First Races

Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want – Dan Stanford

As warmer weather and bike racing return to the Northern Hemisphere this Spring, racers will again be making errors and learning from their mistakes. Many will be learning unnecessary lessons, sometimes even the same lessons that the same rider learned in the first races of previous seasons and that thousands of riders before them also learned several times. Newer and denser racers make certain errors quite consistently. I hope this review will inoculate readers of this column against some of the more common ones.
Many racers err simply by not reviewing the lessons and skills gained in the previous season(s) before the first race of the new season. What tactics worked or didn’t work last year? How were previous races that one coulda-shoulda-woulda won actually lost? If you’ve raced many times and can think of a few dozen answers, you’re ahead of the curve. For everyone else…

Start Building Optimal Habits

There are many hundreds of little things about tactics, nutrition, equipment, training and attitude that one has to get just right to win bike races. There’s no way a racer can consciously think about more than a few of them for any one race. The vast majority of details must be optimally dealt with automatically. Success depends on good habits and automatic behaviors that allow one to do the right things without thinking about them.
When one does something in a particular way, one is learning to do it that way, building a habit. If one does things in an ineffective or inefficient way, one will have to unlearn that bad habit before one can succeed. So, never do anything around racing in anything but the best way you know. Build only good habits. When you are experienced enough and racing at a high level, you’ll find that every move you make on or off the bike affects your racing. Take every race seriously because it is part of your preparation for later races, even if it is not “important” in its own right.
Following are some good habits to start building from the first race of the year:

Tactics Start Several Days Before the Race

Many races have been lost because of errors made in prior weeks. Among the more common errors: Not eating adequate, carbohydrate-rich meals in the 72 hours before a race, not staying well hydrated, staying up too late either partying or doing bike repairs that should have been completed earlier, drinking too much alcohol, and training too hard in the week before an event.

Bike prep is often neglected and a common reason for frustration in races. “Hey, it was working in training all week so it will be okay in the race, right?” Maybe, but maybe not. Shifting that is good enough for training may not be good enough for the higher forces and split-second timing of a race. Glass that is embedded in tire treads and hasn’t yet reached the air chamber on Friday may reach it on Saturday. Riders who leave the initial bike check for the night before the race stay up late making last minute repairs rather than sleeping in preparation for the “O-dark-hundred” wake up call, and those who skip it entirely eventually end up off the back at mid-race with an avoidable mechanical.

All racers should become competent mechanics, at least for the basic stuff like adjusting gears and brakes, checking spoke tension and wheel true, checking tires for embedded glass and topping off tire pressure. The initial pre-race check should be done two or more days before the race so that anything that needs a professional mechanic or a replacement part can be dealt with in a timely, unstressful way.

Even if the bike is checked and prepped the night before, things can still go wrong during warm up, so arrange to bring tools, a pump and spare parts. Even if you don’t end up using them yourself, you may save a teammate or earn the gratitude of someone less prepared.

Pack From a List and Check it Twice

Many races have ended before they started because a rider forgot shoes, a wheel, a racing license or a helmet. In the excitement of getting ready for a race, it’s easy to miss essential items, so make lists of the stuff you need when you race. Keep them in a computer, cell phone or notebook where you can easily find and edit them. Save multiple versions for specific situations: The cold early morning road race list, the overnight-stay stage race list, the afternoon criterium list, the time trial list, etc. Each situation calls for a lot of the same stuff and a few special items. Don’t forget the chamois lubricant and the warm, dry clothing to change into after the race. Synch your lists with those of friends or teammates to improve them.

Bring Enough Food and Drink

Food and drink should definitely be on the lists. Think about the length of the race and how many bananas, fig bars or magic energy units you’ll need, but also remember the time before and after the race. Bring enough snacks and drinks for the car and the warm up, and for at least a small post-race recovery meal since you might be stuck at the venue for a while arguing a placing or waiting for a teammate.

Plan Your Arrival

Figure out what time you need to leave for a race to get to the venue 90 minutes or so before start time. Assume that all aspects of the trip will be a bit slower than they could. Allow for traffic, bathroom stops and parking far from registration. If you’re carpooling, allow more time than you think for pick-ups. Ask buddies beforehand if they are going to need to stop for coffee etc so you can plan for that.
Ninety minutes is usually just enough time to get registered, pin a number, go to the bathroom a few times and still have a good hour for warming up. Many a race has been lost because of an inadequate warm up. Don’t let yours be one of them.

