Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Racing - What I Like About Bike Racing

Recently I've been thinking about things like cars and homes and even bikes. At some point soon I'm planning on meeting up with a strong triathlete with the idea of helping her get into racing just the bike (her initiative, not mine, and yes, the Missus knows who she is). I thought about the whole bike racing thing versus, say, running or tris or car racing or whatnot.

And I realized why I like bike racing (I'll tell you why later).

Because, contrary to all the things I say about aero this and aero that, the bike is a small subset of the whole "racing package".

In other words you cannot buy races by buying equipment.

Now, granted, I think there's something to be said for a lot of the equipment out there. I spent thousands of dollars on aero wheels alone, and I'll be spending more money this winter to see if I can reduce how much energy it takes for me to get through the air.

I also know that, for example, aero bars help with time trials, significantly. I understand that.

Ultimately, though, I know that I'm playing (meaning me, i.e. me as a racer) within a limited sandbox.

It's the "Connecticut Cat 3" sandbox (I know I'm a 2 officially but bear with me here). Physiologically I'm no superman on the bike. I'm a pretty average rider (in the scheme of things, not just in bike racing). Fine, I accept that my body's been a bit optimized for bike racing - the last 27 years of racing can't help but do that. For example, if I started doing, say, crew (you know, "row your boat" crew), I wouldn't be very optimized. I'd get sore and stuff and have to learn how to row. Cycling... I figure I'm optimized.

But optimized as I am, I'm still in the lower ranges of a Cat 4 in the various power charts.

I spent two plus years tracking power, and I have perhaps 15 years, on and off, of heart rate data. I have some idea of my weight over the years, and I know at some broad level the typical average speeds I hold on training rides (and since I normally train on the same roads all the time, I get an idea of how I handle, say, the "Quarry Road Loop" or, back at home, the "Compo Beach Loop").

I've found that, for the most part, nothing has changed. I can alter my training load - full time, part time, no time. I can lift, not lift. I do sprints, don't do sprints. I race a lot, I race not a lot.

Fine, I see improvement when I race a lot. I see some improvement when I do certain lifting. Being light helps, of course - I raced the best when I weighed in under 145 lbs, and when I dipped into the low 130s for season, I was positively rocking on the bike.

That got me... nowhere.

Physiologically I was a sub-par Cat 3 through and through. In road races, even at my best fitness, I never and I mean literally never finished with the main group. I could count on maybe one or two riders getting dropped before me, but typically those were riders that had problems on the faster flat bits, sections which made me feel at ease.

My redeeming physiological characteristic is my sprint, and, more specifically, my acceleration.

Other than that, I'm definitely of average ability.

Every year I raced I watched new racers start. I watched them fumble around, literally and figuratively, on the bike, in races. They'd fumble the ball tactically, use poor technique, and, for those that stayed the sport, learned quickly how not to do that stuff.

And then in a year or two I'd watch them ride away from me.


And five or ten years later just think of them as "Oh, him? He's a Cat 2." Or even a Cat 1. Heck, even the Cat 1 that normally gives me a drubbing at the Rent started out only recently - I remember him winning the Cat 4 Bethel Spring Series overall, then the Cat 3 Plainville Series overall.

Now he's somewhat unreachable.

I can think of other riders. I remember one kid at UCONN. He'd raced a bit as a Junior (like five times or something) then quit for some reason. He came to a UCONN Cycling Team meeting and felt the urge to race again. He diligently did the handling drills in the fall semester that year at school, doing bumps, bunny hops, wheel touches, picking things up off the ground, wiped his tires, and partook in the "Slow Crit" at the end of each drill session.

Note: The Slow Crit involved tossing bottles out in a circle and then slaloming through them, slowly (5-10 mph), with full/hard contact with at least one rider, preferably two. We'd ride around the circle, left of one bottle, right of the next, constant shoving with shoulders, elbows, hips, and even knees. After a while it was kind of easy, almost like you didn't need to do it anymore. The contact felt almost gratuitous, like standing in line at the airport and having someone stand against you.

That spring the newer riders (one had to borrow a bike to do the drills - he didn't own one yet) rode magnificently. They felt confident in the field, comfortable in close quarters riding.

