Bike Racing: How to be a Determined Beginner
By Sam Lowe
So you want to try bike racing, huh?
I am regularly in the company of cyclists who say, “Yeah, I think I’m going to try racing next season.”
You can tell where they are in their mindset by their noncommittal tone. They keep the experience at arm’s length. They often use euphemisms and will even downplay the possibility of a positive outcome. “I dunno, I’m not really training. Going out for 20 and 30 mile rides every now and then, we’ll see what happens in the spring.”
Do you find yourself in a similar place? If so, I’d like to suggest six simple things that can help you look towards the experience of racing with more determination. That, in turn, I believe, will lead to a more positive experience for you. What’s more, it may help you cross your first few finish lines in a better position than you might have thought possible.
My reasons for sharing this are pretty simple: I want you to love bike racing. I want you to have a successful first season, and I want you to be enthusiastic as you plan for your second, your third, and beyond. In short, I want to hook you with the drug of self-discovery and self-improvement as provided by the thrill of racing your bike.
In order to fall in love with bike racing as a racer and not merely a spectator, you have to have your orientation right.
So, let’s get started.
By the way, the outline I’m going to walk briefly through right now, is just a snapshot for the content of a free video series on my website, www.startconfident.com. It’s called 6 Laps to Confidence, and you can sign up for it here.
1: IDENTIFY YOURSELF
The first step to actually becoming a bike racer is to do a simple self assessment.
Can you answer “yes” to these three questions?
- Do you currently consider yourself a “fast recreational cyclist?”
- Do you have a willingness to develop and improve your fitness?
- Do you have a desire to actually be competitive on your bike?
Don’t blow through those questions too quickly. Many would-be racers do, and simply don’t wind up staying with the sport after they realize how challenging racing actually is. If you consider yourself more than simply a recreational or “social” rider, and are willing to put forth some disciplined effort to see yourself getting faster and stronger and able to go farther at speed, then you are ahead of where many beginner racers are. What will differentiate you even further is your willingness to improve your speed and strength while also becoming competitive.
This requires dedication. And this requires a commitment.
2: MAKE THE COMMITMENT
Once you have determined that you want to make the leap from “fast recreational rider” to “racer,” it’s time to do a very important thing:
Be able to briefly articulate exactly why you want to race.
This is actually pretty difficult, but if you can do the introspection to answer this question, and then become committed to your response, you will find that it keeps you going when the training gets difficult.
There will be times when you plateau. Despite your hard efforts and best thinking you seem to be stuck: your speed isn’t improving, your endurance or strength seems to have stalled. Friends and family will question the money you spend, your odd eating habits, and the amount of time you spend training alone.
When you are tempted to give up on racing and say it was all a misguided whim, remind yourself of your answer to the question, “Why did I decide to race in the first place?”
In that video series I mentioned previously, “6 Laps to Confidence,” I explained that my personal motivation has to do with this fact: I discovered with racing that the only thing that truly pulls me back is myself and my excuses. Racing — and preparing to race — has become the one area in my life that I have identified where I can honestly say, “Here, there are no excuses.” It’s an honest, raw, refreshing place to be; it’s different from my professional life or any other aspect of my day to day living. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what defines a successful race experience for me.
No matter how I place, if I can say I did it with zero excuses — solid prep and honest execution — then it was a success.
Finally, a very tangible step in making the commitment to race requires purchasing your USA [ed. Or Canadian] cycling license. This is putting your money where your mouth is. For many of us, it’s the ultimate proof of our commitment.
3: TAKE STOCK
Now that you understand clearly that you wish to race, and why, you need to define what your resources are.
- How much time are you willing to spend to become a successful racer?
- How much money are you willing to spend annually?
- Do you have the right equipment and kit with which to train and race?
- Do you have the health and fitness required to train and race?
I’m a big believer in setting goals. If you don’t set a goal, and write it down, then all you have are a collection of half-baked thoughts and maybe some dreams. But you don’t really have anything to act upon. A goal is a dream that you take so seriously that you are willing to take action to try to bring it within reach.
In order to achieve a goal, you first have to be able to define where you are now. How can you get to point B if you don’t know where you are now, at point A? Determining your resource realities is a huge part of achieving your success goal as a racer.
