I Guess You Had to Be There: What you need to know about bike racing but can’t learn from a book

Riders take certain things for granted. We believe the bike will go where we steer it, that we’ll pedal harder when we want to go faster and if we pedal hard enough, we’ll be able to catch the group or breakaway.

We don’t expect back soreness, while we do expect that we’ll pedal a little easier to clear leg pain when it shows up. We know rationally that we can’t close all gaps and ride away from all fields, but until we’ve tried and failed a few times, we don’t really know this with deep-down certainty. Riders recognize the possibility of blowouts or slippery pavement, but generally expect to be able to correct without crashing. “I’ll stand the bike back up and ride it out,” we think, though it’s not always true. In training, if we approach a corner at a speed that frightens us, we brake a bit and regain a sense of confident control.

Sometimes we feel that if we pedal any harder our hearts will explode, or that our legs simply can’t push any more without cramping or tearing a muscle. We believe that this perception of impending doom has some basis in reality, and that backing off is a rational decision required for self-preservation.

These beliefs are supported by our daily training experience. In general, we control our speed and position on the road, and most of us crash rarely enough that we can see it as a freak event rather than an inevitable occurrence. If something hurts, we stand and stretch and the pain goes away.

Racing changes the whole equation.

Racing is not for the Faint of Heart

Novices expect the meager wisdom gained from prior experience to apply in racing, but competition is different from recreational riding for two main reasons: the presence of a large number of other riders and the fact that you are trying to beat as many of them as possible to the finish line while they are trying to do the same to you. Because you are trying to win, you can’t take a break when you want one. When your legs hurt on a long climb, you can indeed back off until they don’t hurt any more, but at the cost of being dropped.

The first hard hilly races of the year often leave backs aching in a way that’s impossible to clear without getting off and stretching, but stopping is not an option in the middle of a race. Sometimes, racing just hurts in a way that recreational riding doesn’t. You can’t win bike races until you accept that.

If you a approach a corner in a race too fast, you can brake, but only at the cost of losing positions and possibly wreaking havoc and getting yelled at.

In a long race, if you haven’t eaten enough, or if you are unprepared for the distance, you may completely deplete your glycogen supply and bonk. You have to make gradually more effort to sustain the same speed, and then your legs don’t respond any more when you ask for the old level of power. When you bonk, you can keep riding forever, slowly, using fat as the main fuel, but you can’t sustain your normal speed. More effort won’t do a thing about it. A rider’s first bonk can be a rude surprise

Blowing up is similar to bonking, but hits more suddenly and only while you are making a strong effort. It happens when launching off the front to chase a break or when just trying to stay with a group. You are making good progress, and then suddenly, you have nothing. Power drops dramatically, and whatever mission you were on becomes a pipe dream. Depending on how hard you were going just before you blew up, there are a variety of physiological explanations: you overheated, ran out of ATP, depleted or accumulated some ion… one way or another, you pushed your muscles so far from their normal state that they can no longer produce the desired power. Inexperienced riders may scoff at blowing up or bonking. They think if they just try hard enough, they’ll make power again. They are partly right. They can make power again, but not until some time and the tactical opportunity have passed.

Experienced riders know that bonking and blowing up are real threats and that decisions must be made to avoid them.

Expecting the Unexpected

If you’ve been riding for a few years, you’ve probably saved yourself from several disasters. You’ve done an emergency stop to avoid hitting a car or dog, bunny-hopped a pothole, or corrected after entering a turn too hot. After a few saves, one can get a false sense of invulnerability – a feeling that one has a knack for making the right move. If you have enough time to adjust, you can indeed make the right response to avoid falling, but in racing, you don’t always have the roughly one third of a second that you need to make a decision and react. There are so many things to notice that the thing you need to see to avoid crashing doesn’t register until it is too late. Sometimes, you hesitate because the place you don’t want to be for safety reasons is the very place you need to be tactically.

Many tactical racing situations require split-second decision-making. Certain riders are forming a break. Do you go with it or let it go? Do you risk your matches or save them? In a few seconds, the gap will grow big enough that crossing it will cost multiple matches, but if you join and the break is caught, you’ll lose even more. As the sprint winds up, two trains are forming on opposite sides of some slower moving riders. Which way do you go?