And that kid that was a Junior for a bit?

Our first "real" race, the season opener at the time, was the Alpha-Lo Cycles Wallingford Crit.

I should point out that I was rocking that year - a close second (no photo finish and the home team got the win, but a picture of the sprint later seemed to show me in front) and a whole lotta places, even in races I didn't expect to finish.

As we came into the finish of the Cat 3 Alpha-Lo race I felt great, strong, ready to launch a massive sprint. Since he'd raced before the kid was a 3 - he may have even upgraded during the collegiate season - and he was in my race. I hadn't seen much of him during the race, but then again I hadn't seen much of anyone - I'd been tailgunning on this hilly crit.

Following my standard modus operandi I moved up aggressively in the last couple laps, slotting in top 10 at the bell.

That last lap we flew down the backstretch towards the third turn, a left into a short climb. Another left at the top, then a straight that would settle the finish. (Similar to the Fall River Crit, for those that did it.)

I was holding maybe 5th on the narrow backstretch, almost salivating at the finishline opportunities.

Then the kid went by like a rocket.

I watched him sail up the hill effortlessly, rounding the fourth turn and disappearing from sight. I can't remember if he won. I do remember thinking, "Hey, he can't do that! He's still a new rider!"

He'd upgrade quickly.

I don't know what happened to him but I remember vaguely he was a 2 by the end of the year.


I was just the pack fodder Cat 3. I raced well on a few select courses, had my moments on others, and let the bike racing life roll on.

So what's this got to do with equipment, you ask. Well, let me tell you a tale...

My record, absolute record, in a 7 mile time trial held "undercover" in the old days, was a 16:28. That's a reasonable speed I guess, about 25.5 mph. I didn't break 17:30 (24 mph) until I got a dedicated TT bike - disk wheel, 24" front wheel, aero bars, and even an aero helmet (short tail TT helmet).

That's all great until you realize that my leadout man Mike H did a 15:55 (26.3 mph) with 32 spoke GP4s on a regular road bike. I don't remember a lot of other times but that was kind of shocking. I was going 30 seconds slower than him, at best, over a 7 mile course. Most of my Cat 3 teammates did similar times, high 15s or low 16s. The Cat 2 I worshipped would regularly crank out 15:10s and the like, an astonishing pace that hit almost 28 mph.

If you want to compare apples to apples, we can talk about the guy with the aero bars/wheels on a normal Giant road frame (which I fit for him) that scorched the course in a 14:05, a tad under 30 mph.

This is where the equipment thing comes into play.

You think that I could buy 2:23 worth of equipment?

In 7 miles?

143 seconds?

Yah... No. I can't.

And neither can you, not unless you started out on a full suspension mountain bike with monstrous tires and 5 inches of soft cushy travel front and rear.

So what's this mean?

It defines my sand box.

It defines where I belong in the cycling world. I don't belong in the stratospheric 33 mph time trial arena. Nor do I belong in the mountains, like Palomar Mountain, which the pros take just over 35 minutes to climb. If I was in that race I'd lose something like 40 or 50 or 60 minutes there, on that climb alone.

Heck, I don't even belong in the Cat 3 field at Fitchburg. The one year I did it I crawled up the final climb in the road race, dying a thousand deaths, so far behind the state trooper at the bottom of the last short bit (something like 20% for about 20 meters) wasn't aware of my presence until I gasped, "Left?"

(I finished so far down they didn't record a time for me.)

To put things in perspective, the finish line officials forced me to go lay down in the first aid tent. They literally didn't think I could make it down the hill in my condition, at that moment.

So why do I like racing?

Because, even with my limited physiological abilities, I can race.

That triathlete that wants to start racing bikes? She runs a 5-something mile when she does a 5k. I don't know what she does for a 10k but when I guessed 6:30s someone shook their head no, that was too slow.

You think I could run that fast? Heck, can you run that fast?

So how do you compete against them?

You can't.

But in running, there is no separation of ability. It's just age. It's like doing Juniors or Masters all the time, racing against Cat 1s and Cat 5s. You kind of feel your way to your place, whether it be a 5:20 pace or a 9:30 pace, and that's that.

