See You Next Year? Knowing When to Stop Racing
The end of the road-racing season has arrived. Even the most serious roadies are relaxing, having the annual beer, and taking a few easy weeks before resuming training. In the coming months, they will connect with teams and coaches as well as commit to stricter diets and training plans. Most get down to the business of being stronger and faster next year—however, some racers won’t. Elsewhere in this issue, you’ll find stories of high-profile riders who won’t be racing next year. They are hanging up the race wheels and retiring from the peloton. Some amateurs will also be missing from next year’s fields.
How can an amateur think of retiring from bike racing? Quitting might make sense if you’ve collected a salary for a few years and can’t get a contract for next season, but why would an amateur ever quit? Bike racing gives you so much! You get to travel to cool new places, hang out with awesome people and test your abilities. You get the adrenaline rush of cornering with the pack, sprinting for a prize or dodging a disastrous crash. There are meals shared with comrades and the elation of riding through the countryside on a beautiful day. Like a religion, bike racing provides structure in life and makes every action meaningful. Bad things happen, but many good things happen in between. How could anyone not want to race forever?
The bike racer’s life is intermittently painful. We crash and have to heal from road rash or broken bones. Friends get seriously hurt. We train in any kind of weather. We ride the same routes too many times. We train even when work or family cries out for our attention. “The old lady/old man said if I went for one more long ride she/he’d divorce me. I’m sure gonna miss her/him,” sounds like fun until you find out your significant other was serious. Bike racers need to train and sleep. They won’t stay late at the office or go in early even if that means foregoing a promotion. We skip parties, camping trips and family reunions that would interfere with training or racing plans. Women may hold off having babies. We spend piles of money.
With an unrealistic training plan, the bike racer’s life can include constant fatigue. Even with a good plan, there will be days of feeling completely wiped out, after a hard race for instance. If you’ve won, the effort and fatigue feel worthwhile, but if you were boxed in for the sprint, flatted out of contention or were unable to match the pace on a hill, the suffering seems like a waste.
Some people race year after year for decades, while others stop after a few seasons. What makes the difference? The costs are high for all committed bike racers, but when they feel higher than the expected rewards, racers quit. The ability to maintain enthusiasm often separates the lifers from the temporary racers.
How’s Your Enthusiasm?
Everyone has up days and down days with regard to enthusiasm for training and racing. We are always mentally balancing the costs and rewards. New racers start out positive and fully committed, even before they know what commitment means. Performance improves from month to month, bringing a sense of reward and motivation for more effort. Down days are rare. Fresh racers, whether they are new or not, are excited about each new season and each new race because of chances to see what they can do or to test a new tactic. Burned out racers have lost the faith that the current race will be any different than all the ones before.
By mid-career, improvement still comes, but gradually. You may go weeks or months between measurable signs of improvement, but they still show up occasionally. The hard-fought nature of these rewards makes them all the more worthwhile. After some years though, all riders approach their real potential, which is their physiological potential as constrained by social and financial realities. At that point, the enthusiasm begins to fade for riders who are driven by the desire for self-improvement, but not for those who ride and race for the inherent pleasure. If you are consistently thinking more about what you are missing, or about the danger and the discomfort rather than the fun and the adventure, you may be over the hump and getting close to retirement. However, lifers can repeatedly refocus on the enjoyment of riding, and they can rekindle the enthusiasm long enough to break through plateaus, or they don’t worry about continuing to improve.
Tough training conditions accelerate the path towards burnout. A relatively new racer going out to ride in the rain and wind might think, “Wow! This is so cool! I’m training just like a Belgian champion. I’m gonna rock next season!” A good season justifies the effort, but if the results don’t come, this racer might think, “Winter training was miserable and pointless!” When the time comes to train in the rain again, he or she might not want to do it. The thing is, you can’t get better as a bike racer unless you push your boundaries and challenge yourself. You have to go past your comfort zone to improve. When you can no longer find enthusiasm for that, you are done.
