Long time, no write. But now the road season is upon us, and for many has already begun. And for some, it may be that this is the year that you or someone you know will be toeing the line competitively for the first time. Congratulations! Welcome to bike racing, possibly the most fun that you can have with your clothes on (for a generous definition of "clothes," granted). And also possibly one of the most challenging sports around for the beginner to take up, given that roadie culture in particular is rife with myth, mystery, over-analysis, chicanery and, dare we say it, elitism. But never fear! I am here to provide some basic advice to help you get started down the path of bike racing sanity.
Most "beginner advice" posts on the internet fall into one or both of two broad categories. The first concerns basic practical elements, like what to bring with you on race day, what to eat (or not to eat), things like that. I'm not going to cover these topics, as they're well catered-for on the intarwebs already. The second category appears to be actual racing advice on how to do well in your first race(s). To be frank, most of these posts seem to be written by idiots, or other beginners - who I love and embrace but can't be expected to get everything right - or are hopelessly vague, or are thinly-veiled advertisements for coaching services or various go-faster products. I want to give you a different, possibly more pragmatic perspective. Okay, ready? Let's go!
1. Before you race, you really should learn to ride in a group. And the best place to do that is on a slow, easy club ride. The niceties of smooth, safe rotation are best learned at a pace you can easily manage and at which you and other riders can converse effectively. It's hard to learn when you're red-lining it just to stay with the group.
2. Don't take anyone's advice too seriously. Especially mine. Most people know way less about bike racing than they think they do. Don't just listen to the person with the biggest mouth. Ask around and find out who has a reputation for helpful advice and mentoring.
3. Don't talk about professional racing at your races. So gauche. Ha ha! Just kidding! Well, not really. Sort of.
4. Don't piss away money on fancy-pants carbon fiber wheels or go-fast bikes. I mean, sure, if you've got money to burn, go nuts, I guess. But if you don't, you're going to want to prioritize your spending. If your bike is mechanically sound and fits you, you should just race it. Even if it's 30 years old. It'll be fine. Really. Here's my proposed ranking of spending by bang-for-buck:
- Race entry fees and travel. To get better at racing, race as much as possible. As long as you are fit enough that you aren't getting heinously dropped in a half-hour criterium, this is the best money you can spend.
- Clothing. Seriously. Ideally, you want enough clothing for a week of training in most weather conditions (tights, leg warmers, arm warmers, gloves, are all re-wearable between washes). There's no need to break the bank, but aim higher than the bottom of the barrel for crucial pieces like your shorts. Incidentals like tights, feel free to buy from Nashbar or something. Most clubs offer group prices on kit for members, by the way.
- Tires. Almost nothing you can buy will make a bigger difference in performance and safety than a quality pair of tires. Grit your teeth and reach into the $60+ range if you can. You pretty much get what you pay for, here.
5. Ride in the first 15 or so riders in your race, but not on the front. Or ride near the back. Or pull the group around. Okay, seriously, you know what? Everyone is telling everyone to be at the front, but not on the front. It turns out that you can burn a lot of unnecessary energy trying to follow a bit of received wisdom that has very little to do with racing well. You're going to need to experiment. So try different things.
6. Try not to whine or yell about "sketchy" riders in your category. Chances are pretty good, as a beginner, that you're fairly sketchy yourself. And if you aren't yelling (good!), don't pay too much attention to the people who are. Everyone is learning, so try and be kind. It'll get better with experience, I promise. For everyone.
7. That stuff you may have heard about riding around a grassy field with people practicing bumping into and leaning on one another? It's a good idea. Find a friend or ten and do it.
8. Being skinny doesn't make you a climber. Being big doesn't make you a sprinter. Assume nothing. Just try things out. Enter EVERYTHING. Trying attacking on hills. Try sprinting. Just try things.
9. Most of the training or tactical advice articles you find on the Internet are written by crazy people, for crazy people. So keep that in mind. The great secret of bike racing is this: it's really not that complicated. If you want to go out and buy a book and power meter, cool, if you want to hire a coach, that's not a bad idea either if you can afford it. But if you're not so sure, a few months of Riding A Lot (TM) for a few months prior to your first race should get you fit enough to hang on in the beginner categories. The best part is, A Lot isn't actually that much - I can't make a specific recommendation, but for most beginners 6-8 hours a week is plenty of training to hang in there, maybe enough to do well.
10. Last one. Have fun. Seriously, bike racing is supposed to be fun! If you're not enjoying it, you should probably stop doing it. It's okay, I still love you. Bike racers aren't better people or better bike riders than anyone else, they're just people who really enjoy bike racing. Hopefully. I suppose there are some who don't seem to be enjoying themselves. Those people generally suck, so don't be one of them. If you don't like bike racing, you can just keep riding recreationally, or try riding gran fondos, randonneuring, heck, give triathlon a shot. It's all good.