In California, the first opportunities to start the new racing season are available starting in February and March. Or, if you live in an environment with a harsh winter, then it’s getting time to progressively ramp up the intensity of your indoor workouts as you get ready for spring racing in a few months’ time. Either way, bike racers are thinking about starting a new racing season, or new racers are trying to decide when to jump in.
This can be a very exciting time, but it can also inspire some uncertainty or even low level anxiety as you anticipate racing. If you’re new to it, then there’s probably dozens of questions about what will happen in the new environment. Or if you’re a returning racer, there’s a whole set of thoughts that can run through your head about how fit you are, how fit your friends or competitors are, how good your team is, whether you’ll work well together, etc. etc…
Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one. Everyone has their own mix of excitement, doubts, questions, and optimism at the start of each new season. It’s quite like a lot of things in life when you’re starting a new chapter. Change or experiencing new things can be both exciting and sometimes a little stressful.
In any case, I just wanted to offer a few thoughts on the primary question that you may face as you think about starting a new racing season or starting racing altogether…
Am I ready to race?
Well, practically speaking the only real concern here is whether or not you have the technical skill and basic understanding of pack-riding that will enable you to race safely. Not everyone who rides only on their own or with one riding partner at a time will have this skillset. But, if you’ve spent a decent amount of experience riding in pacelines, in bigger groups, or doing faster race-rides, then you should be okay. But please, for your sake and for the sake of other riders, be very self-aware and recognize if you need more practice before you hop in a race that may have 10 or 20 or 40 different riders with different levels of fitness and experience. If you need more experience, there are probably good race rides near you that you could connect with, which could also help you connect with the local cycling community, racing or not. Likewise, there are often early season race clinics for new racers or novice racers to learn and brush up on their pack riding skills before getting into the regular racing season… Crashing or the stress of possibly crashing is no fun at all, so be sure that you’re contributing to the collective success of the group by knowing how to ride safely and by making good choices.
Assuming that you’ve reached a level of proficiency with pack riding that it’s safe for you to race, many people question their fitness to race. It’s common to have doubts about being physically prepared for racing. For new racers this can be especially challenging because you don’t really have any first hand experience to indicate whether you are going to finish at the front of the field or off the back. If you have a power meter, or if you compare your climbing times on Strava, then you can have a decent idea of how fit you are. Or, if you’ve done some good race rides, that can be a good benchmark, too.
If you’re a returning racer, then you probably know from past experience roughly where you stand, or you may have a very precise idea if you train with power and use your workouts to benchmark your fitness on an ongoing basis. Personally I’ve always found that to be invaluable for assessing my training and knowing how well prepared I am for racing. And, knowing your fitness can help you to know how you should be racing based on your fitness level going into it. But, still, there’s the question of how fit you are and how satisfying racing will be for you. Or if you’re coming off of a hard winter or a busy time at work and your training hasn’t been quite what you’d want it to be, then you may not be fit enough to race at the level you would like. That can be fine, but it might not. I think that this is mostly a matter of perspective, what your expectations are, and whether or not you’ll be able to find racing satisfying. If not, it may be better to simply delay racing until you have a few more good workouts in your legs.
If you aren’t fit enough to be in contention for a win or a top 10 or whatever your benchmark for a good race is, then you may have to evaluate whether or not you are ready to race mentally. If you can race safely, then practically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with racing and finishing mid-pack or at the back. Races can be great workouts, they can be fun socially, and sometimes it’s easier to get in a lot of intense miles when you’re in that environment. But, if you aren’t fit enough to do well, then you will need to go into the race with the right perspective so that a perceived sub-standard race result will be seen as just another step towards your future goals of getting the kind of results that you hope to get in the future. Again, it’s good to be very self aware. If you know that you can’t let go and think that you’ll be very frustrated if you perform at a level below what you know you’re capable of, then I’d encourage you to postpone racing until you have a little more quality training in your system, but also be sure that you’re committed to doing the training that you know is required to get the fitness that you know that you want.
I think that this psychological feature of racing is one of the harder ones for many bike racers. Many competitive individuals seem to have a hard time when they want to do well, but they can’t or it just doesn’t work out that way because of how the race unfolds. I think that there’s a lot of value in racing even if you aren’t as fit as you would want to be in order to do well, but you have to acknowledge that building your fitness is a process that takes time, and you have to avoid frustration by setting reasonable expectations. But, if you can do that, racing when your fitness isn’t quite what you’d want it to be can be an excellent learning experience.
Even if you are very fit, but you train through some races, that experience can show you a lot. If you’re one of the less prepared athletes in a race or your legs are flat from hard training, then it forces you to race more defensively and to look for ways to be more efficient. If you don’t have the power to do anything you want, then you have to be more selective about when you use it. Racing above your current level helps you to create better mental filters, so that you’re more selective about the actions that you take in races. And, when you do act you’re more decisive about it, because you know that you don’t have unlimited resources with which to repeatedly make moves, attack, counter-attack, etc. Even if you are very fit relative to your racing field, these are skills that you need to learn in order to race effectively. For many racers, it takes a long time to learn these skills. Racing above your current level is a great way to facilitate that development, as long as you have reasonable expectations and will still have a positive experience racing, even if you get a placing that is less than you might ideally want.