I'm glad you brought up the technology-in-bicycles issue. I was going to get into that - how cycling is not just about endurance, speed and skill, it's also about technology - but I got lazy. So I'm told, it seems on some levels, the quality of your bike has a great deal to do with how well you do. It does parallel the doping issue a bit in that doping is about technology.
So here’s the thing, the difference between a $2,000 bike and a $10,000 bike is almost meaningless. The more expensive bike may be more fun to ride*, but any performance advantage will be minimal, to the tune of a few seconds here and there. Fitness definitely matters way more than technology.
*I use may and not will here, because the higher-end bikes are typically designed for racing, and if you’re not racing (or even if you are but aren’t as limber as a 14-year-old gymnast), a more relaxed, non-race geometry** may be more comfortable and therefore more enjoyable to spend time on.
**Specialized has totally figured out how to market this with their Roubaix models—they tout it as a race bike because it’s used by pros exactly one day a year at it’s namesake event, Paris-Roubaix, an event so atypical of other road races that it’s been won in years past with Rockshox forks mounted to road bikes. The dentists, accountants, and guys who own their own insurance agencies that buy a new S-Works Roubaix every year get the cachet of thinking they’re purchasing a race bike but are happy riding them around because the upright geometry is much better suited to guys who can’t touch their toes than that of Specialized’s true race bike, the Tarmac.
But here’s the catch and why the technology arms race in bike racing is such an incredibly ludicrous dick dance: racing is all about narrow margins. Races are typically won and lost by margins of less than 1%. In Saturday’s High Uintas Classic road race, Nate P. won the Cat. 3 race by six minutes. It was a dominating victory and an unusually wide margin, yet he was only 3% faster than the 2nd place rider. 3%. Coming home from a group ride six minutes late would hardly earn a scolding, yet as a margin of victory in a bike race, it was an eternity.
Which is not to say that Nate only did 3% more work than the people chasing him. Because he won it solo. Eight kilometers into a 125k race, Nate attacked. Steve and Tyler K. were on his wheel when he went. Steve’s heart rate was 185 trying to sit in Nate’s slipstream, so he pulled the plug and was looking for someplace to hide when the peloton caught him. Tyler lasted slightly longer. Those of us who know Nate and have raced against him knew at that point that the race was over.
The first ~50k of the race are mostly uphill, but it’s only the last 12k or so of that that’s really steep. When we hit the steep part, I knew I couldn’t sustain the pace. I also knew there were a bunch of other guys who couldn’t sustain the pace, but they didn’t know it yet. I figured I would catch some of those guys and work with them to try and race back to a respectable finish.
Steve paid dearly for his effort following Nate and was one of the guys I caught. We worked with two others on the descent, caught two more, and then two more and had eight working together in a rotating paceline across the flats into Evanston. Three more caught us, the cooperation broke down, and it was a series of covering attacks from that point on.
I was cramping and suffering, and after one of the attacks with less than 5k to go, I had suffered enough and let a gap open. As I looked at the racers in front of me, I just thought about how bad I would hate myself if I let them go, so I hunkered down, ignored the pain in my legs, and pulled them back with enough time to almost catch my breath before sprinting it out to the finish.
Will and Alex finished ahead of us in 5th and 12th places, respectively, with Nick from RMCC taking the field sprint for second and with it very likely a mandatory upgrade (which is too bad because Nick is a way smart racer and one I could stand to learn from racing against).
The next morning was the TT, the discipline where guys like me who try to follow wheels and hide from the wind are exposed for the frauds they are. It’s also the discipline where technology and equipment differences, such as TT bikes, pointy helmets, skinsuits, and deep-dish wheels can make a measurable difference. But you still have to be able to sustain the effort. And I’ve so far proved that trying to keep up with other Cat. 3s during long, sustained efforts is not exactly in my wheelhouse.
The course was an out and back, with 8k to the turnaround into the wind and rolling to slightly uphill. I thought the turnaround was never going to come. Courtesy of the Cottle Service Course*, I was all super-heroed up with aero bars, aero wheels, and aero helmet. All these advantages helped me realize my desired albeit subjective result: not embarrassing myself. Here’s how I define not embarrassing myself:
- Nobody passed me—which is the first time that’s happened in a TT.
- My time was more or less in the fat part of the curve (in other words, not DFL, or even second-to-DFL).
- I was within seconds, not a minute+, of Steve.
*Service Course is the equipment warehouse for a professional cycling team where they keep bikes, components, wheels, and what not. Obviously amateur teams don’t have these things, but Daren has a well-stocked garage—including a TT helmet he had just acquired and never even used—that he kindly let me borrow for the race. It’s the next best thing to having an equipment sponsor.
I expected the TT win to be a formality for Nate, but he lost by a few seconds to Colin Joyce from Idaho. Colin is 15 years old (!).
The final stage, the criterium Sunday afternoon, is where I hoped to have my best result. Except unlike your typical crit course, it has a six block climb on every lap. As we began the race, I was thinking about the advice Bryson Perry gave his brother Brandon before the road race: you have to risk losing the race if you want to win.
I’m usually a sit in and sprint it out at the end kind of racer, but none of the previous fields had stayed together, and I didn’t expect ours to either. I burned a few matches trying to go with each of the first three attacks. Then on lap four as we hit a tricky downhill right-hand turn, I was on a bad inside line and had to touch the brakes.
That little tap on the brakes cost me enough momentum that by the time we were on the finishing straight, I had a gap to close on the field. I closed the gap, but when the pace stayed high on the climb I was popped off the back and rode the rest of the race solo. Steve held on for a solid third place finish. Colin took the stage win and second place in the GC, with the GC win going to Nate.
It hurt to lose a race like that (especially since I felt so good Thursday night at the Miller race) which gets back to my point about technology. My gap to the field was just a few seconds when I got to the top of the hill. But a solo rider not named Nate (or Peter or Norm or Dave) is no match for a group, and the seconds stretched to a minute and more by the time the race ended.
Racers want the best equipment because those narrow little gaps that will make no difference to a recreational rider can mean the difference between staying with the group and not and ultimately winning and losing in a race. Were there anything I could have done from an equipment standpoint to keep that gap from opening, you can bet I’d be thinking about it now. But the bike I’m on is as close to Pro Tour spec as any amateur racer needs, so it gets back to the rider. And this rider needs more focus on diet, training, and racing smart.