Monday, May 10, 2010

Joy of Racing

There are lots of tomes on the "Joy of . . ." Best known, or at least first, there was the Joy of Cooking, and later the follow-up book, the Joy of Sex. Like "____ for Dummies", you can find this title repeated on lots of topics. If you include the Joy of Cycling with those other two you actually have a lot of important life issues covered, but I wanted to share a thought or two on the Joy of Racing.

For some reason I have recently discussed my riding proclivities with a few civilians. In other words, rather than just gabbing with other riders about riding topics, I have been drawn into conversations with non-riders who have asked questions about specific cycling issues or rides. At some point this leads to either a stated or unstated question from these non-riders, "Why does your "fun" involved so much suffering?"

It's a reasonable question and not one that is easy to answer. I definitely didn't come by it naturally. My mother's most repeated quote on all subjects involving sports or exercise is "Sweat kills." Very pithy, eh? My father isn't as emphatic, but it is safe to say that sports have not been an important part of his life (If, by the way, that is not a safe thing to say, I will hear about it, right Dad?).

But somewhere along the line I picked up a love of some sports. The last football game I sat through all the way was the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, so spectating is not on the top of my list, but I like participating. I like the hard work and the sense of joy mixed with exhaustion that comes from a long bike ride. Last Sunday was one of those days where it was just the right mix of hard work and satisfaction, but without the misery that comes from going too far or too fast. But that is bike "riding" or even "training", and those are very different feeling than racing.

I haven't raced as much as Rider One or Rider Two, so I would be interested in their view on it, but here are my thoughts on the joy of bike racing. One, I look for chances to race as long as I can be "competitive". For me, that does not mean winning. It just means that sometimes I think I can "race my way to fitness" and that is one of the most self-delusional things I have ever thought. If, however, I have some fitness and can keep up with the group, then I look for opportunities to race. Two, there is only one part of the race that I enjoy: finishing. I like crossing the finish line and that is true whether I am first (and, yes, I have had that joy, although winning in the C pack has been described to me as the same honor as being the tallest midget at the circus) or whether I am pack-fodder or even behind the pack when that choice has been mine rather than forced on me.

For example, at the Frozen Flatlands Sunday road race, I was with the group for 22 or so of the 24 miles, but as we came up to the last two big rollers back into Cheney I realized that I didn't have the legs for a sprint that was likely to put me in the top ten (or twenty probably), so I made the conscious decision to let the group go and just ride the last couple of k's in by myself. I was completely contented when I crossed the finish line as I had raced reasonably smart, had the power to stay with the pack and made the decision to drop off rather than getting dropped (as I had the day before). (An aside. I realize that riding on my own is harder than just staying with the pack up until the finish, but I have a high degree need to finish with "the rubber side down", aka, not "crash" in a field sprint. 18th or 38th doesn't make much difference in my life or my bragging, so eliminating that 1-in-15 pile-up is well worth it.)

I also enjoy the time after the finish line. The feeling of satisfaction from racing and being done is really significant. Really. It is a nice feeling to have sweated out the pre-race tension, the during race tension and hard work and then crossing the finish line. I can't think of another thing that feels the same way as finishing a race, particularly one that went well. It is uniquely and deeply gratifying and the harder the race, the better the feeling. I am sure that the riders who finish the Grand Tours all end up with a smug feeling of satisfaction that lasts for many, many years.

I also enjoy the time before a race. I like training; I like having my equipment cleaned up and tuned up ready for a race (no, it doesn't always happen, but it is nice when it does); and I like the sign-up and bullshitting that goes on at the race ahead of time. There is a sweet and bitter tension that you have before a race. I know that some people get so nervous they don't like to race, but I think I get about the right amount of nervous - the kind where it makes you alert and tense, but in a good way.

So know I have covered the pre-race and post-race, but how about the Joy of actually racing, the during-the-race part of the race? Here is my take on that - There is none. At least for me.

Racing is hard. It is physically hard and it is mentally hard. In order to race well you have to be paying attention to at least a couple dozen things at the same time. The other riders, the road, the road to come, the weather, the wind, your exertions, your hydration/nutrition - in other words, everything that is happening or might happen. And, you have to do it will riding your bike fast. Sean Yates said that the Tour de France is a three-week long, 1,500 mile ride that you do 2 miles an hour faster than you want to ride. That really is the essence of most racing. It all takes place at least 2 miles an hour faster than is comfortable. That may not seem like much, but if aren't a racer, try going out to do a hard 30 minutes at the fastest pace you can sustain, whether that is 14 mph or 19 mph (and I'm not saying the fastest that is comfortable; I am saying the fastest you can sustain). Now, go 2 miles per hour faster. You can probably do it if you dig in and really try, but it is hard. It is physically taxing and mentally taxing just to sustain that pace. Now, picture that effort in the middle of 20-50 other riders doing the same thing and you start to get the sense of what it's like to be in a pack.

So, if it is not fun, why do it? Well, the answer isn't that simple. The time during the race is taxing and there isn't a way to call it "fun", but it is fully engaging in a way that real life doesn't offer very often. It is also satisfying to be in a straightforward competition, where there are clear rules about how the race goes, which is unlike real life where there are so many permutations of the written and unwritten rules that it is nice to be in a black-and-white arena. And there is a level of satisfaction that comes from doing any job well, or completing any hard task, that is amplified when you add the element of physical exhaustion. So, while this blog post is running a bit long, it is because the answer is not straight-forward. Is there joy in racing - yes. It is like the joy of riding hard, but on steroids (oops, not a good cycling analogy, but you get the idea). It is not "fun" per se while you are actually racing, but it is fun, kind of. There is joy, it's just hard to explain. If you have raced, and keep racing, then you know exactly what I am trying to express. And if you haven't raced, or tried it and don't like it, well then, you can always turn to the Joy of Cooking or the Joy of Sex. Your choice.
Rider Three

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