Cycling should be an enjoyable endeavor. However, sometimes despite our best efforts we wind up in situations on the bike that are simply no fun. Such situations include: having accidents; getting caught in severe weather; and, perhaps worst of all, becoming involved in an amateur road race. Of course, the first two circumstances can be avoided or mitigated with caution and preparation. As for the third one, though, chances are that if you find yourself in an amateur road race in the first place you’re the sort of person who seeks suffering rather than avoids it. If you simply must participate in amateur road racing, here are some tips to help ameliorate the adverse effects:
Know Your Limits
There is a fine line between ambition and delusion. The former is the fuel for success, and the latter is the way to ruin. I believe it was either Sheldon Brown or Ben Franklin who said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” This is especially true when it comes to road racing. Basically, if you’ve never won a race before, you’re not suddenly going to start winning them now. So settle down, pick a wheel to follow, and stay out of trouble.
Unfortunately, though, too many people fail to realize this, especially in the lower categories, where everybody stupidly sees him-or herself as a potential winner. When everyone’s going for the podium the result is a pile-up. It becomes like some moronic slapstick routine where eight people bend down to pick up the same $100 bill and just end up bashing their heads together as a gentle breeze carries the money down the street.
The reason the higher categories generally see fewer crashes is not because they’ve acquired better riding skills over the years; rather, it’s because higher-category riders have been psychically beaten into submission. Their wills have been broken, they’ve admitted to themselves that they don’t have a chance, and they ride accordingly. In real life, if more than like 50% of the country believes it should be running it, you’re going to have a civil war. In a race, if more than half the field thinks it can win you can expect carnage on wheels. So don't be part of the problem.
So you’ve admitted you’re a loser. Congratulations, and welcome to mediocrity! Please come in and make yourself comfortable. Would you like a Shasta? Believe it or not, embracing your inner “meh” is one of the most positive things you can do as a cyclist. And now that you’re coming to terms with this, it’s time to re-evaluate your goals. Clearly, winning is out of the question for you, so the next best thing is helping someone else win. Well, that’s all very nice, but what’s in it for you? More importantly, once your job is done and the winning break is up the road what’s your motivation for staying in the race?
In this case we can look to the halls of academe for an answer, and that answer is to race “Pass/Fail.” This simply means finishing=passing and getting dropped=failing. Over the years, I’ve learned that riding for a place is discouraging. However, if you treat simply finishing the race as success you can strive for—and attain—something close to perfection. Remember: success is how you define it. And when it comes to defining things in a manner that suits my own purposes, I’m like Robert Cawdrey with an Erasermate.
Road racing is all about tactics. Unfortunately, the tactical advice you get from books and magazines is intended for winners or for people who aspire to be winners. As such, it doesn't apply to you. Using that stuff for pass/fail racing is like trying to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture by following Mapquest directions to Chuck E. Cheese. You’re not interested in winning, you’re interested in surviving. Here are three key pieces of advice for the survival of the pass/fail racer:
Go Where The Most People Are
If you see a group of people go up the road that has less people in it than the group you’re in, stay where you are! What’s happening is that a selection is being made, and trust me when I tell you don’t want to be a part of it. The first rule of pass/fail racing is to avoid breakaways. Being in a breakaway is like going from a cushy job at a big company with a regular paycheck to a really hard job at a tiny company where you have to work 16 hour days on commission only and people are always yelling at you. And trust me—someone will yell at you. Every break has a self-appointed driver who is really mean and constantly shouts stuff like, “Short pulls!” and “Rotate!” and “Pull off into the wind!” and then gets indignant when you say “But I don’t wanna rotate!” since just want to sit on the back crying because you miss those fun cubicle days when all your friends were around and you didn’t have to do any real work. I mean, seriously, if you want to suffer do a cyclocross race.
