Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bike racing vs Triathlon racing

S - 17,300 yards
B - 154.5 miles
R - 39.8 miles

Time - 18.71 hours

Not a bad week, all in all.

I am going to center this blog around an event I did this weekend.  The Hincapie Training Series is one of the more popular race series in the area (Greenville, SC) and I skedaddled on down there this past Sunday to participate in the category 3 road race at the Donaldson Center.

I have raced at the Donaldson course once before, back in 2011 as a cat 4 cyclist.  It is a course designed for sprinters.  A couple of very short climbs that are basically power climbs and a lot of long sweeping turns with a flat - well slightly downhill - finishing stretch.  Not a lot of places to wear out the legs of the sprinters.  As such, it doesn't quite cater as well to the "fit" crowd.  Big dudes can get away with a lot on this course.

I will start by saying that I am a relatively experienced bike racer.  That may sound heady and "holier than thou" to some of you but my spring semesters during college revolved around race weekends.  From late February to late April each week there was a weekend of racing at each school in our conference.  Usually a school or a combination of schools would host a road race, criterium and time trial and all the schools in the conference would gather and duke it out among three categories: A, B and C - and later in college a D category was added in our conference.  So even though it was only a "club" level sport, an athlete amassed quite a bit of race experience in a relatively short amount of time.

Also speaking generally, one tends to learn a lot faster when one is younger and has far less fear than when one is older.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I relied on my skill rather than my fitness.  I had a knack for sprinting (not sure from where) and was also able to (I also don't know how) pick good spots and good times.  I was fairly successful my freshman year in C's and actually won the conference championship road race among a few other wins (after getting dropped in both a road race and criterium in my first weekend of racing that year).  Sophomore year I moved up a category and won one or two more races but junior year did not bring much racing until the end of the semester (I think I got a little bored because I was unwilling to commit the training needed to make the jump to A's). I got psyched again and raced a bunch senior year before taking a break for several post-college years.

The point of all that was to say that in spite of my past 4-5 years as a triathlete, I was a bike racer first. It's why I'm sometimes a tool (haha, just kidding...but not really).  It's why I am decent on the left side of power curve despite almost exclusively training the right side for the past 4-5 years.

Bike racing provides a wholly different type of "satisfaction" (and frustration) than triathlon.  Generally in a triathlon, the fittest person is going to win. Overall, age group, clydesdale, whatever.  The person who has put in the most work is almost always going to be the person that crosses the line first. There is no denying that. It's science. More is more.

Bike racing, on the other hand, at least at the domestic amateur level is rarely going to see the fittest person win all the time.  Bike racing is about your position, your timing, your pack awareness, and your fitness. It's about recognizing the "feel" of the race and taking advantage of moments when you can.  It's about not being stupid. It's about being in the right place at the right time.  It's about taking advantage of your strengths and others' weaknesses. It's about being fit yes, but it's also about being tactically aware.

Winning a bike race feels like playing a great hand in poker.  You've managed to hide your reactions to your cards while gradually placing bets based on your assessment of others' hands and at the very end you lay down your royal flush all over their faces.

There's also the benefit, once you upgrade out of cat 5 anyway, of being able to win money at bike racing.  You could win several hundred dollars a weekend if you raced a lot and were good at it.  Can't do that in triathlon! Well, I suppose 1% of triathletes can, but that's a whole different discussion...

So what's the other side of the coin? What's the reason that most triathletes choose NOT to bike race? Why do I choose, specifically, to NOT pursue bike racing as a sport?

To be completely honest, one sport at a time is really boring.  Bike racing is also inherently dangerous. Riding in a pack is not a safe thing to do, no matter how good or lucky you are.  At some point a crash is inevitable.

There is no doubt that it is fun to win, but it can be extremely frustrating to KNOW you are the fittest person in the race (not saying this about me; it is merely a general statement) and not be able to cross the line first.  Riding around unsafe people is NOT fun and no matter what level you reach in cycling there will ALWAYS be jackasses. That's science.

