The Things We Do For Love – The Costs of Bike Racing

Forward thinking riders sometimes ask me about the costs of bike racing. I tick through the list: A racer needs a racing bike and an extra set of wheels. Then there are special foods, tires, tubes, pumps, shorts, shoes, socks, jersey and helmet just to start training. When racing starts there are entry fees, gas, hotels, occasional crash replacements and clothing for special weather. There may be disk wheels, aerobars, power measurement devices, bike racks, travel cases and airfare. Eventually a racer needs a TT-bike and a second road bike. One can easily spend several tens of thousands of dollars over the years of a bike-racing career. There are other many rarely discussed, intangible but equally important costs. There’s the possibility of serious injury, and then there are all the things a racer doesn’t do.

When we think about preparation for bike races, we usually talk about things one must do: training, resting, losing weight, staying hydrated, riding smart and so on. We rarely talk about things racers will do less or not at all. The rider who wants to be a successful racer will be missing a lot of fun activities such as rock climbing; dancing; visiting museums; backpacking; gymnastics; partying; non-cycling vacations; learning to fly or play any instruments; or putting in a lot of overtime. Many aspiring racers end up not investing much time in their non-cycling relationships or even cleaning the food wrappers out of their cars. Some of these things racers avoid because they don’t want to add bulk to their upper bodies (rock climbing, gymnastics), some because they damage the temple (drinking, partying, staying up late, eating quarts of ice-cream, standing in front of famous paintings) and some because the time is “better” spent training (working over time, attending concerts, paying attention to a significant other).

Missed opportunities and skipped activities are serious costs of bike racing. Some of them can come back to bite the cyclist. The aspiring racer should carefully consider what he or she will be giving up. The racer who breaks through to the professional ranks will give up even more: Professional racers may recoup their costs, but they also travel, which means being away from home and family much of the season. Women professional racers often delay or miss having kids. Males miss milestones in their children’s lives if those milestones happen to occur during the season. These costs should not discourage one from taking up racing, but they should be considered and prepared for if one hopes to have a long and successful racing career.

Imbalance Leads to Quitting

Professional bike racers are paid not to have other interests, but masters and elite amateurs have to adopt more or less the same life styles as the pros or they won’t be competitive with other “professional” amateurs and masters. The bike racer has a full but fundamentally imbalanced life. Activities that are for others normal parts of life and sources of satisfaction are anathema to the racer. When racing is going well, there may be plenty of achievement to make up for the deprivation, but when the racer has no success and no measurable progress for an extended time, there’s often no back-up source of satisfaction. That leads to burn out.

The rider who only rides and does no other physical activity for long enough develops strong riding muscles, but the muscles that allow a human being to stand up straight, work in the yard or jog without injury atrophy away to the point that the rider can’t do anything physical other than ride without risking getting hurt. Even lifting a bike onto a bike rack or running to the registration table can become dangerous. The rider who ignores balance in physical activity risks being injured and sidelined from racing. That doesn’t mean that riders should participate in multiple sports year round, but that some time should be put into other activities at certain times of year.

The rider who ignores the significant other and his or her demand for attention runs the risk of the sort of relationship trauma that can fuel a lot of hard training, but also lead to sleep-less nights that make that training next to useless. The non-pro who tries to train full time will miss opportunities for career advancement. Loss of a significant other or arrested career development can wreck a cycling career.

When bike racing is going well, there is no question that the satisfaction can justify most of these costs. Standing on the podium is a feeling like no other, and the hangover is a positive experience as one can get fired up for months or years telling and retelling the story of a good win. Knowing that the win is coming someday is enough to keep the majority of racers focused for months or years. There are probably people somewhere who would not be better off for giving bike racing a try, but not many. Still, when a racer is not seeing the desired results, the costs start to psychologically outweigh the benefits of racing, and the thoughtful racer risks burnout and quitting.

Avoid Burnout

Becoming a successful bike racer takes at least two years and more often three or four, even for talented riders. That means the rider is going to be paying costs upfront for rewards that are going to come several years later. How can the rider make it through the period of working up to success without burning out? The key is balance, avoiding the things that really undermine racing but allowing oneself to do a few things that are less than perfect. Even the beginner should skip the drug and kegger parties and BBQ pigouts, but can still take the significant other dancing and call it cross training, or work late a few times to show the boss that one cares.
The fall is a great time for road racers to restore balance to their lives. After the racing season and before starting training for the following year, road racers can and should take a month or so away from serious training. Pros may take this time completely off the bike. Any racer who is not racing cyclocross should reduce training volume and intensity and take training much less seriously for a month or so to allow physical and emotional recovery. In the rest period it’s okay to take a vacation without the bike. It’s okay to try some other sports or stay up later a few times to see a show. So long as one avoids getting too fat or picking up a lasting injury, varying activities during the rest period is a good way to restore the balance that will keep the rider sane and the significant other committed through the coming training season.