Fine, you could improve a bit when you first start. But I have to imagine (since I don't run regularly enough) that once you start bearing down on your limits, it's hard to improve dramatically.

It's like that 2:23 in the time trial. For the life of me I wouldn't be able to go 30 mph in that time trial. Likewise, I can't imagine going from sprinting at a 6:30 pace for 30 seconds (at the end of a 5k) to averaging 5:30s for a 5k.

Bike racing lets you race among your peers. You have a chance to win. Slim, perhaps, but significantly higher than the chances had by those that run.

To top it off, there's this big, mysterious bonus in bike racing: tactics.

Tactics are huge in bike racing, all because a bike racer is so un-aerodynamic. Tuck behind someone, though, and suddenly you can ride like a super man.

I may not be able to average 28 mph in a time trial, but in a pack of racers... that's kind of like coasting. 27 mph? No problem. I struggle with the 35 mph attacks and such, but even they aren't that bad if they don't go on for mile after mile. I got dropped at Central Park one year when the current World Champion in the professional pursuit (and also the US Pro Crit Champ) Mike McCarthy set a hellacious pace for most of a lap - when I got shelled we'd been holding 35-36 mph for a while, almost a lap. In normal races though, the 35 mph bursts appear before 25 mph recoveries.

So, yeah, tactics. If there's someone that loves strategy and tactics, it's me.

When I doodled in class in 8th grade, I doodled battlefields. I doodled strategic maneuvers. For a while I doodled hexagonals and filled them with (permanent, since I drew them in) various units and terrain characteristics.

In high school, when I discovered bike racing, I doodled bike stuff too, pacelines and attacks and counterattacks. I wasn't very good at drawing figures so I'd make these T shaped representations of riders (like a view from above) with arrows and such.

In battles tactics count, just like in bike racing. It's not like running, where you can just force the issue by going so fast that no one can keep up with you.

Well, I suppose you could, if you were a 33 mph time trialer, and you just went and rode 33 mph for a while. After 5 or 10 minutes even the most dogged wheelsucker would have to be wondering just how long this could go on.

But for us normal folks, it's not about that. It's about hiding from the wind, attacking or chasing when it fits your plans, whatever they may be. Sometimes I work for myself. Sometimes I work for a teammate. I'll even go into races with plans to work for non-teammates. But I almost always have an idea of what I want to do when I line up for a race.

It's going into a race with a plan. I can't go line up at a running race planning that my legs will magically turn into 5:00 legs if my best is a 6:30 mile. Won't happen.

On the other hand, I can line up at a crit, surrounded by far superior time trialers and climbers (doesn't take much to beat me in either discipline), and still have a realistic chance of beating even the wisest, most crafty veterans out there. The interplay between racers, teams (and teams and racers definitely interact differently than just teams or just racers), the course, and luck (having it or not), it all goes towards deciding what happens in the race.

It's never predictable, but there's always potential. Sometimes I'll lose. Actually, if you look at my results, I often lose. Sometimes, though, I'll win.

And that's what tactics is for me and my bike racing, that potential.

Tactics represents hope.

That's the most powerful thing about bike racing - the potential for success, the potential for winning. The hope.

And that's why I love it.


David said...

Interesting post. One of the differences between cycling and running, I think, is that runners are more likely to measure progress against themselves; they tend to be less competitive with others, and probably fewer egos (well, sprinters have plenty of ego, but distance runners not so much). As an experienced runner, I would tend to shy away from races I thought I could win easily, sometimes jump in just to get a good workout in (sometimes it helps just to have someone else on the starting line). I picked the biggest races with the deepest fields that I could find, hoping that there would be other runners of my ability to key off of, to push me to go as hard as I could and try to improve my times.

Sure, at the very top levels tactics are more important, but only somewhat, and primarily in the middle distance (800m-1500m) races. And it's true that cyclists have time trials, which tend to be similar, but all that equipment, positioning, and differences in the course -- all of those things make it somehow less pure, and the absence of a mass start to push you to your limits also makes it somehow different. I don't like cycling time trials, and I didn't like running time trials either. :) But I did like running races -- I think it's less abstract when there are other people near you, trying to reach the same goal. I guess it's hard to explain the difference.

