This is an excerpt from Mastering Cycling by John Howard.
If the idea of commuting by bike leaves you cold (figuratively or literally), or you want additional opportunities to increase your level of fitness and improve your riding skills while having fun, join a bike club. Most group cycling starts at the club level. During group rides, you learn to ride in close proximity to others, draft, ride in a pace line, and develop your bike-handling skills. Your fitness level, strength-to-weight ratio, and availability will determine the group you ride with. Most clubs have groups of varying abilities, and you may find that you progressively advance from one to the next as your skill level and endurance improves. There is great camaraderie among club members, and the stronger riders inspire the less-skilled riders to challenge themselves.
Historically, cycling in the United States has been a club sport. Clubs exist throughout the country, and most cater to masters racers. Some, like San Diego Cyclo-Vets and Carolina Masters Cycling, feature special events especially for masters in age categories. As I previously mentioned, bicycle racing in the United States is essentially a masters sport with categories starting at age 30. Many top masters racers also race in the elite categories. The ability of top masters racers to ride with top professional riders is perhaps the most unique feature of U.S. cycling. In Europe, the ranking system is far more restricted, and the categories of elite and masters are not as interchangeable. Masters cyclists have an array of events, including road racing; subcategories of criteriums, or circuit racing; and time trials. Mountain-bike events include subcategories of cross-country, downhill, and time trials.
However, frustrations do exist among masters in the older categories. Kenton, my friend and training client, is 70 and enters bike races to improve his time-trial speed. He is a top age-group triathlete on the U.S. national team. Kenton and I both agree that too few opportunities exist for older masters to compete. As one ages, the traditional five-year increments become more and more critical. Although many race promoters offer a 40-plus and sometimes a 50-plus category, few events cater to riders in their 60s and beyond, and these categories are growing rapidly. “Running, swimming, and triathlons have spoiled masters into feeling we should be pampered with our own exclusive five-year brackets,” Kenton says wistfully. He became serious about cycling when he was trying to rebuild his strength and endurance after an automobile accident some years ago. Masters cycling has become an increasingly difficult sport for scoring wins, as Kenton has discovered. “As a licensed rider, I have very rarely placed in a bike race, but I am still trying. There are other masters in their 70s who won’t enter anything since they can’t find their age bracket on the registration form.”
You can choose from many racing genres, such as time trials, road and track racing, mountain biking, and cyclo-cross. If racing doesn’t appeal to you, plenty of cycling activities exist with varying degrees of difficulty to accommodate your preferences and skill level, including centuries and multiple-day tours. You can also change your scenery in a pedaled watercraft.
If you are thinking about entering a bicycle race for the first time, start out with a time trial. Time trials are easy to enter, and the choice of equipment is completely up to you. Time-trial coverage on television shows cyclists with very specialized equipment that is literally shaped by the wind. This is because the faster you ride, the larger the factor wind resistance becomes. For example, when you are cruising along at 10 miles per hour on a flat road, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to maintain speed; however, if you are riding that same road at 20 mph, around 80 percent of your effort is used to combat wind resistance. Equipment that is specifically designed to reduce this effect, such as the lightweight bikes with aerodynamic frames, skin suits, aero wheels, and aero helmets that you see the pros wear are available for purchase, but don’t feel you have to spend a lot of money to explore this disciplined type of racing. If you can afford a little equipment, start with clip-on aero bars and an aerodynamic helmet, which will give you the most bang for your buck. The bars will allow you to tuck into an aerodynamic position, which will significantly reduce the effort you have to expend to maintain speed. According to Peak Performance, a British website that is devoted to competitive sports, a cyclist who is sitting up in the saddle will need to produce 340 watts of power to maintain a speed of 22 mph. However, if he or she assumes a tucked position on the bike, the power output needed to maintain speed drops to 170 watts. For this reason, aerobars are at the top of the equipment list for time trialists.
Typically, time trials take place on courses that are flat or slightly rolling. Riders are staged in intervals that range from 30 seconds to one minute. Many events held across the country and around the globe cater to masters racers. Refer to websites, such as www.USAcycling.org, ambikerace.com, and others to locate the events in or near your area.
If you want to take your pace-line skills to another level in a competitive environment, try the team time trial (TTT). In U.S. competition, four riders usually work together to quickly pace their way through a 40K course. State TTT championships for various age categories are becoming increasingly popular.
Road and Track Racing
Although time trials should be a part of your regular training regimen, the next rung on the ladder is the road race. Road racing is the essence of cycling and features venues with a huge variety of terrain and courses. This type of race allows you to test your riding skills and fitness gains while avoiding dangerous, close-contact races, such as criteriums. You will discover your strengths and weaknesses on certain courses and will learn to adjust your training to compensate. Road racing will test your limits and will satisfy your competitive desires.
Track racing is another venue to consider, and many major cities have velodromes. The main Olympic categories include pursuit, match sprinting, and team racing. At many velodromes worldwide, the focus has switched from racing to recreational training. Riding a fixed-gear bike on a banked track is an incredibly exciting experience. With basic instruction, this type of training is ideal for road riders. Great road sprinters like Mark Cavendish refined their technique for stage-winning sprints by riding on the track. My best sprints and several of my victories at masters national championships can be attributed to my group workouts at the San Diego velodrome.
Multiple-day tours are another way to increase your endurance and cycling skills while having fun. You can choose tours for mountain biking or road cycling. These tours usually involve traveling to a starting location, riding a predetermined distance each day, camping or staying in arranged accommodations, and returning to the starting point with tour guides. Meals are usually included in the price. Tours can last from two days to a week, or longer, and some linger for several days in a particular location to allow time for sightseeing. The fees for one Italian bike tour include travel to the starting point, full van support, four-star accommodations, wine tasting, and a commemorative jersey.
Although they are billed as tours, many rides can be fairly competitive, as my friend and fellow masters rider, Judy, found during a recent tour in the Pyrenees with her boyfriend, Jim. “We had a GPS, so we were self sufficient and really enjoyed the scenery. In the mountains, the young testosterone-driven guys just rode away from us and beat each other up. They were all former racers. You never really know who is going to sign up for these smaller rides.” Therefore, riding with a smaller tour group may prove to be either a wonderful training experience or an exercise in frustration, depending on your level of ability. It may be prudent to train for the specific requirements of the ride and ask the organizers about the number, riding experience, and ages of participants before signing on. Ask about GPS mapping and custom tours and, for safety’s sake, about the number of support vehicles and support personnel that will be present, as well as their qualifications. On the larger multiday tours, many levels of ability are usually represented, and you are less likely to be left behind.
Read more about Mastering Cycling.