The Competition Trap

The 2006 Frozen Hog was my first mountain bike race. 2005 had been a good cycling year for me and thanks to spinning sessions after work during the Winter, I was feeling pretty strong. The Frozen Hog came up in conversation at work and a few of us decided to do it. I didn't really know what to do, I was nervous at the start, then I just pedaled hard until the finish. It was a heady experience and I wanted more.

The next race was Lava Rama (held at Lava Hot Springs, Idaho and part of the Intermountain Cup Race Series [ICup]). It was a tough race, but still thrilling. The competition inspired me to push myself hard and it felt good to probe my limits.

I attended most of the races that year. I was just in the Beginner class, but I placed well in most races and was having fun until the last few races of the season, but I chalked that up to burnout.

The next year I moved up to Sport (I wanted a longer race and felt like I was ready for it) and raced the first ICup race, the Desert Rampage. I liked the longer distance, even though it was more trying. I finished in the bottom half of the pack, but I expected that. It felt good to get out and ride and the race provided a great excuse for a road trip.

The next race, the Cholla Challenge, beat me up pretty good. It was a long course and I fizzled at the end, going slower and slower, but I finished. I think it was this race that I started losing my excitement for racing.

I did the next race, Showdown at Five Mile Pass, and did OK and enjoyed some of it, but my racing fire just wasn't there. I did the Draper race, but the race mojo was fading.

I reflected on why I lost my enthusiasm for racing. The thought that surfaced the most was, I missed trail riding. Racing had taken me away from what I've enjoyed about mountain biking for 15+ years - exploring new trails and revisiting old favorites, grinding up a climb just to see if I can make it, taking on technical challenges, flying along sweet single-track, and bombing downhill. Sure many of these elements are present in racing, but for me, in the rush to go fast they lose their sweetness.

I also couldn't ignore several annoyances that are a part of racing. In general, the best race courses are also the worst and least scenic trails (i.e. Five Mile Pass). And conversely, the races on good single-track aren't good for racing (i.e. hard to pass). The expense was also an issue - for $35 I can buy enough gas to get me to some really good trails where I can spend the whole day riding. (And if my wife and I both race, that's $70!) Time was also a factor - the race would only last 2 hours tops, but with the pre-race prep and the after race awards it seemed to consume most of a Saturday - and Spring/Summer Saturdays are precious! Now had I really been into racing, these issues would not have mattered. But because they annoyed me it was a sign I just wasn't a racer at heart.

About this time I read an article in Cycling Utah that spoke to me. The cyclist recounted his experience of loving to do long climbs on his road bike. He got pretty good at it and decided to see how he stacked up against other climbers so he started racing. At first it was fun, but then as he focused on racing, he found his love of riding soured. He realized he needed to make a change so he stopped racing and came back to climbing solo and found his love of cycling returned.

My experience was similar. I found that when I put the brakes on racing and went back to trail riding (and other forms of recreational cycling), my enjoyment of cycling was there. I still plan to race a few times each year, as I do enjoy some of the aspects of racing. Like most things, it's all about finding the blend and balance that works for you.

Here is a brief list of things I enjoy about recreational riding:

For the mountain bike it's cruising sweet single-track, tackling some technical terrain, hitting my stride on a long climb, being out in nature (even if it's just the foothills), Moab, etc.

For the road bike it's finding my pace on a long country road, climbing the canyons, tucking a fast descent, motoring along at 25+ mph in a clockwork paceline, socializing on a century ride, etc.

Many would say that the pinnacle of cycling is racing, but I disagree. Sure competition has many positives aspects, but it has negatives too. Many racers enjoy the challenge of competition and pushing ever harder. But racing can also spawn an obsession with wining. Just today I read about an incident of poor sportsmanship at a cyclocross race, resulting in this rude gesture from one teammate to another. Nice.

No absolutes here, just find what works for you and don't be afraid to dump what doesn't work.


KanyonKris said...

My friend DJ had some good thoughts on this topic:

"I have always seen a big difference between Competition and Sport.

The fact that people want to compete in every sport does not make every sport a competition.

People who enjoy competition will always find a way to compete with other like minded people.

Their main interest is seeing how they compare with others and using the formality of a race as motivation to improve.

But the activity of the competition, the sport, is secondary.

Every sport is a great activity for competition and the most popular competitions in the world are sport related.

Competition is good and I enjoy watching someone excel and succeed.

But I think competition always diminishes the actual sport it embraces.

The more a person wants to win, the less they want to play.

I believe a sport can be pursued and expanded and made great without the motivation of wining.

It makes me very sad to see what great harm the desire to win has done to the sport of cycling."

goat said...

The only real argument you've given against racing is the time drain (and that's a pretty good argument). All that other stuff--the bits about what you like about recreational riding--you can do that and race too. It's not like being a racer means that you race every day, every weekend, or even every month.

My point is that the dichotomy you seem to be drawing between "racer" and "recreational rider" is false. You _can_ have it both ways.

That said, I of course do NOT believe racing to be the pinnacle of enjoyment in cycling. People should feel comfortable just getting on a bike and doing whatever. It's all good.

But you make it sound like the racer takes all the fun--everything you like--out of cycling...which is of course nonsense.