Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Cyclist's Reference: Organized Rides (and Races)

One thing I hear a lot about is people talking (read: complaining) about how a group ride is run.  I'm going to take off the gloves here and give some definitions to different ride types so everyone can be prepared for what they might encounter.

A dictionary, as it were.  We'll start with Organized Rides.

Organized Rides

Let's define an Organized Ride.  These are events that have event directors with some amount of support staff enabling the event.  They have (a) specific start time(s), (a) pre-planned, published route(s), (always) have some sort of entry fee (pay-to-play).

T-Shirt Ride (or Bicycle Rally): 90% of the "bicycle races" you see are actually T-Shirt rides.  These are not races, despite what most of the participants might try to tell you.  These are gatherings of recreational cyclists of varying levels of talent and skill, many with an over-inflated sense of capability, lightly spiced with a small number of local riders (read: racing experience) with some amount of "real talent."  They're called t-shirt rides because you typically get a unique t-shirt with your paid $30-60 registration, although some give out other items like socks, hats, and other goodies.

Commonly as dangerous as races, sometimes not as well insured, heavily enabled by volunteers, with some known for the qualities of their rest stops (Best baked goods!  Volunteers all in reed skirts and coconut halters!).  Most rallies have some roving vehicle support (called SAG) and rest stops usually every 10-15 miles along routes typically ranging from 10 miles to 60 miles, occasionally with 100 mile routes.

Expect a race-pace start that quickly sheds the less talented/skilled while creating many opportunities for conflicts between people with fitness, talent, and those with less.  Once the riders are suitably divided, groups tend to cooperate with the intent of keeping the pace high and finish as quickly as possible.

This set is the most likely to brag about how fast they did 100k.  Mind you, they probably wheelsucked the whole way, and even if they survived the 99k they were probably dropped when the pace accelerates to sort out the "winner."

USAC Races: In the rare event you see a real bicycle race (in the US), it's very likely a USAC (USA Cycling) sanctioned race.  These are events on partially closed courses where fields are made up of similarly-skilled riders enabling a real sense that anyone could win.  This is where the "local talent" looks to be "discovered," even when the vast majority of them are a decade or more past any chance of being "seen," even if they were actually fast enough to catch someone's eye.

Races are where the real hard riding happens.  If you think a T-Shirt ride is hard, you have experienced nothing until you're in a pack of evenly matched riders all riding near your limit as others strive to push everyone over their limit.

There is no doubt that these riders are among the most fit of all cyclists, but many take themselves or their hobbies too seriously and that arrogance makes them standoffish around most of the cycling community.  (Especially commuters and the hipster set.)

To racers, finishing "on the podium" is really all that matters.  And when they're on the podium, all that matters is being on top of the podium - i.e., first place.

Brevets (RUSA): French for "too f**king far", Brevets are self-supported long-distance rides with pre-defined routes and specified checkpoints to ensure all participants complete the course.  These events are where you see generally older riders who "can't ride fast anymore" with heavier bikes loaded with panniers and fenders creeping along under miserable conditions at all hours of the day.

For these riders, it's a point of pride to have a 30lbs bicycle with 20lbs gear, and riders that roll up on modern carbon with aero wheels are quickly ostracized.  This set measures success by the mile, not by the minute; it's not about being fast, it's about how far you can go.

For this group, it's survival that matters.  They won't talk about how fast they ride because, frankly, it's embarrassing.  Instead, they'll try to one-up a racer's first place or a rally rider's 2h20m 100k with their survival of a 1200km permanent in the heat of summer.

UMCA Races: If you're at a timed event with some ridiculous distance to cover, able to have a team but can't ride together, and plain confused about what what the hell you're doing, you're probably at UMCA race.  This is the intersection of the RUSA crowd and the USAC crowd, where speed and distance both matter, where you play the gamble between minimalist gear and the chance you'll need that gear to finish.

