Thursday, July 24, 2008

Racing - Teams at a Club Level

The other night I was deep in conversation with a fellow racer and one of the topics that came up was the whole thing with (bicycle) racing culture, tradition, and etiquette.

Specifically we spoke of the lack of all of the above things.

Although no fault of their own, nowadays teams pop up around sponsors, die off quickly, and recycle quickly and constantly. Okay, yes, a few teams maintain a tenacious grip on their multi decade existence but I don't know of any club in the immediate area that exists mainly due to promoting the richness of racing culture. Well, maybe Laurel in North Haven, CCB in the Boston area, but that's all that come to mind right away. Okay, I can name some other teams but they seem to promote much more aggressive riding (i.e. it's okay to body check someone in a race) and so I won't count them as promoting "etiquette".

The guy I was talking with is a relatively new racer - I think he started racing after I went carbon, 10 speed, and just before I went to measuring power. He pointed out that in other sports there is a history of tradition, of etiquette, and the information is out there for people to read and learn.

Except for a few forum threads, blog posts, or perhaps an isolated club article here and there, there is really nothing out there similar to this for cycling.

Although I hadn't thought of it prior, I theorized that the whole reason this is so is because clubs and teams are now in the commodity business.

When I started racing, teams were social and performance based groups. Now they are a vehicle for sponsors and racers to exchange product for marketing.

The old school teams actually had meetings, sometimes monthly, and planned out their riding and racing schedules. Performance because the same teams would "scout out" new racers (usually unattached ones) at early season races and see who they could lure onto the team with promises of good group rides, a cohesive group of racers at races, and, although I am guessing at this last one because I was 14 when I started shopping teams, the occasional night out at a bar or something.

Teams had dues, usually the cost of one jersey, and they had a mailing list, some officers, and hopefully a race to promote. Sponsors would include a local shop and some local businesses whose owners happened to race for the team.

I raced for a long, long time with the same set of racers, perhaps 15-18 years. We started out by meeting at the Westport YMCA, then, as the shop got more involved, we'd meet at the sponsoring shop.

The team had its official and unofficial leaders. The people who held meetings and such were sometimes not the actual officers, but they were the ones who made the team work. As usual there was maybe an 8:1 or 9:1 ratio of spectators and "doers", with the doers making it possible for everyone else to enjoy team clothing, the somewhat painful meetings that turned into trading war stories, and going out and racing as a collective and cohesive team.

The sponsorship was limited and didn't factor into the team's focus. It got sponsorship from its members, from businesses which the members frequently patronized (a deli for example), and sometimes, if someone struck gold, an actual parts supplier. The latter usually happened only if a new company was trying to get their product some air time, and they'd sell a shop's team members product at well below cost. When helmets became mandated by the USCF (now officially USA Cycling), new manufacturers were quick to offer discounted helmets to teams.

The team's captains were experienced racers, understood etiquette, had a rich repetoire of racing stories, and passed their knowledge on to their less experienced teammates. I benefited from one such captain, my original lead-out man. He taught me how to slither through non-existent holes in the field, taught me strategy and tactics, told stories about pros and amateurs alike, and demonstrated first hand how a teammate should sacrifice himself to help another with a better chance of winning.

Our rides were standard weekend rides from a local deli. We'd do some mutation of a standard loop, adding or subtracting from the basic route based on who showed up that morning. We'd practice doing pacelines, talked about how long to pull before pulling off (20 revolutions is a nice rule of thumb), and when all that went smoothly we'd try double pacelines. We sprinted for a couple signs, attacked in the hills, and chased one another up and around the hills in the area.

Racers who didn't know what to do were instructed and those that didn't feel like participating got chastised. We'd practice bumping when going easy, and during the slow, cold winter rides, we'd talk about different cornering techniques, tricks for attacking particularly stubborn little rises, and our various experiments with clean position or perhaps a new fangled toe strap.

Along with some official cultural reinforcements (i.e. Winning magazine), local club newsletters, and some of the stuff that racers-turned-promoters would tell their charges at the start line, it was possible to learn and delve into the culture of bike racing.

One thing that I remember is that Cat 2s were the ones who got "free stuff". They'd get uniforms (now called "kits"), maybe shoes, maybe tires, and the really, really good ones would get bikes. Cat 2s were demi-gods back then, untouchable, incredibly strong, and all of them could smash your legs into little pieces of minced up flesh.

The doughy boys (and one scrawny non-climber, me) were stuck as Cat 3s and 4s, and our penance was to have to pay for everything we raced on.

