How not to die in your first year of racing.

Another weekend of racing, another minute of silence before the race, another crash during the race, another ambulance passed on my way home, and on it goes friends. This is not normally a blog about my weekend sporting activities, but I have a few things I need to vent somewhere.

In my very first season of racing, 1993, you know, I saw one or two crashes at most. Club racing was some weird, unwelcoming scene. A young man knew well not to even ask for a start, until his face was well known on training rides. Oh, and how we were educated in the ways of bunch riding! If I may quote: "you fuckin’ bomb through like that, you can get off the back!" Ha, I can laugh now. "H-o-o-o-old your line!!!" Such assertive mentors were mine.

Since bike racing became the new golf, there are incidents on a weekly basis, it seems. I keep telling myself that with the next serious bust up, or death in this town, I’ll take up big wave surfing, it has to be safer. Ah, but then I pass off the next piece of horrible news as just some freak accident.

If I may generalize—and many muffled private remarks do back me up—the menace of the era is the middle aged dude, who has gone out and bought all the gear, and dove headlong into racing. He’s got his heart rate monitor, training diary, books, energy bars, and everything the bike shop could sell him. He’s won F-grade, won E-grade and now is in trouble in D-grade. He’s struggling to stay with the bunch, pushes himself until the world looks kinda milky, touches a wheel, and then smacko, a face full of tar and we’re wondering if that bar-end has punctured his lung.

As a stalwart of B-grade, I am relieved in some ways that his campaign ended there, hopefully with just enough injuries that he recovers, but never comes back; I do not want to see this guy rush through the grades. These are hard things to say, because I would rather no-one ever got hurt in this sport. I can’t watch the pros on those descents. However, I’m glad, for my kids’ sake, that these unhinged egotists (we hinged ones are fine) often crash hard before ever getting a chance to spoil the relative civility of higher grade. Sooner or later though, I know age sends us all back, to where my older racing companions are reduced to riding with these freaks on their "personal journeys". Spare a thought for them, someone.

Okay, so you’ve bought a bike and you are taking up racing, and someone has told you to read Dr. Behooving’s tips on how to stay alive in your first year. First understand, this is not a race against your own demons. This is not a half marathon, or iron-man challenge. It’s more like a choir, where your first duty is to just sing along. If you’re struggling just to stay with D-grade mid way through the race, fade off the back, pull out, and tell the handicapper that you couldn’t cope. He’ll put you back down to E-grade. Please, don’t win E=-grade now, for at least a few months. They will throw you back into D-grade, where you know you’re not ready to be.

When riding in a bunch, progress forward, backward and sidewards in a predictable manner. Never grab brakes, only touch them. Until you have learned to anticipate the dozens of ways bunches behave as they speed up and slow down, maintain half a bike length between you and the next rider—the added drag will only help you get stronger. 

If you’re spooked, ride off the back of the bunch. There is no law saying you must do turns on the front. If a flighty mood runs through the bunch, and you’re feeling strong, ride away off the front, out of trouble. Choose relaxed times in a race to take a drink. Keep a firm grip on the bars; I ride on the drops more than the hoods, for the added control. 

But most importantly, don’t push yourself so hard that you’re getting exasperated and lightheaded, at least not in your first year of racing. I don’t want to deter anyone from taking up racing, at whatever age. How could I, when I’m an addict myself! I just want to underline what should be obvious, that this is a group activity, requiring high levels of mutual trust and regard. It makes you a better citizen, and gentleman. As for being a scholar? Again, I would say not to rush things. 

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