Conversely, if you’re in one group and you suddenly realize the group up the road has much more people than the one you’re in, that means you’re probably being dropped. If possible, get back to the group with more people in it. (Shouting at someone else to “Close the gap!” can be helpful here.)
Savor the Slowness
There are times in the race when the pace will slow for no apparent reason. This is a good thing for the pass/fail racer, as it is an opportunity to relax and enjoy. Occasionally though, you may be tempted to try to lift the pace or “make a move.” But it is absolutely essential to always remember the first rule of pass/fail racing and stay where the people are. Because if you do go off the front, nobody’s going to follow you since you’re a pass/fail racer and they are too and they know better than to get mixed up in some fool’s errand with you. Then you wind up alone in no-man’s land. If you don’t know what no-man’s land is, it’s kind of like that period after you learned what the cycling-related jokes on the Primal jerseys meant, but before you figured out that it was totally uncool to wear them, so you just rode around alone wearing a Primal jersey and looking ridiculous. And that’s what will happen if you go off the front. You’ll wind up alone, between the field and the break, looking ridiculous.
Work Only Out of Craven Self-Preservation
There is only one situation in which it is acceptable for the pass/fail racer to accelerate or attempt to move up through the field, and that’s at the beginning of any sort of incline. This is a widely-known rule, but it’s one of the few that’s actually designed for the pass/fail racer and so it bears repeating here. What you want to do is move to the front of the group at the start of the climb so that as you continue up it you can slowly drift back through the group instead of struggling to stay on. Hopefully, by the time you get to the top of the incline you haven’t already been spit out the back. This is the equivalent of periodically selling something you own for quick cash so you can enjoy a few months of easy living instead of simply working hard all the time.
Road racing isn’t like other types of racing. In a cyclocross race, you stay in the race until you finish or until you’re pulled, even if nobody’s near you. In a mountain bike race, you keep racing regardless of your position as well, unless you’ve got an irreparable mechanical problem, or unless you’re me and you just wanna go home. But in road racing, if you find yourself dropped and alone, you stop racing. This is perfectly acceptable, and it’s because, unlike other activities, road racing is not done for fun. It’s done out of obligation. So once your race is over there’s simply no point in carrying on.
Of course, there are times you may want to leave the race even before you’ve gotten dropped. Technically, this is unacceptable. However, there are a few ways to do it while saving face. They are:
Get a Flat
Be honest: who hasn’t prayed for a puncture during periods of extreme physical duress? If you simply want out, try to steer towards gravel or bits of broken glass. If possible, ride in the gutter, where these sorts of things accumulate. Also, if there’s any kind of neutral wheel service, be sure to start the race on a bicycle that is incompatible with modern-day drivetrains. There’s no way the mechanic’s going to be able to cram a 10-speed wheel with 130mm spacing into your 120mm-spaced frame quick enough for you to get back in the race. And even if he does, it's not going to work with your Huret rear derailleur. Best of all, you can blame not only bad luck but also bicycle marketing and gimmickry for your failure to finish.
Unfortunately, getting a flat on purpose isn’t always easy, but you’ll just have to try your best until I start selling my Deflat-O-Mat 3000, which will instantly induce double-flats via a discreet handlebar-mounted trigger disguised as a cycle computer.
Have a Mechanical
There are innumerable ways to feign component failure. My personal favorite is the Hincapie ‘06. Remember the moment his steerer tube broke in Paris-Roubaix and he sat there for a moment studying his disembodied handlebars in disbelief before he crashed spectacularly? You can easily replicate this yourself by simply carrying a multi-tool in your jersey and subtly unbolting your stem. When it’s time to throw in the towel, simply slide the stem off the steerer tube and you’ll be out of the race in no time. (You can also do a Hincapie ’08—wheel failures can be induced by opening a skewer with your foot.)
And of course this all leads to the best but most dangerous way to leave a race:
Have a Crash
A good crash requires no explanation. Of course, it might require hospitalization, so this method should be used sparingly. If possible, steer towards grass or haybales.