1. Taking part in local races is a satisfying experience. There is pleasure to be gained in the rituals of preparation – cleaning and maintenance of the bike, preparing drinks and snacks, checking the route and planning (usually imaginary) strategies. There is catching up with old acquaintances, making new ones, and seeing others’ new bikes and equipment and team kit. There is atmosphere to soak up and the small satisfaction of supporting the volunteers from the clubs who put on the races and who do so out of a love of the sport – whose only reward seems to be praise (tempered by inevitable criticism) from us racers.
Racing is also a humbling experience. You can have been carving it up on Strava, but riding in and against a larger group inevitably results in a realization that one’s condition is just not quite good enough. Even if you podium in your category, you know that the next ability level is much, much harder. It is a truism in cycling that you get out of it what you put in. That is, the most difficult ‘talent’ to develop for racing is endurance, simply because it takes time – a commodity we do not always have. Turning up for a 70+ kilometre race at tempo and threshold speed having ridden only shorter rides at such intensities will simply not be good enough.
That said, endurance is a simple talent to develop in theory. You just need to ride. Lots. So, keeping your expectations realistic when sitting on the start line is important. In some way, it is probably less frustrating to be dropped two laps from the finish, having not really been prepared for the race distance, than to have rocked up with a couple of thousand kilometres in your legs from the start of the year only to see things fall apart in the final half lap (for whatever reason).
2. Getting dropped is statistically the overwhelmingly likely outcome from any racing experience. It might happen early, late, or even at the end in the final sprint. But it will happen. One had better get used to it, although there will always be the post-race reflection on the moment of its occurrence (we take our racing seriously after all) and whether one could have just made a final dig to delay it happening.
Getting dropped in the sprint happens quickly, so it is difficult to reflect on it fully. But when it happens at a slower speed, there are those agonizing moments when the wheel you are following starts to slip away, the elastic stretches – as they say – before snapping. And even though just a few metres seems an easy gap to close, it inexorably becomes a chasm that is impossible to bridge. And you’re done.
Those with less experience tend to find getting dropped a frustrating experience, as if all the effort (and financial cost) of turning up and taking part has somehow been invalidated by being left behind. But getting dropped is the norm and investing it with too much emotional energy just leads to unwarranted disappointment. We are racing not for glory (okay, perhaps those upgrade points are important) but because we can and because racing in the bunch and following wheels and making attacks and pulling on the front and passing others on the climbs is, simply, all good fun.
Having been dropped, there is always the option of heading back to the car park and packing up to go home. But better to finish the race and clock your time to see how far down you were. ‘Race to train’ means that next time those extra endurance miles might push the moment of the elastic snapping until later in the race, perhaps even in the final sprint. Then one’s moment of self-reflection will not be on the quiet back straight as the bunch slips away but on the finishing sprint and those agonizing choices of when to go, which wheel to follow, the gear to choose, and whether just a bit more effort might have given one a spot on the podium.
3. Success on the bike cannot be bought or borrowed. It comes from talent and luck, from hard work, time and effort. We delude ourselves if we think our racing is anything more than it actually is. But it feels good to push oneself. And if there is a small slice of modest glory, it feels like a triumph over life’s normal routine.
There is also camaraderie and being part of a larger community gathering. And when, in future years, you see a former young local rider at the Tour de France racing as a professional, you can have some small satisfaction of thinking back to the local scene where they got their start, and how by participating in it and supporting it you played a tiny role in giving that rider the opportunity to progress. And if you are really, really lucky, maybe you will have a cool story to tell your friends about how you once followed their wheel.