Getting started with racing

I’ve gotten a few questions regarding racing, so I figured I’d write down a few things I’ve discovered. First, this is far from compete — I’ve only been doing this a few months, and just have a few races under my belt. That being said, it’s a blast, and this might help folks who are interested in it.

Racing Season
I’ll start with a bit on the calendar. Racing season is from April through September, i.e. when it’s mostly sunny. There are a few “sub” seasons within that — road races (usually a few laps around a long course) tend to be early in the season, crits (criterions, which are many laps around a very short course) in the middle, and stage races / omniums are towards the end. Training season, a.k.a. the off-season, is from October through March. Training season is important, because before starting to race, a racer needs to be able to do a couple things:

  1. Work together with cyclists;
  2. Ride safely in a pack;
  3. Be able to pedal using your big chain ring for 2-3 hours

While it’s possible to jump in without going through a training season, I wouldn’t recommend it. If a racer can’t keep up, or can’t work with a pack, then the peleton will just drop that racer quickly and efficiently.

Race Teams
Most racers are part of a racing team. Teams do a number of things that are critically important to learning how to race. The first is that teams provide the skills to work with other cyclists and ride in the peleton. Second, teams provide a support system for a race. While everyone is in competition during a race, race teams cooperate among themselves to try and get favorable outcomes for more of the team members.

So how does one join a race team? Well, starting in September, teams (at least in the Seattle area) have “meet the team” rides, usually on Saturday or Sunday mornings. In the Seattle area, there are a number of teams. In particular, there are a couple of big ones that have people of all levels; I’d recommend for new racers to join one of the bigger ones that has the experience. There’s the team I joined, Union Bay Cycling / Wines of Washington. There’s also (in no particular order) Seattle Super Squadra / Zoka Coffee, Jet City Velo / Byrne Invent, Avanti Racing / TiCycles, Pazzo Velo / First Rate Mortgage, and Lake Washington Velo / Hagens Berman Cycling. For women, there’s also Sound Velo / Team Group Health and Starbucks Cycling. There’s not a whole lot involved in joining… just go on the meet the team rides, make some friends, and join the team that seems to fit.

Cost and Gear
Racing isn’t just about training. Turns out a fair amount of gear is needed. There’s proper clothing for winter (rain) riding, team kits (jerseys, shorts, arm and leg warmers, jackets, etc.). Oh, and there’s typically a dedicated race bike vs the standard touring / commuter. Rear racks, fenders, lights, and so on are just added weight and drag, and it turns out commuting on a race bike tends to be a bit of a pain. Plus, gear for racing tends to wear much faster than regular gear. Rather than thick kevlar tires for commuting, racers use slick tires — better traction, less rolling resistance, but faster wear.

Building Skills
OK, so having joined a team, now what? Well, invariably there are weekly team rides, where Cat 5 men and Cat 4 women (rookies!) build on their endurance riding and learn to ride in close proximity with other riders — riding two abreast, rotating pacelines, eschelon, and semi-organized pack riding. In addition, there’s also a fair amount of non-team riding and training, such as straightforward weight lifting, that needs to be done. It’s a decent time commitment, but hey — the other people are putting in their time too. How much time? It depends, but expect at least an hour a day for four days a week, excluding the weekly long ride.

Racing is actually very unlike training… and the only way to really figure it out is to actually race. It’s shorter duration, but there aren’t any stops along the way. Training was spent spinning at about 90 RPM, usually in the smaller front chain ring. Racing is spent pushing that big gear. Training along roads means frequent slow-downs… people stop for stop signs, lights, and so on. Gaps between you and the bike in front of you are easily closed. In a race… too big of a gap, and you’re out of the race.

and then…
Well, I’m not fully sure what comes next. But zipping along at 30-40 MPH with 30-60 friends is a rush like nothing else!

Tour de Dung #2 (Sequim)

A week after my shellacking at Mason Lake, I was ready to try it again. This week, the race counted. Initially I was slated to do the Independence Valley Race on Saturday, but life got in the way a bit an I ended up doing Tour de Dung #2 on Sunday. Independence Valley was my speed, or so I thought — 2 laps for 39 miles, so a bit longer than Mason, and I’d be racing just with Cat 5s. Only big difference is that there are two hills per lap.

sequim course.jpg

Sequim, aka Tour de Dung(eness), worried me… at a training camp along the same course, I got dropped in two of the three practice laps. The course is fast and the wind is brutal, and if you’re dropped, you’re done. And if you get shelled (exposed to the wind in the peleton) for very long, it doesn’t take long before you’re too tired to catch up! Plus, the course is 48 miles (4 laps of 12), a combined field of Cat 4 and Cat 5 (Cat 5 = rookie, e.g. me), and in general it’s a very “fast” course. So, I headed off about 6:30 AM with a mug of coffee, steeling myself to feel good if I could make it at least two laps.