This is the world of no sleep.  And (almost) everyone knows how to not sleep.  This is about as accessible as racing gets, while being about as un-serious as racing gets; the range of participation shows that.  When looking at the starting line, the only difference between a T-Shirt ride and a UMCA race is ... well ... nothing.  There will just be fewer people at the UMCA race.

Many UMCA races have an "everybody's a winner" mentality, giving out trophies for being upright with a pulse - and having turned over the pedals for whatever minimum distance the event required.  These events usually break down the competition by bicycle type (upright, recumbent, sometimes mountain), then solo riders by gender, age; or by team make-up, all men, all women, or mixed.

This makes for an interesting award ceremony, with sleep-deprived racers barely conscious as hundreds of over-sized trophies are awarded.

There you have it.  A list of Organized Rides.  Now you have a sense what you can expect when you decide to try one of these out.

Which you should!  I've done all but Brevets (and, someday, when I'm slow, I'll do that too), and I've enjoyed every one of them.

Stay tuned for my next installment: Informal Group Rides.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Organizing a Pick-Up Ride

I started riding again over 10 years ago.  I quickly moved from a hardtail mountain bike that I rode on local trails to an entry-level road bike - a 2004 Specialized Allez Elite - which expanded my horizon from trails to roads.

In my explorations one day I ran across a group of riders congregated in the parking lot of a large park.  I stopped and chatted and learned of the Group Ride.

I'd done T-Shirt rallies, organized rides with support and rest stops where you could get cookies and sport drink, but I'd not considered the idea that riders might ride in larger groups elsewhere.  Yes, I was naive.

So I joined what was the Tuesday/Thursday Benbrook pick-up ride.  It was a salty bunch, with guys who wouldn't hesitate to tell you what you're doing wrong.  They wouldn't hesitate to tell you when they were impressed, either, but it's always the critiques we remember.

I learned a lot.  And I got much faster.

After a year, I started to earn a nickname - Red Chris, because I rode a red bike, wore kit that was largely red, red helmet and red sunglasses.  I might have been a bit of a Fred, complete with hairy legs, but I was color coordinated.

Over time I earned the respect of the group - I was a consistent and safe rider, cautious and respectful of everyone.  I also started to earn a reputation as one of the big dogs.  I wasn't the fastest, but I wasn't afraid to challenge the faster guys - while putting hurt on the slower ones.

Life changes moved me away from the ride.  Where I used to be an easy 15 minute ride from the start, I was now, and still am, a 45 minute traffic-mangled drive away.  Don't get me wrong, I wasn't the anchor, but I was a center of gravity.  I left about the same time as a couple others and within two seasons the ride had largely disappeared.

Quite sad.  It had a great route with a really good group of riders.  Even more, little took its place, the vacuum only partly filled with trail-based rides and lots of solo riders doing their own thing.

My racing team, MBBC Racing, participates in a ride that starts on the Trinity Trail here in Fort Worth.  The ride was originally a moderate-pace recreational ride, but our team has largely converted it into a training and sometimes race-pace ride.

The Trinity Trails are a wonderful thing, but a training ground they are not.  I rarely ride them as they are simply unsuitable for the level of riding I'm capable of, a pace that is disrespectful of the vast majority of trail users.  Our team shouldn't be, either.

Part of being a member of a community is giving back to it.  I am very fortunate that I had access to some very talented riders early in my return to riding, and I'd like to give others the same.  At the same time, it helps protect the valuable resource we have - the Trinity Trails - for those who use it as it was intended.

I'm resurrecting the ride, and planning to lead it through the woods of the first season.  I want to create a place where people can learn from others, where they can push themselves; I want to re-install the lower rungs on the bicycle performance growth ladder.  There is no better place to be than on the wheel of someone faster than you, digging to hold on.

If you're in the Fort Worth area, look us up.  If not, look around your area.  Find a good group, or help create one.  If you're fast, give the rest of us a chance to get stronger with your help.  If you're trying to get stronger, join a group that pushes your limits and work to keep up.  You'll get there.

It's all about the group ride.  Get out there and enjoy it.