Fueled by Hope
For many, hope and the way it structures your life are the really addictive parts of bike racing. You do what you have to do to get faster. You have faith that the new training plan, diet, intervals, wheels or power meter are going to make the difference. The breakthrough is always around the corner, and it will make all the sacrifices worthwhile. The bike racer’s life is all about hope. This year I’ll win my target event. This year I’ll upgrade. I won’t get dropped…
Bike racers work hard to move up, to put more riders behind them. Moving up the ranking, winning more prizes or finishing in front of more people who previously beat you feels good. It feels so good that you don’t question spending all your time training and hundreds of dollars on tires, hotels and race entry fees. After several years, you realize that while you’ve been working hard and sacrificing much, your competitors have done the same. You’re in roughly the same place you were the year before, and the year before that.
No one gets to the top of the heap without plateauing a few times. The ability to keep focused, or take a break and come back with redoubled effort after a setback, is essential to racing success. However, eventually you have to admit that you have reached your highest plateau and you can’t move up any longer unless you do things beyond your motivation or capabilities.
At the peak of your career, your overall rank stays about the same. Maybe it starts to slip. Then you have to make the decision: Do I really want to do this again? Will I spend few thousand more dollars? Will I train through another winter? Will I miss another year of things I could be doing with family and non-cycling friends, or is it time to hang it up and explore other sources of satisfaction?
If you’re racing for the camaraderie and the thrill of speed or the structure competition gives your life, you keep racing even if you are no longer moving up. If you’ve been racing because you want to win and you have permanently plateaued somewhere other than the top of the podium, you’ll be ready to hang it up when you realize you have settled into your place in the pecking order. Riders who race for the sense of improvement, moving up and winning, often stay on the fence for several years, telling themselves they’ll do it for one more year. They want to try one more training or diet plan. They’ll commit that little bit extra, but eventually they realize that there will always be things to improve and that they have to circle back around to, “is it worth it?” The end of bike racing comes from a loss of faith as much as anything, but when reality consistently contradicts your faith, only a fool hangs on.
Hanging It Up
The decision to finish racing and move on is a tough one. After deciding, you still have to deal with emotional and social repercussions. After I stopped, I wanted to throttle people who asked me if I’d be at the race each weekend. “No, I’m not racing any more! (Leave me alone!)” Eventually I had to take a several-year break from my old riding buddies.
Riders who race for victory and stop racing short of the top step of the podium in the highest category always have to deal with the “what ifs?” What if I had committed more, trained harder, had a better bike, had a better coach or gotten leaner? What if I start racing again? Could I make things different?
Retirement triggers mourning. When you retire from racing, you lose friends, meaning and lifestyle. Some ex-racers become depressed. Some hang on for additional years or decades, visiting races, gradually getting fatter and slower until finally they don’t know anyone at the racers any more. Some make productive use of their experience, becoming coaches, team organizers or race promoters.
Stopping racing is a difficult decision that should not be taken lightly or made at a time of stress. Don’t retire right after losing a race, no matter how badly. After a less than satisfying season with no reason to think the next year will be different though, retiring can be a sign of wisdom achieved. After several cycles of thinking that next year will be better and being proved wrong despite trying new ways of training, new diets, new coaches and new bikes, it is time to accept that you are as good as you are going to get. If you don’t loving racing at your current level, you’d best hang it up.
Have You Really Tried Everything?
Some of my clients are in their third or fourth decades of racing. Others have done what they came to do and moved on. When they declare, after years of racing, that they are done, I congratulate them on their new maturity and tell them it’s okay so long as they’ve really thought about it. I also make them commit to stay fit and healthy.
Bike racing is an awesome pursuit. For people who dream of molding themselves into something better, it provides an opportunity to see just how far they can go. Along with the other benefits, really pushing yourself in a competitive endeavor, doing all you can do and seeing how you stack up matures you and gives you wisdom that you can apply in many other aspects of your life. At the same time, you don’t have to race for decades to get most of what it has to offer. If you are enjoying the camaraderie, the travel, the thrills and the structure keep racing whether you win or not. If you’ve been racing for the sense of improvement and success and have really tried everything that you are willing to try but aren’t seeing any more progress, it’s also okay to find your structure, thrills and social connections outside of cycling. When you’ve completed your career and are ready to retire, you can still emulate your hero. After all, many pros retire after less than two decades of racing
¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching do everything they can to help their clients maintain enthusiasm and motivation for training and racing. We also help our clients with realistic assessments of their competitive potential and help them with all aspects of their development, from the first races to the last and beyond. To inquire about working with Scott or another Wenzel Coach, call 503-233-4346 or visit us on line at www.WenzelCoaching.com.