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The Competitive Edge
Bike racing is hard, says PATRICK FIELD, but all cyclists can benefit from giving it a go, and he suggests some easy ways of getting into the game
So, you enjoyed the Tour de France on TV, like posing in your skins and love riding your bike; why not try a little competition?
Bike racing is the hardest sport in the world. Its most serious disciples do nothing but eat, rest and train; to engage in it at any level at all requires dedication. Paradoxically however, it is easy to overestimate the work required. Use your time wisely, set yourself realistic initial ambitions and you can find excitement and satisfaction aplenty.
The range of events, long and short distance, flat or hilly, tight corners or straight roads and even - for the truly masochistic - multi-stage races, means you can vary your racing constantly, or find the discipline which suits you best and stick to it.
"No thanks," you reply. "I enjoy riding at my own pace. There is enough pain and suffering in the world without me seeking it out." Well, however tough or experienced you are, you will benefit from competitive riding. Racing spurs you on to question your riding position, perfect your pedalling technique, improve your bike handling and become a more precise and painstaking mechanic. Racing tests your mental and physical limits so that on all subsequent journeys you will ride relaxed, with greater confidence and enjoyment. Embark on a racing career and inevitably you will ride your bike more. The quest for speed will get you out on grey days and once you are out you will often be glad of the prompting.
As the year runs toward winter, summer bikes are put away and dynamos checked; it is the time to think about the coming season. If you are a star of the local athletics club, or commute a hilly 50K, you have an advantage. For the rest of us the step from leisure riding to even the bottom rungs of the sporting ladder is best taken gently.
Before you join, find out about all the local clubs. One question to consider is, what kind of riding to do most of its members prefer? Don't join a touring club if you want to race, don't join a road racing team if you want to sample different events. Also, what sort, and how many races do they organise?
This is important because other promoters are more likely to accept your entry if your club runs 'open' events. Are they affiliated to all local leagues and associations? Do they have a coach? Do they have a record of encouraging good novice riders? What sort of winter training do they organise - weights? circuit training? Does the club have a sponsor? What, if any, financial support do they give to successful riders to help cover the costs of travel and equipment? How friendly and helpful are the other members? How many riders do they already have of your own age, gender, and standard? What kind of social life does the club have? A good club may also have talks from coaches, nutritionists, physiotherapists or star riders.
In the autumn, club life centres on the Sunday run. This varies from a gentle cafe crawl to six or seven hours of hard riding. Big clubs may have two or more runs of various standards. They are useful for learning to ride in a group, taking shelter from other riders, following wheels, not getting dropped (left behind) on hills and through corners. On club runs you will also learn new routes for lone training and pick up training tips when the racing season gets nearer. Experienced riders will help you with your position, your technique and your equipment.
While polishing up your bike riding on Sundays, a few hours during the week should be dedicated to building fitness: circuit training, swimming or running, any activity which raises your pulse for sustained periods will help. If your time is short, running is the quickest way to build general heart and lung stamina. Two or three half-hour sessions per week should bring worthwhile gains.
Weight training is very good for improving strength and therefore speed. Most books on cycle sport contain a weight training programme, but initially the supervision of a qualified coach is best, not only to make sure you are performing the exercises correctly, but also to avoid injury. If the coach at your local gym is not experienced in training bike riders, stress that you do not wish to put on weight.
If you are overweight your pre-season plan should include a change of diet to remedy this. We have all read about professionals eating 15,000 calories a day but there is no point in having a lightweight bike if you are carrying a few kilos of spare lard round the top of your pelvis.
If you have trouble making time for training, especially if child-care is the problem, a set of rollers or a Turbo trainer will allow you to squeeze in the odd half-hour without leaving home. Rollers are best for developing smooth fast pedalling and confidence on the bike. Turbo trainers are better for fitness since the work rate can be varied. Resist the temptation to use your best bike. Without the cooling wind you will sweat litres and drench the frame with corrosive, salty water.
Winter outdoor training on the bike is best done on a machine that has robust tyres, and mudguards. Meanwhile, think about assembling a racing bike. Top-class riders change their kit annually, so there is always good quality second-hand stuff around. Clubs are a good source of used racing equipment.
Don't be put off racing because your equipment is not new or flashy. Fausto Coppi won his first races on the village post bike. There is however a certain consumerist pleasure in bike racing. Deciding where to spend your budget, for instance, and which new innovations are worth trying. Spending money on good gear will encourage you to train harder and, if you worry about the cost, think of all the money you're saving by not drinking, smoking, eating cream cakes or going to night-clubs.
If your body is to become strong, training must be accompanied by rest, so try to get to bed early whenever possible. Take your pulse before you get out of bed in the morning. As you get fitter it will slow down. If it is faster than you expected at any time it means you are fatigued and should reduce the number and intensity of your training sessions until it returns to normal.
The most overlooked element of a training programme is daily, gentle muscle stretching. If you do not stretch you run an increased risk of injury. Without stretching, a loss of flexibility will develop as your muscles get stronger; on the bike, this has an effect not unlike riding with your brakes constantly on.
A lot of this autumn work will not make you a faster bike rider, you are merely preparing for the spring when you will begin hard training on the road. Your autumn work is intended to develop reserves of strength and fitness so you can push yourself hard enough to develop the speed to compete successfully. The more organised and systematic you are in this pre-training phase, the further you will be able to progress when your work begins in earnest early next year.
Bikes get physical.
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