“I try not to make plans. Because, even the best laid plans etc. etc.” ~Brent Spiner
This isn’t a story of bitterness; and it’s not a story in search of pity. It’s a story about how even when everything is done right, things can still go wrong. As cyclists, we need to understand this. You can do all the hard training and prep for your first century, and then the temperature blazes at 110° all day and you don’t make it. You can plan your race strategy and skip those cupcakes and focus in every right way, but during the race someone makes a mistake, and you end up in something more akin to a rugby scrum instead of on the podium.
It’s also a story to show just how much goes into the events we participate in all the time. A peak behind the scenes, as it were.
This is the story of the Hilton Hill Climb Challenge.
Aero is Everything: The air is my nemesis! It impedes us in all directions, and pushes against our best efforts, stealing KOMs and sapping strength. I want a bike so aero that I need to file my ride routes with the FAA, and a position so aero Cirque du Soleil performers are looking at me saying, “Nuh uh.”
Anecdotal Evidence: Lots. Not only do you just feel faster when your gear is aero, you can even feel slower when you are riding with others that have gear more aerodynamic than you. No matter how strong you are of a rider, it’s hard to believe that the aero edge won’t surpass whatever watts reside in your legs.
Scientific Evidence: Even more. This is one of those truths that actually is true, but that we can also put far too much stock in. On flat, open roads, aero drag can account for anywhere from 70-90% of overall resistance. So yes, those aero rims and aero helmet and aero frame make a huge difference in your speed and efficiency. But there’s a lot to be said about the engine. The longer you ride, the more efficient your body becomes at riding. Not just in an aero position, but overall. And an experienced rider on a heavy, non-aero bike can still put the beat-down on a novice who got a second mortgage for their air-slicing speed machine.
There are many things that we hold true that have only anecdotal support at best, or is just stuff we were taught as kids that kinda stuck. Things like sitting too close to the TV will make you go blind (it won’t), or playing outside in the cold without a jacket will make you catch pneumonia (you won’t), or cutting your hair will make you look younger (really?).
So it is, that we cyclists – despite no supporting evidence, or even having countervailing evidence – hold some truths to be sacrosanct.
Matching Kit Makes You Faster: It’s a well-known fact that not only do you look awesome in a kit that matches from head to toe and coordinates with your gear, but it also makes you faster. That’s right. We already have a bond with our riding machines that some would call, um, disturbing. But when we take on the style of our trusty steeds, we deepen that connection ten-fold. The air, seeing the awe-inspiring beauty and power of this human/machine hybrid beast, will know: this is something to be feared, and I must move out of the way.
Anecdotal Evidence: Some. Though the colors and styling of your kit probably don’t make a physical difference – apart from say, a well-fitted race jersey or skin suit that is more aerodynamic – there’s a lot to be said about the positive effects of self-image. If you like your gear, you’ll enjoy your ride more. If you like your appearance, you’ll have a better outlook on your ride. These positive aspects on your psychology can translate to better performance.
Scientific Evidence: None.
Pickle Juice; For What Ails Ya: THE go-to cure for cramps. you just can’t beat a big batch o’ brine. A wee bit of this miracle elixir, and you’ll be back on the road in no time. The water is good for you; the salt is good for you; the pickle is good for you. Heck, just seeing the jar when approaching a rest stop helps you fight cramps.
Anecdotal Evidence: Tons. Riders of all levels will gladly eat pickles at rest stops and down shots of pickle juice if it means not cramping. Athletic trainers for decades have handed out cups of the stuff to cramping athletes. And it does work, for the most part. Some riders have tried it to no avail. Most believe it’s the salty brine that replaces lost electrolytes.
Scientific Evidence: Some. Many, many studies have been done on cramping and its causes. Some researchers believed it was dehydration – coupled with the loss of sodium and potassium – that lead to cramping. But studies have shown there isn’t a direct correlation between dehydration and cramping. Moreover, the salts and majority of the liquid don’t have enough time to be absorbed and dispersed throughout the body fast enough to stop a cramp. That’s not to say it doesn’t work: studies have shown drinking pickle juice can help cramps resolve up to 45% faster than by drinking water. So what gives? Well, leading theories now link the vinegar (or any strong sour, acidic, or spicy foods) in the pickle juice to specific triggers in the mouth, throat, and stomach (transient receptor potential and acid sensing ion channels). Stimulating one part of the nervous system tends to reduce the activity of other parts. So what seems to be most likely happening is that by drinking pickle juice, you’re really distracting the body from the cramp.
The Lighter, the Better: My bike weighs less than a fart and I haven’t eaten in three days. Let’s go climb some hills!
Anecdotal Evidence: Tons. I’ve seen people pour out some water from a bottle before a race. I’ve heard of some pretty crazy diets. And I’ve seen cyclists that are pretty scary thin. Some of them perform well. Others, perform like any other non-scary-thin rider. And far too many have targeted “race weights”, many of which aren’t realistic or healthy.
Scientific Evidence: Counter-Indicative. It’s not just about weight. You can have the lightest bike and weigh 75 lbs soaking wet, but if you don’t have any power, you won’t get anywhere. More than just being light, cyclists need to balance both weight and power output in order to be effective. Now for the pros, this formula is skewed because they have specialists: sprinters tend to be hulks, and climbers tend to be scarecrows. But even they have limits. At some point, you don’t have any more fat your body can afford to lose. So the next step is you lose muscle. And when you lose muscle, you lose power. So you may be lighter, but you’re also weaker.
