So at the behest of a friend, or by the flight of fancy, or out of a desire to see your sense of financial- and self-preservation dissipate as you approach a white line after an excruciatingly painful hour of riding an expensive piece of plastic and metal around in a circle, lungs searing, legs aflame—and for what? $50? Bragging rights? For Hecuba!?—that is to say, for whatever reason, you have decided to race your bicycle on the road.
To you, I say: Welcome to the club. We’re gonna have a lot of fun. And Tim Krabbe’s book, The Rider’s opening lines are going to be so much more pellucid:
“June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of their lives shocks me.”
Here’s the thing though—the racers affiliated with this bicycle shoppe are something of an exception to the rule, put forward by the venerable bikesnob NYC, that road bike racers are “fastidious, snotty, and aloof.” He has a point, though, when he says, “Because road cycling is steeped in tradition (and occasionally garnished with attitude), every single aspect of road cycling – from clothing choice to equipment choice to hand signals to which way to pull off the front of a paceline – is governed by rules.” Additionally, there is a distinct lexicon, familiar only to the initiated. Here, I’d like to let you in on at least a few of the “rules” the regular roadies follow, or at least expect others to follow even as they may only selectively apply to themselves. When reading these, note that neither I nor my employer endorse any of these as imperatives. Consider them encouraging reminders of how to fit in. We simply want you to be aware that the cycling scene is like high school, and roadies are the plastics. Blend in with your surroundings, or be eaten alive.
1. A road racer has shaved legs.
Nothing says “this guy is a noob” like hairy legs. There is much hemming and hawing about whether there are “legitimate” reasons, that is, empirical proof that it is demonstratively deleterious to your performance to not shave them. But really it comes down to tradition.
2. Do not arrive to the race in kit, unless you rode your bike to it.
Obviously there are hygienic considerations here. If you drive up in kit, you have nothing to change into after the race. That means a drive home in a sweaty chamois. If that happens, I promise your partner won’t be doing you any favors that evening, even if you were the day’s big winner. Unless there’s a podium to stand on, chamois time is over 10 minutes after the race. Guys, strip off the jersey immediately upon dismounting and fold your bib straps (not shorts, bibs!) down so everyone can see your tan lines. Change into appropriate casual clothing between two car doors, and don’t forget to bring a towel!
3. Pin your number on properly.
Upside down numbers are a dead giveaway that you don’t know what you’re doing. If you want to be über pro, use 3M spray to adhere your number to your jersey—or, better, skinsuit—in the most aerodynamic way possible
4. Learn who everyone is. But don’t act like you know anyone until the race is over.
Again another characteristic typical of the “noob,” smiling or saying hi before the race indicates that you are not as serious as they. The competition will sense that you perhaps have a social life outside of cycling wherein you learned this peculiar characteristic some call “being personable.” Be prepared to be driven into the barriers in the sprint.
5. Keep your drivetrain away from yourself.
First off, your drive train, along with your bike, should be clean upon arrival to every race. Wash it the night before. Almost all bike chains are grey, not black. They do not squeak. They shift when shifted, in a 1:1 ratio. More importantly, though, is that grease does not adorn any inch of your hands, bibs, jersey, and above all else, your calves! This is what’s known as a “cat-5 tattoo.”
This mark earned its name in virtue of the fact that many category 5 racers (the category in which all USA Cycling riders must start their first 10 races) annoit themselves with their greasy drive trains while straddling their top tube.
6. Lastly, sprint in your drops.
It is more comfortable to ride with your hands on the hoods, but it is more powerful to ride in the drops. In the drops: you have more leverage on the pedals down there, especially while standing (compare rider on the left vs. rider on the right); you are lower and therefore more aerodynamic; and you have more control of the bike in case you get bumped. Plus, you don’t look as ridiculous as the guy in the orange helmet (me in my first usac race). I’ve considered adding to this list the advice “don’t get an orange helmet,” but it sort of depends on what matches your kit.
Now hopefully you are at least comfortable showing up to the race. Next time I’ll try to write a primer on talking the talk and looking something of the part of a road racer. Once that’s in your purview, you may want to consider graduating to looking PRO. Doing so requires adhering to several more rules, to be discussed in future posts. Once you achieve PRO status, you can further enhance your status by becoming “Euro.” This is sort of like Dr. E. R. Bloomquist’s rank of “cool,” or the Kierkegaardian religious—except in roadie world probably the aesthetic comes on top. Lost? Apologies—go watch Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to catch the allusion. Anyway… To be Euro, you must stridently adhere to the rules set forth in the Official Rules of the Euro Cyclist. As the authors note, being euro is not just a posture or a lifestyle—it is a state of being. Embrace it. Now that you’re a racer, you’re so far from the mainstream, so deeply embedded into our zany subculture, there’s no turning back. You might as well go all-in!