to get coil springs). Thing was that I wasn't good enough to mountain bike to be able to figure out what worked and what didn't work. I just worried about staying upright in the technical stuff. The fast stuff I just loved.

(I'll admit that I'm not good with heights so those elevated single track things, the big drop offs, the jumps, they all don't appeal to me.)

The post hit on a lot of things though, and it never mentioned poison ivy or cleaning up. It did mention a few things I thought relevant to me.


A lot of people assume that since I race I want to beat everyone else out there. When I talk to non-racers they always ask if I won, if I win, stuff like that. It's easy to understand winning, I get it, but there's more to racing than just winning.

For me I want to optimize my performance on a given day, with given fitness.

That can mean different things depending on the day, my fitness, my equipment, everything. If doing the best I can means 15th in a P123 race, that's fantastic. More often I work to get to the bell in such a race and then consider it "enough". If I get 2nd in an easier race but I think I didn't do everything right, then I feel disappointed in myself. A win, as rare as they are, is much more satisfying if I feel like I punched above my weight (for videos I have a couple - 2015 and 2005 - plus two more that are slightly less significant to me). Virtually all my wins feel like I pulled above my weight, but there is one where I felt like I was in the wrong category (a collegiate B race, back in the fall of 1985) and it didn't feel right. I had been racing a few years, I was into racing enough that I shaved my legs (only one other rider in the whole field shaved their legs), and when it came to the sprint it felt unfair. That race was about 30 years ago and I still think of it as a not-that-great win.

"Scenic Rides"

One thing the post mentioned was that when you're racing it's hard to take in the scenery when you're racing.


I understand people go riding to take in nature and such but frankly, I don't care what's around me when I'm riding unless it negatively impacts my riding. Is there a forest fire? Ozone warning? Rain? Ice? A wall of thundershowers heading my way? Okay, that stuff registers.

A nice view?

Yeah, whatever.

I don't stop to take in vistas on my road bike, or on the mountain bike when I rode the mountain bike. Stopping on the mountain bike usually means mosquitoes. Road bike? Same thing. Even in SoCal, where there are no mosquitoes or other itchy bite things, I won't stop to check out the scenery. It is what it is.

It's sort of like the mantra from "Apocalypse Now". From that movie, Willard: "Never get out of the boat." For me it's "Never get off the bike."

(Okay, for a poison ivy free convenience store, okay, I'll stop and get something to eat on a super long ride, but other than that...)


Okay, there's a financial cost to racing, but, frankly, it's one of the only recreational things where I spend money. Combine that with a super supportive spouse, and a kid that thinks "Daddy races his bicycle in really big circles", and I have the best I can ask of from my family.

My racing doesn't cost a lot. Entry fees for a crit run $30-40 a race, training races $15, and in 2015 I did 14 races total. Not a lot of money. Even 25 or 30 races wouldn't be that much money.

I do have long term investments in racing, if you will. Carbon race wheels, a powermeter, my kits, they all add up. But I try to invest judiciously. I bought a slew of wheels in 2010, then three more used ones basically in 2013. Before that I was using wheels I got in 2005, and before that wheels I'd mostly gotten prior to 1995. New wheels every 10 years, not that bad.

Wear and Tear

The post mentions how racing forces the rider to replace stuff sooner than later because you want to race with new stuff on your bike (for better performance and such). I understand that in mountain bike racing - you want the newer tires (full knobs, nice clean edges, sheds mud better) when you go racing, you really can't get by with your wheels rubbing your frame, and a bad shock will really ruin your race.

However, except for creaking BB30 bearings, I raced in 2014 and 2015 without replacing anything at all, even my handlebar tape. By the end of 2015 (and, to be honest, right now) the tape was so bad that there were solid inches (inches!) of bar showing around the massively screwed up tape. Black tape on black bars so it's harder to see, but it's there.

My bike in 2014. It's the same now, at least for racing.
Even the band of tape is still on the downtube.
I am experimenting with different pedals and a different saddle.

I also raced with the same chain and cassettes for both years. Same wheels, same tires, same everything.

Road is kinder than off road for sure. In one muddy mountain bike race I wore through my new brake pads and wore out a new Deore XT chain. I didn't even do well, although I passed someone about 50 meters from the line because I couldn't brake at all on the steep descent. Still, on my road bike, I basically worry about wear items like cleats and tires. After that it's sort of up in the air, although I do choose my equipment to be reliable.

Still, though, the costs of racing aren't totally ridiculous. Compared to other hobbies I think it's pretty manageable.

"What's Left?"

If I don't enjoy the scenery and I don't race to beat people, then what the heck am I doing?

I take joy in trying to do the best I can when tackling technical things.

The things I enjoy doing, I like working at doing things better. For example I really liked approaching "mountain bike problems" with out of box solutions, if they made me faster. My last race I was experimenting with higher tire pressures with softer suspension settings. It didn't work well - even with massive tire pressure I pinch flatted out of the race 400 meters in - I also went "all or nothing" and carried no tubes, no nothing.

