30 June, 2011

Why I Race and Why You Should, Too

A guest post by Robert George

“Most cyclist don't race...” The unofficial slogan of Velo Orange, and one of our founding principles. It still holds true today that most cyclists don't race, but some of us do. One of the great things about a company like Velo Orange is that it attracts a talented and passionate staff that all love cycling. Even so, everyone is different and we all get something different from cycling. My main focus is racing and I see it both as a way to compete in the sport I love and an outlet to relieve stress and put myself to the test.

I started racing in 2003 when I learned about about local mountain bike races from a friend. I stripped the failing derailleurs off of my Schwinn mountain bike, turned it into a singlespeed and raced a local Wednesday night race. Instantly I was hooked! Racing let me push myself until I thought my heart might leap out of my chest and my legs might give out and yet still had a great time doing it. It was suffering like I had never experienced; it was fantastic.

If racing is so much suffering and so at odds with the stated aim of Velo Orange, then why race? For me, it's the excitement and adrenaline of competition. Toeing the start line with butterflies in your stomach before riding all-out as hard as you can for an hour (or two, or four, or many more) is about as fun as it can get. Racing pushes me to levels I didn't know I could go; legs and lungs burning I forget all the stress in my life and think only about how this is the hardest race yet and how I can push just a little bit harder to overtake the next rider. Today I race road, mountain and cyclocross to keep the calendar full for most of the year.

Of course that's my answer; when the question is “Why race?” the answer is different for everyone. As a cyclist, racing can give you a new channel to explore the sport you love. Racing is also a great way to get out and meet other cyclists and find new routes and places to ride. If you are like me, racing will also push you harder and give you more motivation to stay in shape and work on your fitness year round.

If you want to give racing a try there are lots of different disciplines within the sport. Probably best known are mountain and road racing, but you shouldn't overlook cyclocross or track racing. Once you dive into the world of racing you will find that there are additional subcategories within each discipline. Here is a quick rundown:

Mountain biking (MTB): Popular, fun and technically challenging, MTB encompasses lots of different types of riding and racing including the cross country, various downhill disciplines and the currently popular endurance events.

Road racing: If you like skinny tires and high speeds then road racing is for you. Seemingly less technical than mountain biking, it really isn't. Road racing isn't just raw speed either; strategy and tactics are the name of the game, having a great team to race with helps a lot too.

Cyclocross: My personal favorite, cyclocross combines many of the best aspects of road and mountain biking into a fun and spectator friendly sport. Cyclocross is characterized by mud, nasty fall weather and truly enthusiastic fans ringing cowbells. With such a welcoming crowd 'cross is a great place to start racing, not to mention that crashing in the mud doesn't hurt as much as asphalt.

Track: The discipline I have the least personal experience with is track racing. This is due to sad fact that there are not many velodromes in the United States, which is a shame as track racing is fast and and fun for both participants and spectators. A variety of race formats keep things interesting as well, from short sprints to six day races.

The majority of road, cyclocross and track racing in the United States is governed by the sanctioning body USA Cycling, with other similar organizations in other countries. USA Cycling handles the rulebook, race officials, rankings, licensing and other details. If you want to race road, 'cross or track in the United States it will benefit you to get a license from the USAC. For an extra fee many events allow one day license purchases, but registration for popular events often fills before race day. Additionally, you don't have sign up for many races in a season before you break even on the $60 annual license fee from USAC, and you won't be able to advance through race categories without a license.

One important exception for race licensing is mountain biking. Professional mountain bike racing in the United States is governed by NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association, a division of USAC) and requires a NORBA license. However, here in the Mid-Atlantic nearly all mountain bike races are unsanctioned grassroots events and you will have a difficult time finding NORBA events. Opinions may vary, but for mountain biking I prefer small, fun grassroots events and I don't miss the licensing requirements. The relationship between NORBA and mountain bike racing may vary by region as well.

If you decide you want to get your feet wet and race, there are lots of places to find out about races, but I would start with bikereg.com. Bikereg is by far the easiest way to find and register for all types of cycling events. If you need further race recommendations you can ask your local bike shop, local teams and any friends that race.

