I have come to realize over the years that there is value in scoping out a regularly occurring competitive event (like a seasonal Criterium Race or a Cyclocross Race) before you Go for the Gold. If you do happen to win a regularly scheduled repetitive race the first time you ride it: awesome. But that is not a normal expectation because there are some dynamics at work that, even after all this time, I have only recently come to consciously realize about learning the flow.
Recently I traveled to another city to experience a different race venue. Since I live in Texas – this means I was on the road for several hours (total of 6). Crazy? Maybe, but I race bikes for fun and if that’s not potentially abnormal I don’t know what is. Driving six hours to check out a seasonal Criterium race isn’t a stretch really.
I wanted to ‘check it out’. At least that’s what my conscious mind recognized. It wasn’t until later that my subconscious hit my conscious mind hard enough for it to pay attention to the WHY.
If you are a stranger in a strange land – you do what they do (you learn the customs). Every locale has a unique flavor, set of expectations, and patterned behavior (some bizarre). Those that compete often together have certain interpersonal dynamics. For example: some teams like each other and some are serious rivals. Some folks are friends and will work together – especially to test and edge out the newcomer (me) in a strange new kit. Face it: people are territorial by nature and tribal. If you don’t look like them, act like them, and they don’t know you – it can be a challenge to find your ‘spot’ in the pack.
As a racer in a new event or a different locale: learn who is fast, who corners well, who sprints often, who gaps, and who is random. For me, I will be taking note of those that are typically at the front because I want to be locked on to their wheel like a targeted missile. Especially if the unlucky lady is close to my ‘elevated’ size… Yep, sista – you and I gonna ‘go together like peas and carrots’… You want to be right behind the leaders at the start and hang on like your life depends on it. It’s all about tactics and strategy in Crit racing. If you are racing with your team there is another level of learning that comes into play.
Check out the teams and how they work together. Are they fairly well-organized or are they all over the place? Some teams are more easy-going and friendlier than others. Do you have certain teams that are always at the front and how do they communicate? Understand who is who in the teams: the sprinter, the diesel, the climbers, etc. If you are interested in being on the podium, understand who you are competing against. The larger the field the longer this process will take. By the time you figure it all out: you will most likely have become a part of that dynamic.
With repetitive seasonal races – typically there is a set course or collection of courses. Becoming familiar with the course means that there is one less thing your brain has to figure out during the race. This is important! During races, our brains are processing a massive amount of information at an amazing rate. I think this is one reason why I don’t prefer road races because I’m lazy and don’t really like having to figure out everything from scratch every time. You can also call it being efficient… but it’s really just lazy. Your brain and your body can become accustomed to the course – what gear you need to be in when, how much lean you can safely take into the corners, what the best line is, and so on. This takes some of the guess work and new information processing out of the equation along with the thousands of other pieces of information that is flying at you in milliseconds.
It’s also good to get outside of your comfort zone occasionally and try new things. It will make you stronger as a rider and there is something refreshing about a new race venue where people don’t know you and do not have any set expectations of you. Even as lazy as I profess to be (for a competitive cyclist) I will push myself into the unfamiliar. I find that, as you add years in your life, there can be a tendency to hold on to the familiar and ‘safe’. Doing new things can make you more nervous than excited and you can worry too much about silly things. I want agility in my life and not to impose any limitations on myself that I can control. So: I give myself a swift kick in the rear (figuratively) and do something new. Besides, doing the same thing all the time becomes boring (as boring as racing can be – ha!).
I hope some of these revelations will come in useful for you. I was doing all of this instinctively and, now that I have thought about it, understanding what exactly I was learning is just as important as the learning itself.