Wednesday, September 18, 2013

From chubby enthusiast to fit racer (and back?)

Here's another article I wrote for that same defunct website. It's interesting to reread this two years later as I'm struggling with both my weight and my racing. The hopeful, slightly cocky tone is a far cry from my mental state right now, but I'm determined to recapture it before next season.

As long as there’ve been bikes, there’ve been people who wanted to race them. There are few things more exciting than going pedal-to-pedal against an opponent or 10, throwing your bike across the line to take the victory.

You might love to sprint against your friends for the next road sign, but do you really want to take that next step – getting a USA Cycing racing license?

I started riding regularly when I was in my early 30s. For years, I competed as an overweight, back-of-the-pack triathlete, until I decided to drop the running and swimming and stick to the one aspect of triathlon I loved – the cycling. At the time, I wasn’t thinking of racing; I was content to do centuries and group rides and just hang out with my friends as we pedaled the back roads of Indiana.

I’d done endurance events with Team in Training for years, so training for a century ride with the group was a natural occurrence. But a funny thing happened; I started spending more and more time at the front of the paceline. Before I realized it, the other riders stopped trying to come to the front. Being able to hold my wheel was seen as a badge of honor.

It was my two TNT coaches who suggested I start racing. Curious to test myself, I began hitting the Thursday evening Nebo Ridge shop ride, one of the nation’s largest weekly group rides. With multiple groups determined by speed, I was able to learn from each group’s leaders and quickly improve and move up to the next level. By the end of the summer, I was entrenched in the fast “B” group; I tried moving up to the “A” group of racers above it, but would get shot out the back by the 36-mile ride’s midpoint.

I knew I wanted to race, but it was obvious I wasn’t quick enough to hang with the racers. It was at that point I had to determine how committed I was to my new obsession. When I decided to get serious about racing, I also had to get serious about my weight. I was carrying about 200 pounds on my 5-foot, 10-inch frame, a far cry from the svelte bodies you see in the pro peleton.

The following January, I signed up for an off-season conditioning class at Nebo Ridge and refined my eating habits. Doing indoor spin classes five times a week and limiting myself to about 1,200 calories a day enabled me to lose more than 30 pounds by the start of the Team Nebo Ridge training camp. Hills I might have had to walk up a year earlier, I was practically flying over thanks to my leaner body. The high-intensity trainer workouts definitely added to my finishing kick as we sprinted toward various signs and landmarks.

But getting race-fit and actually racing are two separate beasts. Road racing is incredibly dangerous; just look at the first week of last year’s Tour de France for proof. You’re riding wheel to wheel and shoulder to shoulder with a host of other riders, all with the same goal as you: to cross the finish line first.

Although no rider will intentionally try to hurt an opponent or cause a crash, crashes do happen. I lost a huge chunk of my road season last year during a Wednesday evening training crit; a less experienced rider didn’t hold his line and drifted into another rider, sparking a massive crash. I flipped over my handlebars, coming down hard on my ribs and hip. Although my bike and bones remained intact, other riders weren’t so lucky. One of my teammates’ cracked a frame, and another rider broke his hand. The next week, another crash took out another teammate; he was sent to the hospital with a broken femur. He couldn’t walk without crutches for months.

If you’re nervous about riding in close quarters with a group, don’t sign up for a crit or a road race, where pack racing is the norm. Try a local time trial or cyclocross race, where you’re either riding alone or are more separated.

After doing your first few races, you’re going to be faced with your another serious dilemma: how serious are you about racing? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with racing just for fun. Plenty of racers with busy careers and family lives eschew any kind of formal training and prefer to just throw their leg over the center tube for a fun weekend crit. But you must adjust your expectations accordingly. Unless he’s some kind of cycling savant, your average, untrained cyclist isn’t going to be competing for victory, but merely for bragging rights against friends and adversaries.

If you’re going to get serious about racing, be prepared to shell out some dough. Training Peaks and offer affordable boilerplate training plans on their websites. But if you’re willing to spend the extra money – up to $200 a month – a personal coach might be the way to go. You can find a great database of USA Cycling-certified coaches at – but be sure to interview prospective coaches before you agree to hire them. Make sure you’re on the same page and are willing to put the hours of training it will take to better your cycling and make the expense worthwhile.

If you’re hiring a coach, what’s a few dollars more? A power meter is going to give you the most accurate, reliable data about your cycling. It will show you how much effort you’re putting into the pedals and give you an incentive when you compare your numbers to teammates and other racers. I began using a Powertap G3 training wheelset earlier this season, and it’s caused me to work harder than I ever thought possible. As you study the data, you can tell exactly how much – or how little – you’ve progressed. It’ll also help you mete out your effort during training rides and races.

I’ve spent thousands of dollars and training hours trying to become a better racer. I’ve traveled to races in other states only to finish in the back half, I’ve suffered injuries, I’ve missed countless dinners with friends and family … all to race my bike. So why do it?

I had a blast riding against my buddies during cross season and partaking in countless beer hand-ups. I’ve rode with all-out abandon for miles and just as I think I’ve reached my limit, we turn into the final corner and I’m out of my saddle and sprinting with every last bit of energy I have. One of the biggest thrills I had last year came during a criterium just two miles from my house. On a lark, I contested a $1 prime a few laps in and ended up staying in front for the rest of the race. My lungs burned and my legs ached as I hammered through the turns, trying to maintain or even stretch my lead, eventually crossing the finish line 30 seconds ahead of the field after leading 19 of 21 laps.

It’s totally worth it.

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