Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Racing Season One: Lessons Learned

Unceremoniously, with my getting sick and having to cancel the Everest Challenge, my official first season of road racing has concluded. Successful? Ya, I learned, that was the goal. And maybe I just can't stomach the idea of climbing on the rollers come December with an "L" on my forehead all winter.

As promised, I will share the lessons I have learned, think I've learned and should have learned with any and all who care to read this. My hope is that if you are sitting there reading this and keep trying to convince yourself that you are not going to race, and then watching all those World Cycling DVDs of the TdF over the winter, while spinning your brains out on the trainer, inspires you to give the race-thing a go, that some of the following will help jump start you past where I began.

First, you can't start too early in the season racing. Somewhere in about February there is a road race - called Chilly Willy, or Frozen Feet, or Crappy-Weather-Challenge, what ever it is, go do it. The sooner you start getting the feel for racing the better your experience come summer. As a friend said, "
your experience, or as we veteran racers say, your racing age" yes, your "racing age", (and that doesn't have a 'Cat' in front of it) is like any age, it only gets older with time. In this case more time means more fun - so get going as soon as you can.

Second, get a good base. This has never been a big issue for me because I always rode long winter miles, but I see now that it paid even greater dividends this year. That became especially clear when, for whatever reason, my training was truncated or halted all together; those schlogging through the rain and cold centuries of January and February gave the legs something to fall back on.

Third, commit to the core. Yes, I mean don't be half-ass about this, but I'm actually referring to your other core. Over last winter I started yoga, a style called Vinyasa, which focuses on the core and breathing. I'll admit despite how much I enjoyed the workouts and being in a class of a dozen or more sweating women once a week I wasn't committed enough. This winter, minimum three per week.

Fourth, diet. Gotta learn how and when to eat what the body/goal needs - and that changes through the season. What I did in February isn't what my body needs in June. More reading and asking questions about nutrition - I'll share what I learn here.

Fifth, learn to ride slow. My friends Scott and Hilary kept chirping at me on this one, and they were right, I need to learn how and when to back off the gas. Like so many club riders, when we get together we love to torture one another - every stop sign warning sign is a sprint point and every hill a KOM. Those are great, they are fun, but they are also pretty much a thing of the winter base miles - not the weeks leading up to a race. Learn to hammer hard AND rest day rolls. (see Sixth)

Sixth, fast and quick aren't the same. Sounds pretty "oh, duh" but it's harder to translate in to race reality than you think. My overall road speed increased significantly this year and I'm also a pretty strong climber, but I repeatedly found myself in Phil's words, "A bit of bother" when the boys up front would hit the gas. What I suffered from was burst quickness to respond and then recover. Next year I need to do more 'blocks' that concentrate on increasing my ability to hammer hard in short sustainable bursts, recover, and prepare for the next one. It will also stregthen my confidence in not getting dropped.

Seventh, shaving the legs. Just do it!

Ninth, buy a silly helmet. Regardless what your significant other says, if you are going to ride TTs, go buy the silly pointy helmet - it makes two differences, 1) you are faster, 2) you believe you are faster. In addition, removable arrows and a jersey that fits your body (race cut). Now, if you have some extra euros score deep-dish wheels or a rear disc-wheel to seal the deal. If you are low on euros check these out - my new purchase for next season arrow wheel covers from Wheelbuilder.com At $89.95 they are an inexpensive and functional solution for someone who only needs them 2-5 times a year.

Tenth, sign-in and take neutral wheels. After your first couple of races these will both seem such newbee oh duhs, but ya gotta get there first. Twice this year I forgot to sign-in at the start of races (thank you very kind and patient OBRA officials - you all deserve awards for what we put you through!), mostly because my mind was too freaked about the upcoming stage - especially my first crit...AHHHH!

The other thing is neutral wheels. Leave the repair bag at home, by the time you repair a flat you might as well head home. Even your worst second hand wheels will do the job. So what to do with them? This was a total mystery to me. In my races there were two scenarios, 1) Your wheels in the neutral support vehical, and 2) Pooled group wheel support. The first is your own wheels - one front, one rear. Tagging them is critical so the volunteer can quickly grab them and get you going again. There are different methods for IDing them as your wheels, but the best I found was the little bulk food tags from the grocery store (see photo above). These are perfect to write on with a sharpie marker and actually stay clipped to the spoke, but are quick to remove. Next are your wheels donated to a neutral pool for that race to support anyone in need of them. This was done by lottery in my stage races - and really depends on you giving up your wheels for the stage. In that case your initials on the tire sidewall will ID them for retreval after the stage.

Eleventh, eating on the fly. This was a really hard one, and one that took a while to sort out. Even downing a simple GU in the pack is a trick. This is another reason to get in a few early season races, they usually aren't as crowded or intense, and give you ample opportunity to practice. In case you haven't seen this done, it's also a good trick to slip one or two GU-type packets under the seam of your shorts, just above the knee; easy to reach when crowded in a group. The other trick is to tear energy bar packages half open before the race, the fact that so many of these packages can be used to boot a tire tells you how tough they can be to open, especially in a crowded fast moving peloton.

Twelfth, there's a water bottle for everyone. Don't panic approaching a feed zone. Feed zones became my nemesis this past season. I could make a list of mistakes just there - mistakes that cost me good finishes and mistakes that just plain cost me finishing at all. Especially when it is hot the primal fear of not getting that water bottle does something very strange to people, especially amateur cyclists. My suggestion is two-fold, 1) Get a friend, a child, a partner, your dog, what ever, and go practice grabbing a bottle while you whiz by them at 25 mph. Oh ya, think it's a no brainer? Give it a go, ITS NOT EASY. Now imagine 50 other guys simultaneously trying to do the same and then someone up front hits the gas. Trust me, it's worth a few practice runs in the street in front of your house. 2) Have someone crew for you in those feed zones - it puts your mind at ease that you will indeed get your bottle, its YOUR bottle, your crew can stand after the chaos so you can pass the nut cases and get on with life; it's also really great to see a friendly face, especially if it's pouring rain, you have been snorting wet road grime for the past 20 miles trying to stay on the lead group, and then you see someone who cares you are doing this, they're standing in the rain WITH you and saying, go for it! Ya know what, you do!

And finally... Lucky Thirteenth, pick a goal a race. This was one of the best things I did this season. Regardless the race I targeted one thing I wanted to improve on, sometimes I got lucky and improved on two, but target one. One race I just practiced eating (review #11 above), another race I practiced "moving up", another chasing the break, or learning to find a steady front riding wheel you can trust to follow (remember you won't know most of these guys and how they ride), and one race I decided to push myself into the "red" and see where I might blow up. This final one is hardest to do, since none of us want to fail, but there is no other way to find what YOUR limit is unless you push it.

I'm sure there is a ton of crap I forgot - forgot to say and forgot to learn, but hopefully the above will help someone. Most of all, just go for it - Bon Chance, Bon Courage!

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