Velo Orange is not about racing so it may seem like an oxymoron for us to post about racing and why you should do it, but we don't think so. Racing certainly isn't for everyone, but it isn't mutually exclusive to the relaxed touring, rando and city riding we stand for. I'm thrilled to race one weekend and go bike camping the next. Two VO staff members race and it is simply another aspect of the sport of cycling that we love. If you love something then why not involve yourself in as many ways as possible, have some fun, and maybe meet some new friends? That is why we cycle: fun and friends.

Photo 1 by JoeMallis.com, photo 2 by Jen Linko


Anonymous said...

Racing is great training for touring and for riding off-pavement. It also builds bike handling skills that make riding in cities safer and more fun.

Anonymous said...

My experience with racing was that it was costly, stressful and used up time that could have been spent going for more enjoyable rides. I can see the appeal of it for some people. I really enjoy randonneuring and will continue to put my time, effort and money towards it.

Anonymous said...

I should not race because I ride through beautiful country, and watching the wheel in front of me is not enjoyable.l

Winga said...

With all that racing I'm guessing your the one in all the warehouse pictures napping.

buck-50 said...

Thank goodness Velo-Orange stepped up to the plate to tell me about this thing called racing. Because absolutely no other biking magazine, website, forum, manufacturer or parts company ever mentions why I should race.

Often I find myself thinking, as I ride home on my commuting bicycle, "if only there were some organized manner of competition for my bike... but alas, there is no information anywhere about such things.

Anonymous said...


Why do you allow comments like Anon 3:48? I thought this was a moderated forum.

Good for you, Anon, that you "really enjoy randonneuring," but racing, for some, is indeed an "enjoyable" ride. Cycling is cycling, and whatever it takes to get your butt in a saddle, go for it.

I hope this kind of snobbery isn't hurting VO's bottom line.

Velo Orange said...

I did a little racing when I was in my late teens and early twenties. It was my main sport for only about 18 months, but it taught me more about cycling technique than all the touring and country riding I've done in the 30 years since.

I also raced sailboats for a while and that taught me more about boat handling and sail trim than a lifetime of coastal and offshore cruising.

No matter the sport, I'm convinced that a little racing can be both very valuable and great fun. Just don't take it too seriously.

BTW, Robert is our buyer and will be taking over as manager when I'm traveling. So, Winga, he only naps in his office ;-)

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:05

Why were you offended by Anon 3:48's comment? No "snobbery" there, just a person sharing their experience. In fact, they seem like an ideal VO customer.

Scott Loveless said...

Should we expect to see VO sponsor a team? All steel frames and down tube shifters? Rack up some wins and that would be one big, fat thumb in the collective eye of the gotta-have-carbon-and-brifters crowd. Jerseys that don't look like an inkjet printer threw up on them might be nice, too.

halfstep said...

Can't remember the name of the race but there is mile race where competitors must stop every lap and drink a pint of beer. The world record is 4:30something, I believe. Perhaps VO would like to sponsor a similar cycling race oraganized around glasses of Cotes du Ventoux.

dwainedibbly said...

I support 3:48's right to express his feelings. I thought he did it in an inoffensive way.

I raced for a little while in the late 1980s, as did Mrs Dibbly. Both of us have no interest in it now, but I agree with Chris and some of the other posts above that it can be a good and concentrated learning experience.

(BTW, I raced sailboats for a while, too.)

Robert G said...

I expected a mixed reaction to this blog post given the target market of Velo Orange. What I really wanted to show is that just because you enjoy one type of riding doesn't mean you can't enjoy others. That's why I commute and run errands by bike, bike camp and compete in three different types of racing. I love bikes!

Racing certainly isn't for everyone, but I hope I got a least a few people thinking about it. As for the comment stating "Because absolutely no other biking magazine, website, forum, manufacturer or parts company ever mentions why I should race." Well, I can't agree with your sentiment because I think surprisingly few outlets actually promote racing. It seems like everyone out there is promoting racing, but really they are just selling the image of racing. How many publications (online or print) or bike shops actually feed you real information about amateur racing? Not that many.

My article is far from a complete beginners guide but I think it can at least be used as a starting point. If you really aren't into it and really don't want to race that's cool too. Ride what you want to ride, how you want to ride, and have fun with it!

d.wilson said...

