“Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”Tim Krabbé – The Rider (1978)
I bought my first road bike in 2011. Then, for four years, I deferred. “Next year,” I’d say, “I’ll be fitter. Next year, I’ll find the time. Yeah, next year, I’ll start racing.”
In the spring of 2015, I finally bit the bullet. One crisp morning on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, I pinned on a race number for the very first time. Ninety minutes later, after two laps around West Head and a swathe of Strava PRs, I finished a race for the very first time. I didn’t win, but it was a sweet, satisfying feeling. From then on, I’ve been hooked on racing.
You might have ridden a road bike for a while. Years, perhaps. Maybe you’ve thought about racing, too. You like the idea of it and you admire those who race – especially the pros you’ve seen on TV – but you keep finding excuses not to do it.
Let’s help you put those excuses aside. If you enjoy road cycling, here are seven reasons why you should start racing.
1. The unique thrill of racing
If you love watching professional cycling, you should start racing. By racing, you get to experience the sport’s captivating strategic battles for yourself.
As a recreational cyclist, you can “race” in one sense, targeting personal records and KOMs on Strava. You can sprint for the town sign with a group of friends. But until you enter a real race, you won’t genuinely experience the thrills and tactics of the sport.
Bicycle racing as been described as “chess on wheels”. Choosing when to sit in the bunch, when to attack and when to follow wheels makes cycling so much more complex than a simple case of “strongest rider wins”.
That’s why professional racing is so fascinating. You win on guile, not just strength. Whether it’s Mat Hayman getting into the breakaway to win Paris-Roubaix, Team Sky’s Ian Stannard outfoxing three Quick-Step riders or Peter Sagan starting an echelon with Chris Froome, it’s amazing to watch riders execute a perfect race-winning plan.
If you’re a cycling fan who watches bike racing, you too can live it out! There’s nothing quite like launching an attack, linking up with some breakaway companions and working together to upset the chasers. Or like sniffing the hint of a crosswind and putting the race in the gutter. Or like following the right wheel before unleashing an all-out sprint with 200 metres to go.
Will you win often? Probably not. But the thrill of it outshines any Strava segment.
2. Do what you can’t
Very few sports push you to the limit like cycling, especially when you first start racing. You’ll likely find yourself getting dropped early. You’ll huff and puff just to keep up while those around you are breathing through their noses. After a couple of small surges, you’re dislodged from the peloton. It’s a tough lesson in humility. It seems the level of these other racers is incredible. And that’s just in the lower grades!
But don’t be discouraged. We’ve all been there. It’s almost a rite of passage.
Finishing a race can be a tough assignment in itself, so turn a negative into a positive, and make reaching the finish line your next personal goal.
If you persist, next race you might survive one extra lap. Next race after that, another lap more. Soon, you’ll be finishing the race with the main bunch. Soon after that – you’ll be one of those riders sitting comfortably in the peloton, breathing through your nose, waiting for that key moment to launch your sprint, or put in an attack. I might be an unthinkable prospect when you’re struggling in your first race, but hang in there and you’ll become a bona fide racer.
Want to prove to yourself you can break your own limits? In cycling, you can do that – if you start racing.
3. Become a fitter, better cyclist
They say “racing is training”, because bunch racing pushes you harder than a solo ride can. When cycling by yourself, the natural temptation is take it slightly easier – shorten your interval by a second, put out 10 fewer watts than your target, or go home when it rains.
In a race, you can’t do that. Instead, you have to follow wheels to survive, which means somebody else sets the tempo for you. The wheel in front becomes a dangling carrot as you dig deep to hold on.
Sometimes, you’ll go beyond your limit, and – as mentioned above – you’ll get dropped. That’s okay, because the experience of pushing yourself to your physical limit will make you stronger next time round.
It’s not just about physical strength, either. Racing refines your cycling skills in a way nothing else can. For example: cornering. I thought I knew how to turn. That was until I raced at HART Criterium Circuit. HART has one extreme hairpin that forces you to lean the bike over as far as it can go – and then farther still. You only learn that level of cornering by replication, following the lines and techniques of those more experienced than you. You learn that by racing.
4. Discover new regions
Yes, the bicycle is the ultimate freedom machine. You can explore so much of the world by bike without pinning on a number. But for those of us with a pinch of competitive spirit, the prospect of a good race takes us to places we’d never think of riding a bike.
In Australia, many quality bicycle races take place in far-flung regional areas. Would you think of riding between Grafton and Inverell if not for the famous race that spans those towns? What about Tamworth, for the Gunnedah to Tamworth? How many of us would have visited Cootamundra if not for their handicap races?
Racing lets you ride where you normally can’t, either on private land or on roads that are usually too busy. For example, when else but during the Criterium White Bay can you safely ride with such glorious views of Sydney Harbour? Personally, I wouldn’t have visited Canberra quite nearly as often if it weren’t to race up Mount Majura during the National Capital Tour.
Leisurely cycling has its place, but once you start racing, you’ll have new opportunities to visit new and interesting parts of the country.
5. Make new friends
Cycling is a great social sport, but for some of us, it’s hard to make friends. When I first started riding a bike, I didn’t know any other cyclists. I met a few people through my local club ride, but it wasn’t until I started racing that we really started to bond.
Friendships are made through shared experiences. There’s very little that brings cyclists together like being pushed to the limit in a bike race, chasing each other down, leading each other out and succeeding together. Friendships are forged through adversity.
Over time, you’ll begin to see the same faces over and over at local races. With each race, you’ll get to know each other a little bit more. At some point, you might start training together, watching bike races together, and travelling away to events together. That love of bike racing is a strong glue that sticks people together.
6. Know how the pros feel
Being a racer yourself allows you to better appreciate what the professionals do.
Pros getting dropped on a flat criterium circuit? You’ve been there.
Pros dangling precariously on the wrong end of a gap? Sounds familiar.
Pros stuck at the back of the peloton when they should be moving forward? You know it’s harder than it looks.
Pros raising their arms across the line after a solo breakaway? OK, now you’re just dreaming.
Any armchair athlete can scoff at riders on TV for losing the wheel or making tactical errors, but you’ll only understand their point of view if you start racing.
Of course, unless you’re a prodigy, you’ll probably never know what it’s like to race at the top level, but at least you’ll have a point of comparison. After racing, you’ll soon understand that when Wout Van Aert puts out 6 W/kg for 5:42 minutes after racing 280km in Milan San-Remo, it means he’s decently strong.
7. Get motivated to ride more
Are you getting a little bored of riding the same old routes, at the same old speed? Looking for your next challenge? Lacking motivation to get out of bed and on your bike?
The goal of finishing (or even winning) your next race will motivate you to get off your butt and start training. That drive, that hunger to last one lap longer, or to beat that burglar in a sprint, or to survive the decisive selection up a climb – that gets people fired up.
Sure, it’s not for everyone. For some, a sedate solo cruise around the neighbourhood is enough to get them riding every day. But for thrill-seekers with a more competitive streak, the satisfaction of succeeding at your next bike race offers plenty of incentive to ride harder, faster and more often.
If you want to start bike racing, you’ll need to know where to begin. Read our guide on How To Start Bicycle Racing.