Ode to the Middle of the Pack Racer
I attempted my first bike race in the summer of 2009. I had just completed the B-SIG (a free group ride training program led by volunteers from the New York Cycle Club). I could ride in a paceline at 18mph (on the flats). So, naturally, I thought I was the shit.
Looking to test my mettle, I signed up for CRCA’s Intro to Bike Racing Clinic. Evelyn Stevens had gotten her start in bike racing there, so I had to give it a go. I knew there were many racers there who were likely faster than me, and that I might not be able to keep up with the lead group, but I wouldn’t know for sure unless I tried.
Unsurprisingly, I did get dropped, but I didn’t quit. Experienced race mentors who were riding alongside encouraged me to keep chasing, and to work with others around me to try to keep pace. I finished the race, and despite giving it absolutely everything I had, I did not even place. But, it didn’t matter because it was one of the most fun things I’d ever done! I felt accomplished for having tried something I knew I would likely fail at - something I’d learn to embrace as part of the very essence of the sport of bicycle racing (more on that later). I left that experience knowing I needed to put in more training before I could “race for real,” but now I had a concrete goal to work toward.
The following summer, I completed the A-Classic SIG, NYCC’s fastest training program, and promptly bought my USAC license and joined CRCA. I was ready to start my amateur bicycle racing career.
Early on, I got dropped a lot. Simply finishing with the lead pack, or with a chase group was a victory for me. In Central Park races, I often got dropped on Harlem Hill when there was an acceleration, or if I made it through that, I would get dropped on the hill immediately thereafter. Each time, I would talk to my coach and friends afterwards about what I might have done differently to last a bit longer. Next race, I would correct for those mistakes, and gradually, I got stronger and smarter and stopped getting dropped. Very, very gradually.
I’ve never been a natural athlete. I wasn’t encouraged to play sports growing up, and had never experienced structured training. While I had competitive drive, I knew I’d have to work hard and be patient in order to earn those gains that seemed to come easily to others. Still, there was something about that process: figuring out how to use what strengths I had (tenacity, situational awareness & a dash of fearlessness) to overcome my weaknesses (power & speed), that was really exciting tackle. Learning to execute race tactics and seeing those slow but steady fitness gains, coupled with the strong social bonds that formed within the community, are what kept me coming back week after week and year after year.
Yes, I am a Category 2 racer now, and I have 5 wins on my palmarès (bike racing things just sound cooler in French). But, let’s look at this in context. According to Road-Results.com, an online tool that aggregates data for “every race [we have] ever participated in”, I’ve done ~145 road races over the years. Of those, I’ve finished in the top 50% of the field in less than half, and finished in the top 25% only 26 times. And even now, I still get dropped in races on occasion. Looking at these stats, you’d think I’d have quit bike racing by now. But no; bike racing is about so much more than individual results.
I’ve spent entire seasons racing in support of a team or teammate’s goal. I love being a student of the sport - simply observing how tactics play out among competitors gives me a sense of satisfaction. I have lined up at a race when I didn’t want to, just so I could boost the number of starters for better upgrade points, or increase the chances of a promoter offering a W field again. I have showed up many times solely because of FOMO, for the team hangs after, and for some nice race pictures. I have gone into a race with a single goal such as: just get in a good workout, just practice feeling comfortable surrounded by 95 dudes going 27mph, just stay in the top 1/3 of the pack in this technical crit, just hang on to the leaders over the first big climb, just make sure you catch back onto the field after you attack them and they reel you back in, or just follow a sprinter’s wheel to learn better positioning. None of these goals had anything to do with my individual result in those races. And yet, they collectively had everything to do with my cumulative growth as a person, an athlete, a teammate, an advocate, and a bike racer who now knows how to win races.
A wise friend named Matt Vandivort once said, “finding joy in this sport is all about surrounding yourself with good people who can derive happiness from the repeated failure that is inherent in the very nature of bike racing.” We can all get a self-deprecating chuckle from that quote. But this really rings true to me.
It’s really f*ckin’ hard to win a race at any level - damn near impossible. If we all tied our self-worth to results, we’d be one big collective of very sad people. Only one person can ever be the winner of a race. But everyone else - all of those middle of the pack racers - if it were not for them showing up, then we wouldn’t have bike racing at all. We also wouldn’t have any winners. If I had quit bike racing after that 2009 Clinic because I knew I wasn’t “good enough” then, I never would have had the decade of incredibly rewarding experiences I’ve had since.
So, cheers to all the middle of the pack racers among us. Thank you for your persistence, and for continuing to show up in the face of whatever unique adversities you face. Thank you for contributing in countless ways to our our great community. You are as much an important part of our sport as those who stand on that wooden box.