I'm glad this got posted. I raced a long time back in the mid-80's, and it really shaped a lot of the ways I view cycling now. You pare down, travel light, ride with discipline and a plan- none of which IS NOT a goal of randonneuring or good sport riding. Nothing says you can't enjoy training OR racing just because it's fast-- you can do both, and I know I did- but I also feel like I benefitted a lot from the reflexes I got in the peloton as well. It's just as important to be conscious of the your body/the bike as it is to enjoy the skylarking aspect as well.

Jammy Straub said...

AS long as I can put some shellacked twine on my race bike, I'm game.

Anonymous said...

My experience says:

If you were at all competitive (in spirit, if not in results) in high-school or college athletics, you owe it to yourself to give racing a try.

I had forgotten how fun it was to line up and lay it all out there until I did a few CX races two years ago.

It is a blast to leave all the pretense of nicety that comes with "commuter racing" behind and actually see what you're capable of when the course is even and the other guy is racing to the same destination. Plus I could pass at will, take the good line, and not feel like a jerk. Sure, it's Cat5, but it's racing, and I really enjoyed not having to be nice about it.

I got left behind in the flats by those with power legs and lungs, but caught them in the twisties 'cause I actually know how to corner in the dirt. Spent the whole time swapping places with the same 5 or 6 guys, had a fantastic time, almost threw up at the finish line.

You should try it.

Anonymous said...

I like bikes, period. And I liked this post by Robert George. It got me thinking outside the classic/vintage/rando/city biking box that I live in most of the time. Thanks for that!

Anonymous said...

I don't race. Here in Rochester, though, I've enjoyed watching cyclocross, downtown twilight criteriums (would it be "criteria" still in this context??), and mtb races sponsored by the local shops. Besides being races, these events are information booths of sorts where people can learn about local rides, both club style and leisurely-but-organized, as well as meet other people with similar interests.
I have never thought that the philosophies of companies like VO and Rivendell is against racing. What they oppose, it seems, is the force by which an industry pushes the "latest and greatest" race related products to consumers who don't need them.
Brevets are races. Maybe not officially against other riders, but there's a time limit. A race against a clock is still a race.
And finally in this rambling list of random thoughts, I think about how popular Jan Heine's books are among the "vintage French bicycle" and "retrogrouch" crowd. The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles features many bikes involved in competition as his other book- The Competition Bicycle.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:48's post piqued me for its general tone, which was dismissive of a lengthy, informative piece written by someone who obviously loves what he does. A3:48 may well be an ideal VO customer, but there is a more appropriate time for voicing these kinds of opinions - like when VO invites input on components, design, color, etc. We saw the same kind of disrespect to the guest writer on the post on the 1200k brevet. Yes, I may disagree with what you say and defend your right to say it, but I'll also tell you when it's unpleasant and unnecessary.

Anon 5:05

Don Stevenson said...

For me, the key in this discussion is the part about the next level of bike handling skills. I would love to see a breakdown of skills for different situations, perhaps learned in racing, that could be applied to city or casual riding. Just as lessons learned from NASA or Formula 1 car racing eventually make their way down to everyday life, skills developed may not only benefit all riders but give some of us an understanding of the sport we otherwise would not have. Plenty of opportunities for bridges to be built. Thanks Chris for bringing in guest writers. I like the variety and thought provocation.

Nanseikan said...

Perhaps Anon 3:48's response was to the thrust of the article as described in the title " Why I race and WHY YOU SHOULD TOO" (emphasis mine). It smacks a little of someone telling others what they think is good for them. Maybe I'll try racing sometime too. But maybe I won't. There are a lot of things I would like to do and less and less time in which to do those things. Racing is low on that list right now. Riding however is something I do almost everyday. For me that is enough. b

Anonymous said...

It's hilarious that you guys are offended by Robert telling us what he enjoys and wanting us to see if we'll enjoy it too.

Thank God for the internets so we can all be negative-attitude poor sports when someone likes something we are scared of.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps Anon 3:48's response was to the thrust of the article as described in the title " Why I race and WHY YOU SHOULD TOO" (emphasis mine). It smacks a little of someone telling others what they think is good for them."

That was part of it.

Anon 505, it's amazing to me what you read into my comment. As I stated--"In my experience..." I didn't say don't race and I kept my comment short and to the point. I'm not dismissive of racing at all. As I stated, I've tried it. Multiple mountain bike races. I should add that I enjoyed some outlaw singlespeed mountain bike races I did in the 90s. But as I stated, I overall found it stressful, costly and not entirely enjoyable compared to other rides I could go on.