I think I ate much better for this race, as even though I was a bit tired, each lap I still had some gas. Perhaps the pancakes Saturday AM and spaghetti and meatballs in the evening that did it! Or perhaps I was able to stay in the middle of the pack much better this time, as the road often allowed for four riders riding abreast instead of a tight 3 that was the norm at Mason. Plus, the wind was far more favorable, as least to my style of riding. At the training camp, the wind was from the east, so as we started off in the course we were heading into the wind and just got shelled. Today, the wind was coming from the west at a decent clip. This meant that the first part of the course was fast and with a nice tailwind, and then the course turned into about 5 miles worth of straight road right into the wind. Translation? Breakaways weren’t going to last long — and there were a couple. But keeping ahead of everyone in that headwind was just a monstrous task, and the peleton kept roping people back in.

The field started out about 60 or so, and we were maybe half that on lap four… there’s a rolling hill at the beginning of each lap, and that’s often what dropped people from the back. I was feeling good, so I was able to move ahead on the hill and get myself in reasonable position for the rest of the race. The final lap was actually somewhat slower than I expected — people were tired! Plus, everyone was saving up for an attack towards the end and a big sprint — attacking earlier, while some were doing it, was dicey due to the headwind. However, we were all in for a rude shock — there was a recreational rider on the course, and right afterwards was the women’s peleton — we had lapped them! This caused a great deal of confusion as we passed, and thus the final sprint was somewhat muddled. This being said, I and most of my team pushed forward anyway, and got 3 in the top 10 and another 3 in the top 20 — I was 16th! Woot! I had finished, and actually still had wind. I was amazed!

I looked at the HRM data… here’s the heart rate compared with last week at Mason Lake:

HR Comp - Sequim 2 vs Mason Lake 3.jpg

What leaps out is that I wasn’t discovering a new Max HeartRate this time — I was spinning between 150 and 170 for the most part, spending most of my time between 80% and 90%. Very little time was spent in my 90%, as compared with Mason. Thus, less energy for roughly the same time. But what about speed?

Speed Comp - Sequim 2 vs Mason Lake 3.jpg

Hard to see, but the average at Sequim was 24 for me, with a lot of time spent at the 30s. The straight-away into the wind was much slower. Mason, on the other hand, was about 18 or so. So, less heart rate, and 6 miles an hour faster on average. Wow!

Cadence was about the same… and like Mason, I spent all my time in my big chain ring. In fact, there were times I was spinning as fast as I could in my most powerful gearing, and I was still struggling to keep up with some folks — time to improve the gear ratio (I believe my max is 52×13, vs 53×11 on a standard race bike… gotta check that).

Cadence Comp - Sequim 2 vs Mason Lake 3.jpg

Anyway, this was a great race… very fast, and we had a number of fellow Winos in the peleton that were able to help out. Big kudos to Greg on the team who yelled at me to take a wheel on somebody who was busting up the line in the wind — enabled me to move up a number of spots and keep me going. Overall, it was great to race with more people from the team and have a big presence — it definitely helps my racing!

Next week, Tour de Dung #3… let’s see if I can’t muster another finish!

Update 3/27/2007: Results are online. Officially, I’m 16th, but the guy who got 7th, Rob Anderson, was actually busy filming… so not clear if somebody got hosed or there’s a phantom rider and I’m really 15th. But do check out the video!

Mason Lake #3

Today I raced in my first road race, Mason Lake. Mason Lake is a training race series, meaning winning doesn’t count for anything as far as the WSBA is concerned. It’s more like the Chilly Hilly of racing – the first race of the year to figure out what you’re doing, how in shape you are (or aren’t), and so on. I’ve been doing training rides with the team on a sporadic basis, but I’ve been keeping up lifting and trying to ride to / from work a few times a week (22 miles each way). However, I haven’t been doing much long rides for a few weeks as I was in Pittsburgh. My plan was to just stay in the pack for the 36 miles and finish, and perhaps help one of my teammates push out a win. From some of the guys who had done one of the earlier races, I heard the pace was around 18-20 miles on average, so not too bad at all. While the skies were gray, no rain, and relatively warm, so looked like a great day for a race.

Mason Lake is a bit under two hours from Seattle, near Shelton on the peninsula. The race started at 9:30 AM, so I left about 6 AM in order to get there with some time to warm up and get my head together. I arrived about 7:30 AM, got my kit on, and started to mentally prepare. Many (most?) of the people there had brought their trainers and were warming up in the parking lot. About 20 minutes prior to the start, I hopped on the bike and went up and about a nearby hill. I didn’t want to burn too much energy too soon — just get the glycogen burning a bit.

