Monday, August 04, 2008

Racing - Pro vs Cat 3 vs non-licensed

This year I discovered some Eurosport TV feeds thanks to, and I got to watch the two man break yesterday cruise to the finish 10 minutes ahead of the field. Two things impressed me watching those guys ride.

First, they worked effortlessly. Their pedaling remained fluid and fluent - except for the occasional stretch, it was impossible to tell if it was 100k to go or 10k to go. It's painfully obvious when I'm a bit tired - my form deteriorates rapidly, reducing me to a bobbing, weaving rider resembling a boxer more than a cyclist.

Second, they seemed to take frequent breaks from pedaling. Part of it was that the course was mainly downhill, I'll give them that. But the other reason they'd be standing and coasting while following their break companion is that they weren't "going that fast".

In other words their 40 kph pace, 25 mph, was sort of like a training ride.

Based on all their standing and coasting I expected the four man chase group to come flying up to the break. But, no, they didn't. The break kept the chase at bay, maintaining a 4 minute gap to them, a 10 minute gap to the field.

And though I'm sure the break worked hard, they didn't seem to suffer, they never needed to extend, never really bury the needle in the red. For that I'd look to Museeuw in his over-long breaks at the 2000 Paris Roubaix or the 1998 Tour of Flanders.

This contrasts greatly with my experience in lowly Cat 3 races where the breakaways require insane amounts of effort and a very high sustained rhythm. Yes, the races are shorter, but I think that the relative effort (compared to the racer's abilities) is higher in such breaks. Once a break is established it's not quite as hard, but getting to that point is a rarity in Cat 3 racing.

This idea came back to me last week when I joined in on two rides from a relatively young local shop, Granby Bicycles. The rides would probably be considered a B ride for most clubs, going pretty easy most of the time, regrouping frequently.

For once I felt like the pro of the group. Only one other guy raced and he was taking it easy on one day because he was doing a crit the next day. Incidentally I was going to do it too, but that's another post for another day. The rest of the riders were mainly recreational. One guy might have been handicapped by the fact that he was looking after his young son who rode with us, but I know for a fact that the kid will be destroying me in a year or three so it'll all come back full circle. Another guy remembered me from 25 years ago when we rode for the same club. I was a scrawny 15 year old and I must have looked like a blimp on that day to him, being 80 or 90 pounds heavier than back then.

Just like I noticed the pros riding with fluid ease, I noticed (other) things with this recreational group. It occurred to me that some of these differences were what made "racing" different from "riding". Racing is a different type of riding, initially painful beyond belief, then suddenly becoming somewhat comfortable. What racers don't realize (because after you start racing you rarely train with non-racers, unless you're like me and not that strong) is that racing elevates a rider to a whole different level.

One of the main things I noticed is that non-racing riders lack a certain depth of power. I'm by no means a power rider, and I regularly get shelled by those who can turn over insane gears really fast, but it was obvious that in this group my somewhat average racing power was pretty good for the group.

The non-racing riders seemed to spin up lower gears but didn't seem to be able to handle turning over the bigger gears. Since I had the benefit of having some wattage numbers to look at, I noted the numbers as I alternately made efforts or sat in (or actually more like "sat next to"). When I was sitting in on some of the hills, I'd be doling out my power at about 200-220 watts, something even I can sustain for a while. But when it came time to bridge up to someone, the wattage climbed to the 500-1000 watt range. Although not earth shattering for a racer, this was enough to gap my non-racing ride companions.

Some of the riders there were much more fit than me, able to ride at higher sustainable wattage levels. One guy surprised me with a steady 15 minute long pull on the second ride. The group had split up a bit and I gamely clung to his wheel, waiting for I don't know what. I was dying though, pouring out 250+ watts, well over my threshold. Eventually I came off, exhausted, with only 30 minutes of hard climbing as a reward. But at a later point, when I jumped kind of hard, he simply didn't have that effort in his legs to do anything. It was foreign, this "attack" thing.

The difference between the recreational riders and a low-level Cat 3 is the ability to dole out huge wattages on a semi frequent basis. Doing a few 700 watt jumps every mile or so is sort of standard operating procedure for a Cat 3, but for a recreational rider, such efforts would border on insane.

Or obnoxious, one or the other. Depends on the situation I guess. On one of the rides I did a few jumps. The second, harder ride? Not so many.

The step up to pro is a little different - it's the sustainable power numbers which impress. 500 watts threshold? I struggle to do 500 watts for a minute, and I've only done it inadvertently at races. On my own I have not consciously broken that barrier. Yet for Rabobank pro Gesink that's his threshold.

So those pros in the break in the Tour. Granted, they were probably at or close to their peak fitness. They were extremely motivated. But nevertheless it doesn't change the fact that they were probably cruising at about 25 mph, which, for me, would take about 400+ watts. Trading pulls, they were probably able to keep their average under 400 watts, figure maybe 400-420 watts when pulling, 350 or so when sitting on.

I'd have lasted maybe five minutes in that break, with no pulls. Pulling I'd have made it for about a minute and a half.

I reiterate this over and over again but I'm going to say it again. I'm so glad I'm not that good at racing bicycles. I have an admiration for the pros, the way you might admire a guy trekking across the desert or up the side of an icy mountain. You admire the spirit and the commitment but you also thank your stars that it's not you doing it, at least not exactly like that.

So, for me, it's not Mount Everest calling. It was the Gunks in New York, and I went and climbed some easier routes over a weekend and had a blast. Likewise I don't need to go hiking across the Sahara. Instead, I went hiking in Devil's Den, a couple thousand acre park in southwestern Connecticut. My hike consisted of walking about a hundred yards into the park with a long time friend Lisa (this is about 15 years ago), laying down on a really big flat rock next to the water (there were no mosquitoes else I'd have run back to the car), closing my eyes, and falling asleep. We woke up a couple hours later, refreshed, relaxed, and walked back to the car.

Likewise, it's the Tuesday night crits that call me, the Monday flat group rides, the Wednesday hilly group rides, not the Olympics or the Tour or whatever. And based on what it takes to get to those big races, I'm glad I don't have to even try. I don't race everything, crash every month or so, suffer through epic 6 hour races, do 19 hard days in 21 days, none of that. I rest when I feel like it, race when I want to, and train when the urge hits me.

I like it like that.

And I hope it's dry out this evening because then they'll have the Monday evening ride.

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