The weekly spin: I used to be a bike racer

by Neal Rogers


I used to be a bike racer. Not a very good one, mind you. But I was once someone who paid entry fees, pinned on numbers, and spent weekends suffering on two wheels.

I’m not sure what I’d call myself now.

I have a cyclocross bike hanging in the garage, covered in dust, with two deflated tires. I should probably sell it, just like I sold my TT race bike a few years ago. But I can’t bring myself to part with it, still hanging on to the hope that when fall rolls around I’ll be fit and motivated to get out there and taste the pain.

Hanging next to that dusty cyclocross bike is a dirty gravel bike, more similar in utility to the ’cross bike than it is different. In my mind, one is a race bike and one is an adventure bike, while in reality, either bike could be used for both. Yet the gravel bike has fully inflated tires, and is ready to go at a moment’s notice.

I think this dichotomy — riding for competition versus riding for exploration — pretty well sums up the crossroads where I find myself a month out from my 46th birthday.

Six weeks from now is the Boulder Roubaix, my favorite local road race on the calendar. I first raced it in 2002; I last did it in 2017. I wasn’t unhappy with my last result — a mid-pack finish after spending some time off the front in the first half before I was dropped and alone in the wind. I got a bit of a fitness bump from the effort, and most importantly, I had a good time.

That was the last time I pinned on a number. Now, two years later, I’m wondering if I ever will again.

•••

When it comes to racing bikes, talent has always been my missing ingredient. In high school, I was a track sprinter. I won a bunch of races, and to be honest, success came easily. I had talent. But they all lasted under a minute; by the time it really began to hurt, it was over.

For me, adapting to endurance cycling has been a persistent struggle against fast-twitch, cramp-prone muscle fibers and a very average physiology. I learned early on that I would never be as lean, nor last as long, as other riders. When your functional threshold is 3.6w/kg, bike racing is about being the best you can be — not about beating others.

I bought my first “real bike” in 1995 — a steel Gary Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo with Gripshift and a RockShox Quadra 21 fork — and did my first mountain-bike race a few months later. I finished in the top 10 of a beginner category that had over 100 people. Only a few years removed from winning running races in high school, I thought maybe I had a shot as a competitive cyclist.

As it turns out, a top 10 in the beginner category of a 1995 cross-country race would prove to be one of my better results. Ever. Since then I’ve raced mountain, road, cyclocross, time trials, and triathlons, and while I’ve had some good days, I’ve never crossed a finish line with my arms in the air, never been called up to the podium presentation.

Still, I grew enamored with the sport. How could you not? Mountain biking was in the Olympics! An American, who had been diagnosed with cancer, had just won the Tour de France! I couldn’t win races, so I decided to write about those who could instead.

And in my own racing, I learned to suffer. I couldn’t be better than the others, but maybe I could be tougher. I developed a doctrine of sorts — when you’re at your limit, as deep into the red as you can go, you can actually relax and take comfort in the fact that it can’t get any worse. You’ve found the bottom, and there’s only one way to go from there. I learned how to grind it out.

Suffering, I convinced myself, was actually a good thing, a very stark reminder that you are, in fact, alive and breathing on this earth. And occasionally you might even be so blessed to have your most profound epiphanies while digging deepest.

At the front of Colorado’s Koppenberg Road Race, in 2011. I didn’t win.

To be clear, I didn’t buy a bike to get into racing. I’ve always known that I would continue riding whether or not I ever competed again. Cycling for me is about freedom and fitness, fresh air and sunshine. I’ve often joked that I photosynthesize while out on the bike.

But for whatever reason, through peaks and valleys, I’ve always returned to racing.

Lately, however, my relationship with suffering has changed. As British cyclocross star Helen Wyman wrote in her recent retirement announcement, you reach a point where the fight just isn’t there any more. (No, I’m not comparing myself to a world-class professional, but yes, this happens to amateur racers as well.)

Everyone has different reasons for losing that fight. And while it’s easy to point to physiological changes — a slower metabolism, a drop in testosterone — it’s the lifestyle changes that stand out most.

The birth of my daughter, in 2016, was a turning point. No longer could I disappear into the mountains for hours. Not only did I need to help out at home, I didn’t want to miss out on anything. On top of all that, when a toddler is running around, there’s really no room for blissfuly fatigued Saturday afternoons glued to the couch.

Upon becoming a father, the move away from the mindset of competing was gradual, and largely subconscious.