I don't know about you but I have a finite amount of time for cycling. Randonneuring is my main focus as far as any type of organized cycling. Randonneuring takes time and even money to prepare for and that's where I'm funneling my energy. And most importantly I truly enjoy randonneuring in a way that I did not enjoy racing. Randonneuring just felt so right from the beginning. But for others, cyclocross might be a better outlet for them given it's not as time intensive as randonnuering or other forms of racing. And it just might be the right mix of fun and competitiveness. I know some cyclocross scenes are more of a party atmosphere than a race atmosphere.

I don't follow local or amateur racing. I don't even watch local races as it's time I'd rather use for getting out on my bike. But I will tell you this, from March until Oct the first site I check in the morning is Cyclingnews.com. I love following pro cycling. So I'm not anti-racing at all.

Anyway, no snobbery was intended to you 505 or anyone else. I was just posting up my thoughts that popped into my head as a response to the article. I hope you get out for a good ride this weekend whether it's a loop around your neighborhood, a race, an alleycat, a brevet or whatever.

--anon 348

robatsu said...

I did a tiny bit of road racing, a little bit more MTB racing, and was a regular tri/mixed event guy (anyone for jumping off their x-country skis onto a cycle?) in my youth. But that all faded to black somewhere around the middle of the Clinton administration.

Robert's post was a good one, maybe a little more meaningful for the younger set. Competition focusses one's mind and teaches one many truths, some of them unpleasant or inconvenient.

I also wish those commuter racer Walter Mittys I occasionaly discover doing a stealth wheel suck on me would take it to the course. However, I would be less than truthful though if I didn't admit that I'm secretly pleased that I can still arouse some competitive juices in others at my advanced age on one of my old vintage cycles.

dr. hypercube said...

"Can't remember the name of the race but there is mile race where competitors must stop every lap and drink a pint of beer."

When I 1st heard of this kind of race many years ago it was referred to as a chunder mile (the version related to me also included mutton pies).

Anonymous said...

Aside from all the contention, that's a fine looking bike you're riding, Robert. It seems optimized to do the job; it's nice to see a Cross-Check riding cross. Are those Avid Ultimate cantis up front? And how about those handlebars? What tires are you riding, and cornering so expertly on? Curiously, there appear to be two "poop-brown" Cross-Checks at VO.

Some also failed to note the uncommon humility in Robert's tone. Not what we expect when non-racers think of, and generalize, racers.

BTW, you look great in a speed suit.

Matthew J said...

Anon 7/1/11 - 10:43

Scared?!? Try just not interested.

I like opera. I've talked some people into going with me. Others have said it is not for them. Until now it sure never occurred to me those not interested were afraid.

Velo Celt said...

I'm curious, since you race cyclocross do you also use a Velo Orange leather saddle? I've been looking at the saddles and am intrigued, however I'd like to try my hand at racing CX and also riding in some seriously inclement weather. As a result, I'm concerned about how well a VO saddle would hold up under those conditions.

Velouria said...

I agree with Robert G's 8:13 comment: While many magazines and websites evoke the idea of racing and talk about it in a way that assumes prior knowledge, there are few outlets out there actually explaining how to get into it for those with no previous experience. I am learning mainly via word of mouth, because I genuinely cannot find a comprehensive explanation of the local racing scene.

Matt Surch said...

Racing is one of those things. You either feel the pull, or you don't. People don't often start because they think they should, they start because they want to. There is a difference. Racing takes a particular perspective on pain and suffering. These are either welcomed, or inflicted upon. Folks who don't want to put themselves through the ringer, come out the other side, and do it all over again, ever in the pursuit of improving just that little bit, shouldn't race. They should participate, and that can happen in a race or outside of races. I race a lot across many disciplines, and I am always most impressed by the folks who come out and participate even though they know they don't really have the fighting spirit. DFL, every time, but getting out there, that's amazing. I also have a tonne of respect for people who pass on the races and just get out to ride. I don't have much respect for 'non-racers' who poo poo those who race or vice versa. To use 'racer' as a derogatory term is pretty close minded, same for 'tourist'.