But we'd learn and pass on what we learned.

For example, any time someone attacked legitimately early in a ride, the Junior/s had to go chase them down. I guess everyone felt it important to make them get used to pulling along others at an early age, and plus, with the sometimes ridiculously low gearing they had to use, they wouldn't be able to participate in the faster, mainly downhill return bit to the deli.

Another thing was that if the ride had a "no attack" warm up zone, it was both well defined and well respected. None of this "what is up with that guy?" attacks 50 yards from the deli. If an interloper had the temerity to attack in the "no attack" zone, the immediate pursuit was relentless, thorough, and was followed up by a lot of choice Italian, "French", and sometimes even Swedish words.

I mention "French" because that's like "Pardon my French" French. Italian, well, we liked to swear in Italian. Of course I don't know if I was actually swearing or what, but someone who claimed to be Italian would use Italian sounding swears and we'd all use them too.

Swedish? We did that to puzzle outsiders, but as you will see, we weren't really swearing at them. When our strongest rider was a Swedish guy, we asked him for a key phrase to yell so that we'd know when he wanted us up front, something not English or any of the common other languages around (like Spanish, French, or Italian). He said something like "Yolksadie". Well, that's how we pronounced it. He grimaced when we said it but it was close enough. We'd know it when we heard it.

So at the big target race (New Britain, if you must ask), we got all our guys in this race, we shut down everything that moved, and when he wanted us to go to the front, he yelled out, "Yolksadie!"

The rest of us (I think we had 14 teammates in that race!) started yelling, "Yolksadie! Yolksadie!"

So if you know a Swedish or Scandanavian person who was around for that very odd New Britain race in the late 80s, you can explain to them why there was a bunch of guys screaming out a horrendous Swedish pronunciation of "I love you!". Unfortunately at that race our love didn't work. We streamed to the front, tried to push the pace, shelter our guy, and collectively exploded a few laps later. I think he got 5th or something, and it was devastating to have all our work go down the tubes.

But the fact was that this team had coagulated over many years, trained together, raced together, and even went to team meetings together. In that sense the team was a success.

Nowadays teams are less like those socially based organizations. Now they are based around sponsors, they communicate electronically, and for a number of them the only time they see their teammates is when they show up at a race.

It's definitely a more mercenary relationship between the racers and their teams. People regularly jump from one team to another to get free kits, discounted (or free?) bikes, massive discounts on parts and accessories, and various other benefits like sponsor provided schwag, free or discounted fittings, coaching, etc.

I think that it's great that teams and their sponsors are willing to give product to their members. But the whole thing lacks something, an intangible - the passing on of culture, of tradition, of knowledge. New racers usually don't have a grizzled veteran guiding them through their first group rides, their first race, their first stage race.

One of my friends summed it up perfectly when he described his new team, one where his one or two years of racing was considered a lot of experience. He helped run it and they floundered as one might expect.

"Dude, we had no frickin clue what we were doing. It was ridiculous!"

Unfortunate but true.

So as not to complain without actually offering a couple approaches to dealing with this "problem", it's important to ask how can we fix this? And I say "we" because those that grew up in the past generations of teams are the ones that need to try and get the tradition thing rolling again.

It starts off with the stories, the pro stories of sacrifice, of struggle. It's those stories that inspire others and they set an example for the next generation of racers. No one gets inspired by someone just sitting in all day and twiddling their pedals to victory. But when I read about Merckx's 130 km solo break in the Yellow jersey to win by almost 8 minutes... well, it's something else. He won that Tour by almost 18 minutes over the second placed racer, and the time gaps in the top ten racers yawned to almost 52 minutes!

CyclingRevealed is a site that has done a great job in selecting and describing a little bit of what makes cycling so revered in Europe. For example there is a "Top 25 Tour" article which briefly describes each Tour and why they were so great. These are the stories that need to be told on those long, cold November rides, the January LSD rides, the rides where you build the foundations of the upcoming season, both physically and mentally.

It's also important to practice riding technique, both individual and group skills. With online coaching and all sorts of cool devices to measure one's fitness, new racers are stronger and stronger and can sustain the effort required of them to stay in a race. In many cases, however, their riding skills are not up to their strength. What happens is that their fitness level allows them to get into situations that require good bike handling skills and group riding etiquette, but they lack the latter.

The result? Frustration from both the strong and unskilled racer as well as the weaker but skilled racers. And, unfortunately, inevitably someone somewhere crashes.