For married or deeply involved racers, the fall is a good time to work on relationship maintenance so there won’t be a blow up later when the rider needs to focus on training or racing. Of course we don’t say, “hey honey, I want to take you out for some relationship maintenance.” Rather we say something like, “I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. I’ve been missing you. How about a vacation together.” If the response is on the order of, “who are you?” or “I’ve already made plans with Sven,” the rider has waited too long.

Bike racing is usually not the best choice for those hoping to advance in other careers. That is something riders should consider before becoming racers, and reconsider regularly if the other career is important.
Most aspiring racers are never going to the Olympics or the Tour de France. They are not going to be World Champions. After lots of training and racing, they are eventually going to find their level, somewhere between the bottom and the top. Maybe that means they win the local twos races but get schooled when the pros come to town, or that they are going to be perennial mid-pack fours. Training a little less or doing a few more less than ideal racer things may move someone down a few rungs somewhere in the middle of the ladder, but hardly makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. All riders should of course strive to do as many things as they can stand right, and to give up as many damaging things as they can, but if giving up particular things makes living the racer life intolerably restricted or boring, riders can consider delaying giving those things up.

I know this advice not to immediately do everything right is not what one usually gets from coaches, but consider: The more stuff one does right, the better one races, but if starting to live like a racer-monk from the day one buys the first racing bike leads to burning out before one can reach one’s potential as a racer, it makes more sense to adjust the lifestyle a little at a time, get the improvements that come from those adjustments, and then continue to make more changes, fueled by the satisfaction of the first successes. That can allow one to stay engaged for the necessary years.

Quitting Time?

Eventually successful racers makes the majority of needed monkish adjustments, adopting most if not all of the good habits of successful riders, giving up the vast majority of the activities that distract from racing, and gaining the understanding of significant others. Living more and more of the racer life is not the right choice for everyone. If there comes a point where one is not getting satisfaction from one’s racing results, but the next steps required for continued improvement are too onerous, it’s time for a different sort of adjustment: At that point one needs to accept current results, give up racing, or recommit to making the changes needed to improve.
The fall is a very good time to consider quitting or recommitting. During the annual break, one does essentially what one would do if one were in fact quitting. One enjoys life beyond cycling. As the rest month winds down, if one’s head refills with cycling dreams, it’s time to start training again. If one’s head is full of non-cycling dreams though, it’s time to reconsider the cycling plan. It’s time either to reduce the racing goals, or give up racing, at least for a while. Quitting bike racing is not easy. In fact it is emotionally traumatic. Ex-racers report that the difficult period often lasts two years and sometimes longer. During that time, one is bereft, as one would be if one lost a close friend. There’s lots of questioning and doubt. The recent ex-racer feels alienated. Old friends asking if one is going to the big race this weekend become annoying. There’s lots of temptation to train and race again. It passes slowly. These negatives are not reasons to continue racing though, unless one is getting adequate satisfaction from one’s results or progress, or unless one sees a way to get that satisfaction.

Sticking With It

The surest way to avoid the need to even think about quitting bike racing is to continually maintain a balance between cycling and non-cycling life, and to maintain an optimistic outlook on racing. Exactly what that can look like varies from rider to rider. Planning for new and better training efforts or racing tactics can keep one fired up for a while even in the absence of success. As one gains experience and starts to have success, one can live entirely the life of the cyclist, but if there is a period in between where one is waiting for success, one should give up only those elements of non-cycling life that pass easily or most interfere with cycling, and one must maintain relationships with the friends and significant others that will be supporting one thought the ups and downs of racing. With a positive approach to cycling and a life that includes both cycling and non-cycling satisfactions and relationships, one can stay in cycling long enough to reach one’s level, and that’s all one can really hope for.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching always encourage a balanced approach to sports and training that allows for long, healthy athletic careers, allowing athletes to reach their ultimate potential. To inquire about working with Scott, please call 503-233-4346, or visit