[Author’s Note: Eating disorders are far-too prevalent in the cycling community. If you’re trying to lose weight, please do it in a healthy, nutritional, doctor-approved manner.]
Cat 5 is More Dangerous Than Cat 4 is More Dangerous than Cat 3…: Cat 5 racer: “Dude! I’ve gotta get my ten races so I can upgrade. These entry level racers are crazy!” Cat 4 racer: “Man, I’m glad I catted up. But it’s like those dangerous Cat 5 guys came up with me. I need to get to Cat 3. It’ll be faster and harder, but safer.” Cat 3 racer: “Phew, I survived Cat 4, and trained hard so that I can race with the Cat 3s. But These guys are seriously fast, and when they crash, it’s like their bikes explode and their medical insurance is forfeit… maybe I’d be better off racing Masters?”
Anecdotal Evidence: Some. As we continue to do longer tour rides, or we do more races and upgrade to harder categories, you’ll have more experience, and those around you doing those longer tours and harder races will also have more experience. So you should all be safer for it. But the better we get, the more risks we tend to take, and so though our skills have gone up to make us safer, our risks have gone up as well. So the whole thing can be a wash.
Scientific Evidence: Some. The Dunning-Kruger effect is strong in cycling – a little experience leads to an abundance of overconfidence, which in turn leads to dangerous behavior. And it only takes a couple of racers for this to kick, making the lowest racing levels more likely the more dangerous ones (on average). But being in faster races is inherently more dangerous – a smaller mistake can lead to a much more disastrous outcome. And you’re riding for much longer at faster speeds, giving you even more chances for an error to occur.
How fast can you think? Today, we’ll get into how fast we process information, and why a lot of what we do as cyclists needs to become second-nature; reflex, not thought.
We tend to think of the mind as this incredible super-computer, able to do amazing amounts of parallel processing, and performing innumerable calculations that we’re not even aware of. And to be honest, it is. It’s a phenomenal predictive machine, that uses all kinds of data input and previous information to make educated (and sometimes uneducated) guesses about the world and what will happen next.
Last year, with a little skill, a lot of strategy, and what I won’t deny was a decent-sized helping of luck, I managed to hammer out my first real win: top spot on the podium for the Cat 4/5. It was an incredible feeling, not least of all because it was a pretty legit win against racers whose day it could’ve easily been instead of mine.
This year my racing will be pretty limited. But I knew that no matter what else I did, win or lose, I had to come back to Crosswinds.
When is it time to say when? At what point should that towel be thrown? Sometimes, knowing when to roll away is just as important as knowing when to keep going.
We have limits. Denying limits is – frankly – stupid. The only way to push beyond your limits is to know them, to test them; to elucidate the border between the possible and impossible, allowing yourself a chance to redefine that border.
Denying that you have limits is a great way to get into trouble. If you sign up for a double-metric for next weekend and your longest ride has been 50 miles? There’s a chance you might survive, sure. But more than likely you’re setting yourself up for failure (or at minimum, a horrible time).
So why am I bringing all this up? Well, we often hear things like “just push through” and “keep pedaling” and “you can do anything you set your mind to,” yada yada yada. Velominati would quote Rule #5 – “Harden the fuck up.” All those are great. Seriously, I applaud those who continually challenge themselves: more miles, more climbing, faster speed, bigger events, tougher competition. The only way to get better is to push out of your comfort zone. But that comfort zone has a purpose, and one of the biggest purposes is to keep you safe.
Tulsa isn’t a big town. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot bigger than some microscopic towns I’ve ridden through whereby your mere presence increases the population 10%. But in comparison to most metropolitan areas, it has far more land than people.
For all that, it does have a decently sized cycling population. But again, you’re talking maybe thousands of cyclists out of almost a million people in almost 1,000 sq. miles. And out of those thousands of cyclists, maybe a few hundred racers.
Why do I bring all this up? Because I wanted to show that we’re a rare breed. Just as a cyclist, you’re already in rarefied territory. So when it’s race time, guess what? The majority of your competition is going to be made up of not only people you know, but people you probably ride with on a normal basis.
In larger metros like LA, NYC, etc., there’s hundreds of teams and thousands of racers. You could ride for weeks if not months without needing to ride with a competitor. In the Midwest, it’s more like dozens of teams and hundreds of racers, and you see your competition every other ride.
You ride again, you don’t crash, you’re happy, but… you start to wonder. Is my number almost up?
The more miles you ride or race without a crash, the more you might think, “It’s gonna be my turn soon.” The longer you ride, the more inclined you might be to think this way.
This is what’s known as the gambler’s fallacy. The idea is that given a repeated outcome, you start to mistakenly believe that this outcome is less likely to happen again. Like riding without a major incident: it’s easy to start thinking that the longer you ride without crashing, the more likely it is that a crash will happen.
You want me to tell you you’re the best, that you’re gonna win? Sorry, I got nothing.
You want the truth: here it is. There are people who are better. Faster. Stronger. Hell, they even look cooler. That ain’t mean. That’s life. But their success does not diminish you. Their speed does not make you slow. Their strength does NOT make you weak. Their win DOES NOT equate to your loss.
You. That’s it; beginning to end. You want to be better? BE better. You want to get faster? GET faster. It hurts? Push harder. You’re done? Do it again! Leave it all on the road. Tear. Yourself. Apart! For there is NO tomorrow. There is NO woulda/shoulda/coulda. There is only NOW. And now will not come again.
Sweat. Break. Bleed. And be better for it. There is only one opponent. One competitor. There is no one else. They don’t matter. It’s you. It’s only you.
You are what you are. Now go become what you want to be.