One guy on bikeforums was asking if he should stay in a certain category, or upgrade before he won a race, because he thought it would be easier to learn to win in the lower categories. I asked him, what if he never won a race? He had never really considered the possibility, and sort of said, yeah -- that's what everyone hopes for, isn't it? I'm not so sure. I'm a fairly new racer, but I'm still more interested in the challenge and watching myself improve than in obtaining victory. There are SO many ways to improve, it's been pretty exciting so far to see how well I can do. Although of course it would be nice to win once in a while :)

David said...

I thought about it a different way too: As a runner, winning races didn't make me nearly as happy as setting a PR. Because I just figured, "Well, I'm faster than those guys, does that tell me something about myself that I didn't already know? No, it doesn't, I already *know* that most people aren't as fast as me." The first two races I ever won were exciting (the first was cross country, the second was track, both as a HS freshman against other freshmen), because I started off dead last and the victories were completely unexpected -- I had no idea how good I was on a relative level. The first track race I won was incredibly dramatic, it felt like the whole stadium was yelling for the last couple of laps, but it's so rare for something like that to happen that it's silly and rather egotistical to hope for it. Truly, my fondest memories are huge PRs, where months or years of hard work finally paid off -- especially races where my friends or family were there to cheer me on and share in the achievement. I'm not trying to say that one or the other is better, just giving the perspective of a formerly decent runner and current pack-fodder cyclist :)

Unknown said...

Hi there,

big fan of the videos, please keep posting!

I have a question (and bear in mind you have been racing longer than I have been alive):

In your description about how you have tried lots of different kinds of training but seem to have reached a plateau, you don't mention having tried a coach.

It just struck me as a strange omission. Have you tried getting coached, or did you find it was just not really worth it?



Aki said...

David - I'm glad you posted. I'm not a runner so I don't know much about, say, things like tactics in shorter running races. I just go by what I know or what other runners have told me.

I think that part of the draw of racing is the chance for winning while still being pack fodder. I'm not one of these leg breakers - when I go to the front the others kind of snicker. I mean, maybe they don't, but I'm sure a few roll their eyes! Seriously, I'm not that strong.

In one Bethel a long time ago I managed to get to a break. I refused to pull (when I did that for the 2 prior weeks I got dropped). A few breakmates yelled at me to pull, but the tactically savvy one yelled in my defense - "Aki's team is blocking. If he pulls he'll get dropped and then they'll chase. Let him sit on."

The break eventually made it to the line, splitting into 3+2 on the last lap. I got 3rd, last in the first group - when the other two jumped I couldn't move. Guess who won? Right, the savvy guy.

Aki said...

Louis - a good question. Over the years I've really studied various training techniques and theories. I trained with an open mind, willing to try different things. But I realized that I play in my sandbox. I can't make it a beach or a field. It's just a sandbox.

I'm pretty patient on the bike. A year or ten, it's okay, whatever it takes. I waited for 2 years to buy a powermeter, then another year and change to get a crank based one (once I realized I wanted a powermeter for all my wheels). I've gone into seasons thinking "well, not this year, but maybe in 2-3 years".

I technically had three guys coach me. One was a current pro at the time and didn't understand my time/energy limitations (I worked in the city, typically 12-14 hour days). One was a former national RR podium racer. He had the opposite problem (I was unemployed and could ride a lot). The others were more "like me" in that they were a little more normal in their abilities. Good, yes, but at a national or professional level.

Since the coaching "failures" had as much to do with misunderstanding (of available resources - like time/energy) as much as anything else, I don't mention them.

I've also experimented, over the years, with crank lengths, position, light vs aero wheels, etc. My position experiment was to be a year long, and I saved my old bikes "just in case". My 175 cranks were also a long term experiment - I fully committed to riding them for 6 months before making any judgments. I struggled like mad for the first few months but later found that the shorter cranks didn't favor my type of fitness. On the other hand, in the 1990s, I rode 167.5s and couldn't stand 172.5s.

I also tried training for racing instead of racing for training. I did tons of miles (quality as well as junk), low miles (ditto), etc etc.

I feel like I've tried it all. My darned genetics seem to have limited me in certain ways (and gifted me a little in my jump). Now it's a matter of honing what I have.