In another example of problem solving, there was a stream crossing on one of the trails I did regularly with the guys from the shop back in 1995-1997. We all worked on not dabbing in the water, mainly because you got your shoes wet if you did. I realized that if I went flat out just before the crossing I had a chance of just bunny hopping slash jumping the whole stream, avoiding all the little problems like which line to take through the rocks in the water. Instead of gearing down approaching the stream I'd put it in the big gear (46x11) and start sprinting. Different approach, tangible results.

A similar thing I enjoy - kart racing indoors. You're on the same course, same karts, and it's all rental stuff. Therefore no worries about set up and such - you just plunk your rear into a car and go. No "scenic" stuff (inside of a warehouse, and at speed, not much registers other than the 50 meters in front of you), just you, your (rental) helmet, and your (rental) kart. I like trying to optimize my driving technique / lines / etc. I'm so slow compared to the good drivers it's ridiculous. However as long as I can improve, as long as I can optimize my cornering, I'll be thinking about the next time I can get out there, like I am right now.

Kart stuff - gloves, helmet, neck thing.

I also dabbled in firearms for the same reason. I wanted to educate myself on guns (pistols as it ended up since rifles weren't really usable where I lived) and I wanted to get an idea of what it was like to shoot one. I'm so inexperienced at shooting pistols I'm probably like the person that rode a bike 25 miles to get an idea of what the Tour de France is like, but, still, I can watch someone shoot well and say, yeah, right, definitely waaay better than me.

The Heart of the Matter

The karts, the cars, that made me think in a more analytical way about why I enjoy bike racing.

I thought about what I enjoy about riding the bike, racing the bike. I thought specifically about my training loop near the house. It's about 15 miles long, it's basically flat, and it's basically the only loop I did regularly from 2007 to 2014 so I got to know it pretty well. One year I took perverse pleasure in only doing that loop. When I thought about it I realized there are two things I looked forward to on those rides, with a distant third.

1. Jumps. If I can do a 100% jump then I'm a happy camper. I'm not super motivated to do jumps arbitrarily. I need some motivation. A truck or a line of cars passing at 35-40 mph on a fast section of road. Traffic pulling away from a light just in front of me. A green light at that right turn.

If I can do a jump or two, and I have good jumps, then the ride automatically becomes a good ride, as in "How was the ride?" "Ah, well, it was a good ride, I got a good jump in."

2. Fast corners. There are exactly two fast corners on the whole loop, where I can enter the corner at something approaching edge-of-control speeds. The first one is off a downhill, it has no light, and it's a left, so as long as there isn't any oncoming traffic I can hit the turn. This is about a 50-50 thing, where about half the time I have to stop or slow. It's a hard turn so even when it's clear it's a bit nerve-wracking at full speed.

The second one is a right with a no-turn-on-red. Since I stop at red lights I have to hit a green to make the turn. I can see the light from a couple hundred yards away so it's tricky hitting the green. Too often I approach and it turns red. I figure I hit the green maybe one out of every eight to ten loops. If I time it ride I do a jump before the light, cornering at 30 mph or so, and then, ideally, do a massive jump behind a vehicle just in front of me. Done right I can do a 40 mph sprint effort.

Thing is that if I hit that second light right and I get a nice vehicular leadout, it's an absolute blast - the ride is a success. It doesn't matter to me how bad I felt, how slowly I rode, if I do a nice corner-jump-sprint then the ride suddenly gets classified as "a great ride", as in "How was the ride?" "It was a great ride, I did a massive sprint by the Duck School."

3. A distant third - motoring fast on a flat road. And a corollary, motoring fast on an uphill. I should quickly point out that me motoring on an uphill is a rare occasion, so when I am fit and light enough and the wind is right and there's a long line of cars going 30 mph passing me and I can big ring a hill then it's pretty satisfying. That happens maybe once every few years. The last time I remember that happening was probably in 2010. So that's pretty unusual.

Motoring fast on flat roads... that's more realistic. When the wind is right (aka I have a massive tailwind) and I can roll a 53x12 at some decent speeds for a while, it's really nice. I can dream about being a strong rider for a bit.

Then I blow up, realize it's been about a minute, and that good riders can go that fast for an hour. And I realized, yeah, this is why I don't do breaks and such.

Being able to motor on a flat road makes the ride okay. "How was the ride?" "Well, it was okay. Hammered a bit on such and such road. Rest of the ride wasn't very fast."

I guess that I enjoy cornering fast, jumping hard, and hammering on flats. Racing allows me to do that, and in fact the whole ride basically consists of those elements, with me recovering between the hard bits.

So Why Do I Race?

Ultimately, the question remains, why do I race?

It reminds me of an article I saw about parenting, kids, and school. I guess a lot of parents ask, "What did you do in school today?" I know I do (we call Junior's daycare "school").

That question puts pressure on the kids to give an answer that is "right". Maybe Junior best remembered running after the boy with the ball (as he did tonight), but maybe he thinks we want to hear that he painted or sang or danced.

A better question, according to the article, is "Did you have fun today?"

That's a much more open ended question. You can follow it up with "What made it fun?"

"Did you have fun at school today?"
"What was fun?"

His face lit up.

"I was digging in the woodchips and found a worm and I ran really fast and played with the bouncy thing and threw the ball in the air and it went over the fence and we ate yogurt for snack and I didn't have any accidents!"
"That's great!"

So why do I race?

Because it's fun.

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