This is a column about bike racing. It is not a column about how to bike race. For that, you'll need to find someone who knows what they're talking about.
For the 40-plus adult years that I've ridden a bike as a commuter and recreational rider, I had never thought once about racing a bike. Well, I may have thought briefly about it, but quickly dismissed it, as the odds were against me.
I looked at it this way: If there are 50 cyclists in a race, only one can win, meaning there are 49 losers. No one wants to be a loser (unless it's a diet contest, I suppose). And I didn't want to crash. Healing requires time off the bike.
But a little more than a year ago, Tim Grossnickle, organizer of the Good Life Games in Pinellas County, twisted my arm. The Good Life Games are only for people 50 and older. He convinced me that, having seen a number of tumbles and falls in many aspects of life, senior riders place heavy emphasis on finishing the race "rubber side down," as is often said.
That doesn't mean they aren't competitive. But unlike in the Tour de France, all that winners of the Good Life Games get are bragging rights.
So in March 2014, I entered the Good Life 40-kilometer race held at Fort De Soto. I didn't win, but I finished high enough to qualify for the 2015 Florida Senior Games. And then there, I qualified for the National Senior Games, held earlier this month in Minneapolis.
There is no storybook ending here. In Minneapolis, I finished 17th out of 39 riders, 4 1/2 minutes behind the lead pack of 15. We went out fast and by the end of the third of eight laps around the Minnesota Fairgrounds I was riding alone. I did that for another three or four laps before I caught the last guy to be dropped.
But even then I missed my moment. I know nothing about racing etiquette, so as I sprinted with 100 meters to go, I thought I saw the other rider not responding. I thought, "Maybe you're not supposed to sprint for 16th place." So I let up as I approached the finish line. The other rider zipped by and beat me by 0.006 seconds. Maybe it was wrong of me to try to capture some modicum of glory, but my feelings afterward are unprintable.
I had tried visualization in the weeks before the race, envisioning myself out of the pedals overtaking the leadout guys and raising my arms in triumph. I saw myself on the podium, with pictures posted on Facebook. There is no podium for 17th place.
But I am hooked. I wouldn't be if what I had thought about bike racing was true: that it was cutthroat and there is only one winner and a bunch of losers. I've heard that in younger age groups it is indeed a rough and tumble (literally) racing world. But in my brief racing career among the senior set it's quite different. Everyone seems supportive. As I sat on the start line, a guy I hadn't met reached his hand out to me and said, "Good luck." The day before, I had ridden the course with other contestants. One, a woman, was telling us what our tactics should be. "Don't lead through this downhill." "Get on a wheel on this stretch." "Start your sprint here." She obviously knew what she was talking about, as she won gold the next day. I ran across her at the bike mechanics station. "Good luck," she said. "Go get 'em."
After the Good Life Games, which are held twice a year in Pinellas County, everyone meets for lunch and awards. Third place, even if there are only three riders in your age group, is cheered and congratulated as if it were a stage of the Tour de France. I'm sure it's the same at other senior games throughout the state.
I plan to continue racing, maybe only three or four times a year, though I'm not clear why. Certainly finishing 17th provides plenty of room for improvement. But your time, whether it's a 40K or 20K road race or a time trial where riders race alone against the clock, often can't be compared because each race course is different.
There is just something about it. Maybe it brings back childhood memories of racing to the street corner with my friends on my blue, balloon-tire, coaster-brake Columbia bicycle. Maybe it's the camaraderie of guys and gals looking to recapture a little of the glory days, reassured that Medicare covers bicycle injuries. Or maybe it's the look on the faces of some contemporaries when you tell them, "I race bikes," though I'm not sure if it's one of admiration, sympathy or bewilderment.
But one thing I can tell you for sure: Sprint, even if it's for 16th place. You won't regret it.
Bob Griendling, 67, writes for the Personal Best section. He is president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Contact him at [email protected]