Saturday, January 13, 2007

Why do I race?

Yesterday I got up an hour late. This morning, an hour earlier.

I've been perusing two sites - Masiguy and ROAD. (and Neil@ROAD, which I thought was just an email link... anyway, I love that picture at Neil@ROAD so left it at that).

The reminiscing they both do about "Why do you race bicycles?" (both Masiguy and Neil) got me reminiscing about my early racing years.

Why do I race?

Sometimes the better question is why do I train? There are some guys who race so they can train. There are others who train in order to race. There is nothing wrong with the former - my sister in law did the Chicago Marathon this year on a 6 month long impulse. She did well and she's continued to run. I used to fall in that first category but I now fall in the latter category.

I race because I love racing the bicycle.

I used to train for the sake of training. It's hard to beat a 50-something pound Cotton Picker (StingRay with front and rear "suspension") for a "training" bike. I was cleaning out my basement and found a stash of my old training diaries, including entries from when I was 13 years old, detailing that I rode about a mile out and back from my house.

Hey, at least it included a big hill each way.

I progressed to a Schwinn Traveler III ($214.95 including tax), a Dawes Lightning (upgraded cranks, wheels, freewheel, seat, pedals, and added toe clips and straps), and finally the piece de resistance, a Basso. Okay, it had Columbus Zeta tubing (Z for "worst"), main components by Excel Rino (the cranks resembled hardened butter in its rigidity), but when ordering the bike I upgraded the rear derailleur to Super Record (the front was Nuovo Record) and the wheels to the ubiquitous GP4's (32 hole, an unusual feature at the time), laced around Campy hubs. The cranks had a "radically big" 53T chainring (paired with the normal 42T) and the freewheel was a Junior-specific 15-21.

Shortly after getting the bike I also changed the seat (to a Cinelli, to mimic Daniel Gisiger, who slayed all to win the Grand Prix des Nations TT in 1983), the brakes (to Modolo Pro's, to mimic Greg Lemond's Worlds and Super Pernod winning Renault-Elf bike), and got half-length axle pedals from Gipiemme (I'll have to take pictures of the pedals as I still have them).

I struggled like mad to race - it was no fun back then, simply a challenge. There were other things in my life which were not necessarily fun but were immensely rewarding when done - playing the violin (individually as well as in an orchestra), doing yard work with my dad and my siblings, even resealing the driveway.

The violin was probably the most rewarding non-bicycle thing I'd done up to that point. I started playing when I was five. Although a Suzuki method player, my mom didn't have to convince me to play - I actually pestered her so much she gave in and got me lessons with the same teacher who taught her. I didn't realize it then but he was a great player - it's kind of like having Greg Lemond teach you how to ride a bike. Just like cycling, early habits are critical for future success, and my first teacher laid the foundation for a successful 12 years of violin playing.

I hated to practice though. The rewards were simple - finishing a solo recital performance (it sounds impressive but I was just one of 10-15 kids playing a song in front of the parents), group recitals (same kids play together in front of their parents), and later, orchestra. The last bit was more impressive and I felt like a pro when we traveled to NYC to play inside a church the Statue of Liberty would fit inside.

Eventually, I loved playing the violin simply for playing the violin. I lost interest in mastering new pieces - I simply played a song from my repertoire accumulated over a dozen years of playing. My favorite pieces were the ones I learned when I was 12-14 years old - reasonably easy to play, expressive, and fun. I practice very infrequently now and it's only to be able to play part of a piece once again.

The bike is the same way. The training for a few years was what I enjoyed because I could do it and I felt competent. Racing - that was another story. I wasn't very strong, got dropped more than I finished, and had a very difficult time drafting closely. My teammates and I would do bumping and "team time trial" drills but when it came to the "big" fields (more than, say, 30 racers), I got nervous and sat at the back.

I started coming into my element when I went to college. By then I was reasonably competent in the racing bit and still enjoyed pushing myself in training. I gained confidence in my sprint and finished difficult crits and even won a race. This translated to winning training races and the one Cat 4 race I won as a Junior.

"Training" started becoming "racing". My Tuesday sprint workout got replaced by a training series or by a group sprint ride that attracted, at times, over 100 racers, including national level racers. I became fluent in group riding skills and started looking for opportunities to snake through impossible gaps in the field.

Eventually I peaked at about 50-55 races a year. I'd race Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday or Wednesday. I'd spin a bit on Friday and do it all over again. Racing became my training and I loved it.

Like the violin, as I got older, the time I had to allot to cycling shrank. I had to stop any midweek races due to my work schedule. I started skipping Saturday races. And I even found myself skipping Sunday races. As a 19 or 20 year old, racing was the most important part of my life. With more years came more responsibilities and a dilution of enthusiasm. I spend time with my family, working on my cars, doing yard work. And although it seemed sudden when I realized it, over a period of ten years my annual race count dropped until now where I think it sits below 20.

It's hard to be competitive. Some of my races are measured in minutes - like 3 or 4 minutes before I'm out. Other races I'm vying for a high placing, but it's less often than it used to be.

So why do I race?

The short answer is the thrill of racing. Having a fine tuned machine optimized for (crit) racing. Putting on race wheels with the lightest, most aero rims wrapped with tubular tires. The drive to the race, thinking about the course, thinking about past mistakes or past conquests there, and what might happen this year. Changing and warming up and doing the friendly competitor analysis, figuring out who are the danger men.

Then the actual race. Lining up for the start. The big, muddled field at the start. Struggling to move to the front, then once there struggling to hold the position. Little triumphs like moving up a spot. Tiny defeats like losing the same spot.

All the training, all the racing, it all comes down to the sprint for me. At some point in the race I realize, "Wow, I think I'm going to make it to the finish." I gain probably 30% more power, 30% more speed, and 100% more capacity to suffer. I delve deep into those newfound reserves to stay in contention.

Then the ringing bell, an instant adrenaline inducing sound. Pain goes away as does any concept of "too fast". There's only "too much wind" now. Around me are the wild, desperate moves on the last lap, the leg-annihilating ferocious attacks, the equally ferocious counters. And finally, knowing the race will be decided in the next 30 seconds, the uncorking of the sprint, the power and speed which dwarf those seemingly ferocious attacks a few hundred meters ago. Then, of course, the desperate bike throw at the line.

That's why I race.


GOB said...


I lived those same emotions when I raced.

I've never read or heard it described so concisely.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if you'll see this comment b/c this is an older post, but you're a really good writer.

I don't remember necessarily being excited about starting violin, although I guess I was, running around with the tissue box with a ruler taped to it.

Anonymous said...

I am mazpr from BF, nice write up.
Yep, responsibilities really pass a big check. I enjoy working on cars to and many times the small things are missed big time.