It’s easy in hindsight to say what you would have done in a suddenly iffy situation or as a break formed or the sprint wound up. You just go on the other side from the problem, check to see who else is getting in the break or get on the faster line. It’s much harder to actually make the right decision in the moment, with mere milliseconds available and adrenalin driving your attention to small details while making it impossible to see the bigger picture. This may be why you’ll find that more experienced racers are much more accepting of errors made. They’re less likely to ask, “Why the heck did you do that?” They may give advice, but probably with some sympathy or at least quiet understanding. Wise racers recognize that a lot of racing is out of your control.

Pain That Doesn’t Hurt

At some point, all successful racers have to learn one key lesson—don’t back off when it hurts. Pain is normally the body’s way communicating that you are in danger of being injured. Sensitivity to pain is not well calibrated though.

Kids’ mouths have the same cells as adults’ mouths. Hot liquids at the same temperature will damage their cells, yet adults can enjoy hot beverages that “burn” the mouths of kids. With age, kids gain experience with hot beverages and learn that particular temperatures are not dangerous. Then those same temperatures no longer hurt.

Something similar happens with working muscles. The beginner rides hard and his or her legs hurt. If the rider goes harder, the muscles hurt more. Maybe the heart pounds or breathing burns as well. The pain makes the rider afraid to push harder. If the current effort hurts, a greater effort must cause some real damage. Instead of pushing, the rider eases off.

Then one day our rider chooses not to back off. The pain gets worse, but he or she desperately wants to win the sprint or crest the hill with the group. Then something magical happens: The pain stops getting worse even as the effort is maintained. The muscles don’t tear. The heart doesn’t explode. The pain is still there, but it no longer means impending doom. Then our rider can go equally hard without fear. Eventually the feeling is reclassified. The same signals come from the legs or chest, but the brain doesn’t interpret them as potential damage anymore. Now they are the feeling of going hard.

The feeling or hard effort reminds the experienced racer of previous efforts and the successes that came from them. What was formerly pain becomes a positive feeling. The rider no longer needs to back off but can instead ride harder.

The Feeling of Winning

Wisdom comes from experience. Success in bike racing requires that you manage your nutrition and your effort. Until you’ve bonked or blown up, you don’t know what it’s like to tell you legs to go faster and have them ignore you. Without that experience, rules about when and how much to eat and the importance of avoiding unnecessary work seem external. They may or may not apply to you. Once you’ve lived the experience, you realize that these are not written rules or man-made rules but simply descriptions of reality. That is cycling wisdom.

Until you’ve been off the front a few times and gotten caught, you don’t really realize how much faster a pack can move than a single rider, even if you know the difference in miles per hour.

Until you’ve pushed through the pain of hard effort, the idea of pushing so hard that it doesn’t hurt any more is an abstract concept. When you’ve done it, it becomes part of your reality.

If you train enough and gain enough racing experience, you will eventually get strong and smart enough to break away, participate in a finish and maybe even lead the sprint at some point. Then you’ll experience getting caught before the line, probably again and again. Once in a rare while, you’ll go off the front or get to the front of the sprint at the right moment and no one will pass you before the line. You’ll do just what you’ve done all the other times, but somehow everything will go right and no one will catch you.

The wise rider recognizes that he or she has made good decisions leading up to a win, but that the decisions and efforts made by the rest of the field contributed equally. Because you only control your own body and bike, you can’t take winning for granted. You have to earn it, and still hope it happens.

Experienced racers know viscerally what is likely to happen in various situations or if they try particular moves. Knowing in that way makes decision making much easier. There is less hesitation and more commitment. Better, quicker decisions bring more successes. Racers who have paid attention and learned from their experience grasp their reality and control it, to the extent that is possible.

This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in the summer of 2014. Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching help their clients to pick out and learn from the most important parts of their experience to speed up the process of accumulating wisdom. To inquire about working with Scott or any of the Wenzel Coaches, please call 503-233-4346 or visit us on the web at www.wenzelcoaching.com.