Race Tactics

People have written whole books on race tactics so I won’t try to cover that entire topic here, just a few items that come up repeatedly.

  1. Don’t “test your legs”. Yes, it’s the first race of the year, and you don’t know how your legs are going to respond in the finale, but rest assured that if you waste energy testing early in the race, you’ll have fewer matches for the finish, so save them for the tests that really matter.
  2. Pick wheels you are comfortable around and draft closely. Yes, it’s early in the season and a lot of riders are sketchy, but don’t get in the habit of hanging back, breaking your own wind or tail-gunning out of fear. There will be sketchy riders in the field all season, and you’re going to have to learn to deal with them if you want to be able to move around in a pack. (Special Tip: It’s is okay to overlap a wheel or ride with your wheel between two wheels in front of you if the riders you are overlapping are hip-to-hip. The riders in front can’t sweep your front wheel because they can’t move towards each other.)
  3. Don’t tow the field, even if it’s “easy”. Okay, you did great training over the winter, you really are stronger than ever before and you really can pull the whole field. That may feel great, but rest assured, there is someone who trained just as well as you did drafting back in the pack and enjoying the free ride. At the end of the race, he or she is not going to let you win out of respect for your hard work. “Oh, excuse me, did you pull the first half of the race? Let me just get out of your way.” That’s not going to happen! More likely, if you pull the field for several laps it’s going to be, “So long, sucker!”
  4. Speaking of saving matches, don’t chase every break. Yes, there are new faces in the field and you don’t know who is strong enough to stay away, but guaranteed, if you chase every break, you’re going to get tired, and later when you are too cooked to stick to yet another break, one is going to stay away. Choose your breaks, or let your goal in the first few races be to stick with the main field. More often than not, the main field reels back the breaks and sitting in turns out to have been a good strategy.
  5. Go easy on the brakes too. When you use your brakes, you are taking the energy you pedaled to put into the bike and turning it into waste heat. Then you have to generate that energy again to get back up to speed. Take a few deep breaths. Calm down and look for ways to carry your momentum rather than scrubbing it. Roll up next to or around the wheel in front when it slows rather than staying right behind it and putting the brakes on.

Remember to Suffer

If you are much stronger than your competitors, you can win by riding easily while they blow up around you. Few riders are ever that much stronger though, so we have to be willing to dig deep if we want to beat others who know how to suffer. The first few races of the year are often the hardest training rides in several months, and it’s possible to forget how much they can hurt, then be surprised and demotivated by the pain. Many riders quit a race in discouragement, not knowing or not remembering that they could have kept going and that the pain they are experiencing is simply the feeling of going hard. In the first few races of the year, expect to go hard and to hurt. Plan to keep pushing when your legs are on fire. Commit to it. First off, you might win, but mainly, remember what champion snow-shoer and mule racer Tom Sobal said, “pain is weakness leaving your body”. Riding that hard helps bring on the “race legs” or good form you’ll need to be competitive later in the season.

(About preparation for the first races: Once one starts doing super-hard efforts regularly, there is an inevitable chain of events kicked into motion: first, the body begins to tolerate the hard effort better and better until a peak is reached, then the peak lasts a few weeks to a few months and finally ends. Once the peak clock starts ticking, it is running down toward the end of the peak. That means that training super hard to peak in time for the first race makes the peak end a few weeks to a few months after that first race. If you let your first race be your first far-above threshold intensity, it hurts more and you don’t perform as well, but you add a month to your peak. Depending on how many races you plan to do and how long your season needs to last, training up with hard intensity before the first few races can be a brilliant idea, or a grievous error.)

If You Don’t Win, Learn

Unless you win a high level professional race, winning just means the stronger racers were at another race or in another category that day. Prizes are cool, getting on the podium is awesome, and having a victory story to tell can’t be beat, but the real value of racing is the opportunity to test and improve theories about tactics, nutrition, training etc so you can keep improving and race better next time. One of the worst errors to make is to lose a race and say, “oh well, it wasn’t an important race”. If ones screws up a trivial race, how in one going to perform better in an important one?

Get at least one lesson from every race, starting from the first one of the year, and apply that lesson in every later race forever after. If you lose, remember that it’s just a bike race. Losing may mess with your mind, but it’s not the end of the world. Losing means that an error was made and can be learned from. Learn the lesson and move on. Everyone makes mistakes. Ideally you make fewer than the other riders in your category and never make the same one twice, nor make the ones you’ve read about someone else making. Good luck in the new season.