With your resource realities defined, you can determine what level of training you are willing to undertake. You are able to determine what equipment you will need to acquire and what equipment you are going to forge on ahead with even if it might not be optimal.
As to health and fitness, an advanced step is to test yourself to determine what your “threshold” is. That’s the kind of power and heart rate you are able to sustain over time, which enables you to set specific training zones, so that you know how intensely to work out. This is all part of taking stock of where you are now.
4: GET PACK SKILLS
This next step is something most beginner racers do unconsciously. And when you do something unconsciously, chances are you are doing it haphazardly.
Riding with a local club or shop is a lot of fun, and for many it’s just a part of what it means to be a cyclist. But, as a racer, you need to do more than just regular group rides. In addition to training — which must be done alone in order to be effective — you need to engage in developing pack skills. That requires a mindset. That requires knowing what skills to develop.
When you know what skills to develop, such as how to protect your front wheel in a fast-moving group, how to stand up while climbing without drifting back into the front wheel of the rider behind you, how to draft, how to sprint — and a multitude of other things, what happens is that you no longer simply experience these things, you begin to practice them.
Practice, another word for “training,” is as much mental as it is physical. Don’t be one of those racers who thinks practice is something that simply happens organically. It doesn’t. When you mindfully practice, you then see improvements happen. When you see improvement happen, you gain confidence. And when you gain confidence, you become a better racer.
5: START RACING!
Okay, enough talk. This is put up or shut up time. Do your research, find a local race that appeals to you in terms of the course, the distance, and your comfort level in terms of the size of the pack. Ready? Register! Go ahead, sign up!
Now, after you get over the “I really did it; I really did sign up for a bike race,” you can start preparing to have a great first experience. What you don’t want to do is sign up for a race, and then “just go ride” a lot between now and then, hoping for the best on the day of the event.
Anything that is really difficult and new can be made more comfortable if you establish a routine, early. I encourage you to get into a pre-race habit that includes:
- Researching and pre-riding or driving the course
- Having a prerace checklist of what to prepare the night before
- Knowing what to pack in the car the night before
- Experiment with pre-race and on-board nutrition during your training so you know what to eat and drink for best performance and tolerability
- Having a warm-up routine that is appropriate for the race
- And having a post-race routine that includes reflection and proper recovery
In many ways bike racing is quite like painting a house. You have to do an awful lot of preparation before you can get to the main event. However, the main event isn’t likely to go smoothly if you haven’t prepared, as well as have things ready for when the main event is over. Having a pre-race and post-race regimen quiets your mind for the fury and tumult of racing. It helps you sort all of the craziness that comes at you with breakneck speed so that you can literally minimize the likelihood of, well, breaking your neck — and other valuables. Not only that, it really enables you to feel remarkably accomplished at the end of every race. No matter how you place, you will have gone into the experience with your eyes wide open. You’ll be able to look forward to the next race, complete with new goals to achieve.
After your first race or two, you need to determine where you want to go from here. Perhaps you will want to dedicate yourself to moving up from newbie Category 5 to Category 4. That requires that you finish ten mass-start races. (You don’t have to be on a podium, or be in the top 10…you just have to start, and finish.) [ed. These rules apply for USA Cycling and may be different depending on what country you live in] Perhaps you’ll want to invest in a complete training program. Perhaps you’ll want a coach. Maybe you just want to upgrade your equipment.
My encouragement to you is this: make every step with purpose and conviction.
Evaluate each race experience after it happens and compare it to your goals. What adjustments do you need to make so that your training and subsequent races will be even more enjoyable? This helps keep your emotions in check, no matter if you placed well or wound up experiencing the dreaded DNF. (“Did Not Finish.”)
So now, you know why you are racing. You know how much time and money you are willing to commit. You have goals to shoot for and you have skills to practice. You’ve researched, prepared, dove in, and competed with your head on straight. Hopefully, you can now look forward to racing in the way you might look forward to a long and exciting trip.
See you on the road.
Sam Lowe is the founder and author of Start Confident. Start Confident is a website dedicated to helping cyclists make a confident start in bike racing by providing trustworthy get-started bike racing information from nutrition and training to equipment and inspiration.