The first lap of three was fine, as everyone was figuring out the course and the field. Everyone had plenty of gas. There were four other Winos there with me, and we were hanging a bit in the back letting the field tow us around. Around lap two, people started feeling things, and by the end of lap two I was really starting to feel it. I, Andy, and Geoff, were in the very back at this point. Andy and I were feeling it. About mile 4 into the 12-mile loop, I started to just run out of gas. Worse, I had thought I only had 2 miles left instead of 6, as I misread my odometer. So I let myself hang back, looking to catch up to the peleton on the downhills. Bad idea — at some point, I just couldn’t get back and there wasn’t a downhill, and I ended up getting dropped. I was still going 18-20 MPH, but the peleton had picked up the pace to 23-25 MPH, and there was just no way I could get back. So, I grinned and bore it, and finished up the remaining miles by my lonesome. But hey, it’s a training race —- I’m just here to see how out of shape I am!

I looked at the HRM readings just to compare it with a club ride around the lake, which is a reasonably speedy lap around the lake. Here’s the heart rate comparison:

HR Comp - Mason Lake vs Lake Washington.jpg

My heart rate was about 10 beats per minute higher. I also discovered an all new maximum heart rate — 191! Hmmm… my old STP number returns. For the most part, this was also due to an increase in speed, as shown:

Speed Comp - Mason Lake vs Lake Washington.jpg

Now, I know it doesn’t look like much of a difference in speed, but notice the dark blue spikes up and the many light blue spikes down. A club ride has stops or slowdowns, as they’re riding on the road — stop signs, red lights, and the occasional bathroom break. This allows the rider to rest and recover. A race, on the other hand, doesn’t have any breaks, and worse, has the occasional surge or sprint. Plus, again it’s a few miles faster — which is what pushes that heart rate up 10 beats.

Initially, my cadence looked the same:

Cadence Comp - Mason Lake vs Lake Washington.jpg

However, what this doesn’t show is that for most of the race, I was in my big chain ring, while on club rides I’m usually in my smaller ring. So that’s an average of 80-90 rotations per minute, but on the big ring. Oof!

So, what did I learn? Well, I need to put more work into this if I’m going to finish races. I thought my endurance would be fine for a 36 mile race with other Cat 5s (rookies). Most road races are 40-50 miles, closer to 50, and it’s a combined Cat 4/5 field, meaning the Cat 4 racers are there to pick up the pace. Time to lift, and time to ride more!

However, that being said — this was still a blast. I went faster than I ever have on the bike, and I hit a higher heart rate than I ever have. I was racing, and even though I wasn’t a contender for first place, and even though first place didn’t matter, I was still there. This felt good.

Incidentally, Geoff, who was hanging with us at the back, made a great move towards the end when the field spread out. He was able to jet up the left side and get to the head of the peleton, and managed to take first in the sprint. Like Dave who upgraded from 5 to 4 two weeks ago after he won, looks like Geoff will upgrade to Cat 4 as well. Oh, and Dave got 4th in the Cat 4s, being part of an 8-man breakaway that was over 2 minutes ahead of the peleton. Great job, especially as Dave was the only UBC racer there!

Update: some pics showing the suffering from Amara Boursaw of Wheels in Focus:

Erik and Andy at Mason Erik suffering

Update 2: A MotionBased link of one of the other Cat 5 riders at Mason Lake #3:

Pastry Powered at Chilly Hilly

The 2007 season kicked off in fine form with Cascade‘s annual Chilly Hilly bike ride! Or, if you’re a .83‘er, the FHR. It’s the same course that they’ve used for a while — a nice loop around Bainbridge Island, which includes a couple of nice hills. Here’s the elevation profile I stole from Cascade:


Due to random ferry times, we had a few going on each ferry, but sadly this meant we weren’t together as one big group. Jeanie, Vickie, Lynn, Didi, and her husband hit the 7:45 for the loop. Ruben, Megan, and Elizabeth managed to hit the 8:45 ferry and did the entire loop. I roped my friend Nick, visiting from Cambridge, UK, into coming with me and Laura. It took us a bit longer to get our act together, so we hit the 9:30. Here are some shots of them being photogenic before boarding:



Gotta love the cameraphone!

Nick, Laura, and I bailed after the Cider Stop… turns out hauling 55 pounds or so up some of those hills was a lot more tiring than I thought! Not to mention I was still recovering from the flu and had just done a race prep the day before. I know I know… WAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!

Let the season begin!