To race or not to race? Is that your question?

I suppose I should introduce myself first, seeing as how this is my first post on this blog. My name is Heather Nielson and I’m a Cat 2 road racer for Touchstone Climbing. I’m also a Cat 3 on the Track and CX. I’m originally from Utah (mostly southern) and moved out to Northern California ~2 1/2 yrs ago to chase my delusions of grandeur dream of racing ‘Pro’. I knew that Northern California was the best place to be for chasing that dream. Yes, I currently have a day job as a lab chemist but I also have my USAC Level 2 coaching certification and am actively involved in the cycling community.

I was invited by Michael and Kurt to be a guest blogger here and I jumped at the opportunity. They expressed their desire to have someone who is a local cyclist talk about cycling from a racers perspective. My first thought was to try and generate a dialogue between myself and the readers about questions/thoughts *you* might have about racing in general. I’m not sure if that will work, but feel free to comment on my posts or contact me at nielson.heather (at) and we’ll go from there.

I thought I’d start off with that question that you may have already, especially if you’re mainly a recreational cyclist: ‘Do I want to race?’ And, ‘Why should I?’

First of all, let me make it clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being (only) a recreational cyclist! If that’s what you want and you find yourself satisfied with that, then that’s perfect. There’s no right or wrong path to take while you’re pedaling, it’s your journey and only you can answer those questions for yourself. I don’t believe in forcing anyone to race; and when I talk to potential clients or beginners just starting out riding, I’m always trying to find out why it is they wanted to start riding a bike in the first place. Riding a bike is an expensive hobby by nature; and racing is a whole other level. The ‘over-head’ required to race – entry fee, travel, early morning weekend-wake-up calls, the minimum amount of training required to even survive, gear, food, time away from other things like a personal life etc. can be enough to shy most people away from the sport of bike racing. What’s the point right? It’s not like a sport like basketball, soccer, football, tennis, etc. where your chances are quite literally 50% to win (whether you’re on a team or not). In bike racing, you’re going to LOSE BIG many more times than you’ll win. Have I talked you out of it yet? Let’s see if I can do better…..

Allow me to paint the picture. Wake up call: 6:00 am. You’re already nervous. You go through the motions and your check-list, you’ve done this 100 times before. You make breakfast, pack your car with all the necessary equipment, and get your bike ready. You start your ~2 hr drive to the race start during which 1,000 things run through your mind about who your competitors are, what their fitness is like, the course and whether it suits you or not, your team and the role you’re expected to play, the weather, whether your training has been sufficient, how tired you are from your nervous night of sleep all the while your ‘race appropriate’ music is blaring inside the cabin of your vehicle. You get there, are directed to the parking space, sign in and get your race number. You talk with your fellow racing friends and your teammates, go back to your car and set up your bike, water bottles and get your kit on (by this time your nerves are causing you to be clumsy with just about everything). You check your watch and do the mental count-down to race start. You begin your pre-determined warm-up, with music blaring through your iPod, finish your warm-up and get to the race start. You’re on the start-line, your heart-rate is 20 bpm higher than it should be for anyone just standing around. You listen to the instructions of the officials, although you’re not sure if you actually heard anything they said. The whistle blows……

Your nerves disappear and you feel like you’ve become this indestructible machine that inherently knows exactly how to race. ‘I need to move up-why are they going so slow?-Who’s at the front?-Okay someone attacked-Let the pack bring them back-Don’t waste your energy this soon-(the hammer goes down)-your breathing louder than you’d ever admit to doing-your tongue is practically hanging on the top tube-they’re gapping!-close that gap!-don’t lose that wheel-move up!!-another attack-I need to be closer to the front-the screech of carbon and metal and a nervous cry echoes around you-a crash behind you-stay calm-a lull in the race-PERFECT!-you move up-you’re reading the race-you already know what’s going to happen before it happens because you have those racing instincts-you also know what your ‘job’ is for your team-no matter how bad it hurts or how fast you’re going when the person in front of you attacks who you know is a threat to the team-YOU GO-you pump out more watts while answering that single attack than you thought you were capable of-you sit down-a quick glance behind and you know you’ve got a gap-LET’S GO!-It’s you and the break and a solid TT effort for X number of miles in the slim chance that you’ll stay away-It’s 5 K to go and the group hasn’t caught you-For some reason you believe that you can actually win this race as you look around at who’s left in the break-2K to go-The cat and mouse game starts-You already know where you’re going to attack before the final turn into the finish because you know you can’t out-sprint so & so-Like a cat that knows exactly when to pounce on its’ prey you attack at the perfect spot-You sit down-Look behind you-IM AWAY!-The balls to the wall effort for the next 3 min will make you suffer more than you ever thought you could-50 meters to the finish and you can hear them behind you-Your mouth is wide open gasping for every available molecule of oxygen left in the ether surrounding you-You throw your bike across the finish line and through blurred eye-balls you notice that the gap between you and the next wheel is only a few millimeters’…….and for that moment in time the clouds part and you believe in that competitive athlete that you know you already are.

The very few times that happens while you’re a bike racer for some reason makes you ‘tick.’ You know, that all those miles, all the time in the saddle, all the sacrifices you made, the money you spent was about more than just those few millimeters. The journey to those millimeters across that finish line taught you more about yourself, pushed you more than you thought possible, humbled you, strengthened you, built some incredible relationships and helped you discover yourself over and over again.

That’s why I race. Do you wanna? :-)

  1. #1 by Sera on March 6, 2011 - 8:43 am

    Thanks for the insight Heather, I enjoyed reading that! And if I wasn’t sure before, I’m now absolutely certain that I want to stick to recreational riding, I really don’t deal with stress well and racing sounds terrifying!

  2. #2 by bikerly on March 7, 2011 - 10:08 am

    Hey, another cool blog to add to my Saturday read list! Congrats, TalkingTreads, on convincing Heather to blog for you. She says the craziest sh*t – which is why I read her stuff. Always. Or at least most of the time.

    Heather, I think I’m a guy who rides a bike – not a racer. Can we still be friends? :)

    • #3 by Michael on March 7, 2011 - 12:46 pm

      Convince? Have you ever asked Heather to talk about cycling? It went a little like this…”do you want to write about cyc…”


  3. #4 by hernando on March 7, 2011 - 12:14 pm

    thanks for introducing me to the sight, Heather. i’ll be back.

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