Bike racing and bike racers can be extremely stand-offish.  Everyone can be like that but in the road racing world it seems more prevalent.  That's a big barrier of entry to most triathletes.  The intimidation factor plays a big role.  Nothing really to be done about it, the fact remains that it is simply ingrained the culture of bike racing.

Anyway, I'll delve into a quick recap of my race experience this past Sunday.

The race was a scheduled 49mi (although it came out to 50.5), 7 lap course of a mostly flat loop with three rollers/climbs thrown in for good measure.  My strategy going in was the opposite of what I actually did at the Double Down Circuit Race last year: don't race like an idiot triathlete.  No work on the front (if any keep it extremely minimal). Don't chase down attacks until very late if at all. Don't burn your matches.

There was a decent lineup at the start line (40-50?) and I made my way to the back, because that was where I planned to stay for 90% of the race.

Photo Credits to Mr Ross "Da Boss" Handy
For 5 laps, the race (for me) was completely uneventful. I stayed on the back, followed wheels when necessary, and generally loped around.  I knew that I had a lot left in the tank it was just going to be when I needed to use it that would be the issue of the day.  As the group came through 5 laps a guy took off the front and developed a pretty decent gap over the course of the next lap.

The race really "began" at the start of lap 7.  The pace was high through the start/finish straight and up the first hill the group broke up a little bit.  I moved to the front pack and made my way to the front to take a pull.  Unfortunately the pull didn't bring anyone along.  The pack re-formed and I, frustrated, made my way back to the draft.  At the next climb I again tried to get a chase group formed but unfortunately nobody else (except for a 15yr old kid) wanted to do any work so the pack re-formed.  I got swallowed back up and was on the left side of the road (basically right by the yellow line, which is "forbidden" to cross) when a guy on my right overtook me and "shoved" me off the wheel and across the yellow line.  I moved backwards to get back over and verbally expressed my displeasure at his move.

This guy had been all over the place the whole race and I generally found him sketchy and weak, but you could "tell" that he thought pretty highly of his racing abilities. I don't know how to say that other than in that manner so you'll just have to take my word for it.  Obviously a personal opinion but that "feeling" going into his aggressive move made me not like him, basically.

He came back at me that I had been getting dropped and lost the wheel.  I told him I was not getting dropped at 14mph with 5mi to go and that he was an idiot.  He told me that maybe I could share a few racing pointers with him after the race.  The conversation ended there.

With maybe 10 minutes to go we were on the flat back section (windy) and has essentially caught the lone guy off the front.  He was soft pedaling but the group was being lazy and not actively getting him back into the fold.  The group was on the left side of the road so I "took a flyer" down the right side and looked back to see some people trying to catch me.  After about 20-30s I caught the guy who saw me coming and as I got up to him I asked "Yay or nay?" Do you wanna go or do you wanna not go? He said "Yay I guess" and the game was afoot.

We only had 8 minutes or so to go but in that 8 minutes I probably pulled for 7 of them.  Coming into the last bend I looked back and didn't see the group so knew the two of us would take the top two spots. I figured he was fairly gassed given his lap away so I wasn't super worried about him in a sprint finish but I tried to get him to take a pull in the last 1.5 minutes or so but he didn't budge so I knew the duties fell on me to the line.  I ramped up the pace slowly and paced it pretty well to hold him off at the line to take the win.

I had been a bit worried that I wouldn't be able to cross the line first in a bunch sprint due to the size of the pack so this seemed like the best option although I'm a little surprised it worked. My power was not crazy the last 10 minutes, I suppose it was just timed well.

So the win was very satisfying and makes me hunger for a bit more (Cat 2 anybody?) but I am sure the more I bike race the more I will experience both sides of the coin: the frustration and the elation.

But that's racing!

(although I prefer multi-sport racing because MORE IS MORE).

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