With skills it's very important to get either video or actual (in person) instruction. Once the racer knows what to practice, they can go and practice such things on their own free time, perhaps on their easy or rest days. This is not very difficult and a few videos, DVDs, or perhaps even YouTube clips would be enough to help with this.

Group riding skills are different because by definition they require an actual group of racers. This is where a team that actually has meetings would be handy - part of the team meeting might be to suit up in rough and tumble clothing, go out to a nearby grassy field, and practice various group riding skills. In extremely cold weather the meetings may emphasize etiquette type instruction, or how to approach various things one might see on a group ride. The material is easy to get - if you have a regular group ride, at some point someone will complain. Right or not, a meeting that goes over that incident and what is acceptable (or not) is a great way of clarifying expectations from both the group and the individual.

New racers should be introduced to this whole "club team" concept, the idea that it's both a club (i.e. friendly group of people with similar interests) and a team (i.e. a sporting group with specific sporting goals).

An excellent way of doing this would be doing it through collegiate racing teams. Those teams have geographically close students (they go to the same school and probably live within a mile or two of each other), they have a lot of free time (seriously), and they have youthful enthusiasm. Given a good approach, strong instruction, and education on how to continue on after they graduate, collegiate racers offer the best opporunity for promoting racing in a managed, cohesive way.

The key would be to combine each local team or area with a nearby "veteran" to create a great symbiotic relationship. On one side you have the veteran, able and willing to share his vast experience with his young charges, and on the other you have an enthusiastic, captive pool of raw recruits eager to learn and effectively training to disperse all over the country.

Within a few generations of racers (a generation being a four year period in this case) we'd have approximately 10,000 racers (based on the number of collegiate racers now) skilled in individual riding technique, trained in group riding skills, and a knowledge of both the racing tradition as well as the method for passing on those techniques and skills. Each year there would be an additional 2500 or more racers joining those ranks.

If USA Cycling can tap into this seemingly endless young and enthusiastic group of racers, they could raise the quality of racers and racing in a methodical and controlled manner in the next 10 to 15 years.


Anonymous said...

VERY good - and much needed - post. But many of the older (i.e. non-collegiate/junior) riders that are new racers need the same instruction/guidance. But, admittedly, you have to start somewhere.

The story about the Swedish phrase was hilarious!

Anonymous said...

Ok post - comes off a little grandpa is "in my day ... Blah blah..." but I do agree with it for the most part. Most of all the whole idea of guys joining teams, not doing team rides, never racing after April and generally just using the team as a way of getting cheap stuff. As for handling skills and manners on the bike, I think alot of that comes with experience in races. I also recommend all roadies to hit the trails or cross races a few times a year. Its amazing just how bad some of the most experienced racers are on their bikes.

Aki said...

SOC - true that older-than-21 racers also need access to good information but as a way of making sweeping improvements, collegiate racers seem to be the easiest way to do it.

anon - also true, that whole "when I was your age". I should have emphasized that the point is to look for a way to quickly teach racers how to race. For example it's possible to learn how to drive just by being a passenger in a car and watching someone else drive, occasionally asking questions, and trying to absorb it all. But it's much more efficient (although some may question this) to take a class and learn stuff "officially". I guess in Germany the driving standards are very strict and this argument would work. In the US it's kind of doubtful, but even after someone finishes driver's ed, takes and passes both the written and driving test, it's still the 16 and 17 year olds who have the most accidents (sometimes the 17 year olds are beaten by the other spectrum of drivers, those over 65). Instead of letting people learn just by picking up things at races and group rides, it would be nice to have some formal education to teach riding techniques and possibly tactics.

Anonymous said...

So Aki are you saying that you want to mentor a local university's collegiate 'team'/young group of riders?

I know someone who just might be interested...

-Young rider

P.S.- The story of the swedish word is hilarious. I actually started laughing out loud.

Unknown said...

Nice post. I can relate big time to this story. I am a new racer (recent college grad). The closest team is over an hour away for me so I have a tough time learning the skills needed.

We have 4 universities within 10 miles of eachother however no racing teams. There is no "vet" in the area to teach anything. I sadly have taken the role of the "vet" trying to organize collegiate racing and tri's in the area.

Wish me luck, it is the blind leading the blind up here!

Anonymous said...

Amen, brother Aki, amen.

[And the Norwegian words for "I love you" are very similar, so I was laughing before I even got to the punchline. Would've loved to have been there!]