down in sunny texas, 10thousandfeet of mellow velo is looking to get into racing and asking for advice on getting started (go on, go over there and give your two cents’). in response to an advice-bloated comment i made on the blog, she asks: “you said it took you a long time to decide to get into racing. what finally pushed you over? how hard was it at first and what do you think helped you (the most) to finally ‘get there?'”
umm … ooh … okay, here goes: first, it’s worth knowing that i race at a very very amateur level: my goal is to be a respectable masters’ racer. i started riding in earnest in northern california in my early twenties: all recreational and commuting, but pretty committed, to the point where i was averaging over two-hundred miles a week for a while, and my riding partners included an upwardly-mobile cat 3. i loved it, i loved being fit, i dropped 35 pounds that i had put on during a very sedentary (and play-filled) quartet of college years, and i began to contemplate getting into racing.
but contemplate was all i did at that time, for a couple of reasons: one, i was afraid to jump into a race and be that guy — you know, the one who took the wrong line and caused a pile-up, or who didn’t know enough to stay steady in a paceline, or who was simply overwhelmed at suddenly being surrounded by fast-moving bikes on all sides. two, i left northern california, moved to the midwest, and (most damning, at least to dreams of racing my bike) began graduate school.
correctly or not, i read the rigors and demands and stresses (and seemingly-ubiquitous stress releases of pool, beer, and cigarettes) of graduate school as antithetical to the serious pursuit of training and racing. i rode only recreationally, but i did play some adult soccer during grad school and discovered (or rediscovered) that i really like to compete. really like it. not so much to beat others (although that’s pretty cool): i loved the rush of being in the moment of competition, of looking into the eye of an opponent and cackling with sheer joy at the prospect that i might beat you on the dribble, or not, or that you might ride me off your wheel, or not, but damnit, i was gonna try to hang on, and when we were done i’d shake your hand whether you won or i did. when i think of myself playing soccer as a thirty-something, i always have a smile on my face, even though i know that i would get a bit chippy at times. (the same is true when i think about being in a bike race, even though photographic evidence usually shows me with either grimly gritted teeth or a gaping anaerobic trap.)
soccer didn’t work out in the long run (i’m kinda protective of my knees), so after grad school i started riding centuries, bought myself a new bike, and eventually really really got the itch to see if i could ride fast and competitively. and as luck would have it, the thing i needed most — confidence riding my bike in a pack at high speeds — was available. in st. paul, mn, a local bike racing club (named, appropriately, the saint paul bicycle racing club, or spbrc) puts on an annual class called the beginning racing program (brp).
so i signed up, and with my signup i got a year’s membership in the club and a spiffy club jersey. more importantly, i got six weeks’ of practice in pacelines, cornering, sprinting, and even bumping shoulders and crossing wheels (these last two practiced on a grass field). we also got tips from experienced racers, lines on good group rides, and encouragement to race, which i soon did.
and loved it.
so, what, you’re looking for the lesson? okay, then — if you want to race, don’t wait fifteen years to start and always wish you knew how you might’ve done with a younger body; join a bike-racing club; use that club (either formally, as in a beginning racing program) or informally (by coercing clubmates into skills-training sessions) to fill in the gaps of confidence and skill you need to get into a mass-start race; set goals; and want to compete with a childlike joy.