I had an excuse for every month. In May, I was on the road, at the Amgen Tour of California. In June, ruinous pollen allergies kept me indoors. In July, morning coverage of the Tour de France forced me to miss the coolest part of the day; by the time I was free to ride, it was often hair-dryer-in-your-face hot outside. In August, a stupid crash kept me off the bike and left me with a lingering injury.

Altogether, I’d barely ridden in months. I lost fitness. I gained weight. The bike-racer voice whispering in my ear grew faint, until I stopped listening altogether.

Putting our daughter into daycare brought with it a recurring series of low-level illnesses. Rather than rolling out to meet the boys for the weekly group ride, Saturday mornings transitioned into watching a live stream of European bike races over pancakes and coffee. Daylong road rides were replaced by 90-minute gravel excursions during nap time.

I suppose the truth of it all is that my priorities had shifted. Spare time, once freely abundant, became limited. I grew more interested in holding my daughter than holding my threshold power on a 30-minute climb. To every thing there is a season, the saying goes, and a time to every purpose.

•••

These days, I don’t spend a lot of time or energy thinking about being fast on a bike. I’ll take a comfortable endurance bike with a tall head tube and reasonable amount of drop over a twitchy aero race bike every day of the week. I prefer wide tires with low pressure. I don’t even own an aero helmet. I’m happy to run aluminum wheels, because I don’t worry as much about breaking them. I’m more interested in where I’m going than what, or how, I’m riding.

Then again, maybe I am a bike racer. I still care about bike-racer things. I still strive for Strava PRs. I still use a power meter. I still watch my weight — or rather, I should say I began watching my weight again. I still shave my legs, but not until springtime, and the tan lines are mostly gone.

I have an indoor bike in the basement, and I’ve been riding it with some regularity. I’ve recently considered jumping into a Zwift race, a thought I would never have entertained just a few years ago, for a whole host of reasons.

More than anything, I still don’t like being dropped.

I had to include this finish photo from a very rainy 2013 Gran Fondo New York mainly because it makes me laugh every time I see it. Photo: Sportograf.com.

I still pencil races into my calendar, with the idea that it could make for a good target, should the stars align. This year I’ve committed to doing several Roll Massif events, a series of Colorado gran fondos across the spring and summer that strike that perfect balance between competition and adventure. Want to hammer the timed segments? Go for it. Want to ride hard at times, but also stop at aid stations, enjoy the scenery, and have a few conversations? You can do that, too.

Events like these are a perfect combination of the type of riding I enjoy these days and my current level of interest in competition.

I’ve also challenged Jonathan Vaughters, EF Education First team manager, to a battle up Boulder’s local climb, Flagstaff Mountain. It’s the culmination of years of lighthearted trash talk between the two of us (okay, mostly me) — an idea I came up with when I was riding a lot more and he was showing the signs of a life spent on the road, peppered with full-bodied wines and rich cheeses. We’re scheduled to do it in September.

Vaughters and I are only a few months apart in age, and roughly the same height and weight. One key difference between us, however, is that he set a record on Mont Ventoux in 1999, but more or less stopped riding after he retired in 2003. I’ve never even won an amateur bike race, but was averaging 250-350 hours a year when I came up with the idea, a decade ago.

Another key difference — he’ll be paced by EF Education First riders (most likely Boulder guys like Alex Howes and Taylor Phinney) while I’ll be paced by CyclingTips Podcast co-hosts Caley Fretz and James Huang. So there’s that.

While racing one another, we’ll also be aiming to break the 30-minute threshold to the summit of Flagstaff. In order to do that, we’ll need to average 4w/kg, a target I was never able to reach when I was 10 years younger and riding eight hours per week.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I can’t be taking off on five-hour weekend rides like I used to, but I can train smarter than I used to. I work from home now, and can pay closer attention to my diet. And I’m lighter than I was 10 years ago, which will prove important, as the last time I saw Vaughters he was looking leaner than I’d expected. Apparently, he’s taking it seriously.

My daughter will turn three in July. She’s got a balance bike, and we live a kilometer from Valmont Bike Park, host to the 2014 national championships, where I plan on spending a lot of time this summer. Boulder has a thriving junior cyclocross program, and there are usually a few races held at the bike park every fall. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where, four or five years from now, assuming she’s interested, we pedal over to the park together, each competing in our respective categories.

For Flagstaff, I’ll need to be fast, but only for 30 minutes. For cyclocross, I’ll need to be fast, but only for 45 minutes.

I used to be a bike racer. Will I be one again?

It’s impossible to predict the future, but the fire is still burning. I don’t think I’ll sell that ’cross bike just yet.

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