Confessions of a former Bike Snob

Race or no race, be ready to be kind

[dropcap style=”default”]Early spring races[/dropcap]

are always cold, as in in numb-hands-burning-toes cold.

Bike racing is cruel, and even the phrase “early spring races” hints at that cruelty; it’s a bait and switch moniker, and an unapologetic one.

Everything surrounding the two words “bike” and “spring” are downright jaunty; little kids and tricycles, pinks and blues, morning glories yawning on a fence, golden sun and cool breezes laced around the first kisses of warmth since last September sighed its transition to the bite of October nights.

At the start line of this early March race in Ohio, there were no colorful streamers on handlebars, and no one was singing “Frere Jacques,” despite the fact that, comparatively, we were but cycling babes. This was a Category 5 race; a race for the fresh-faced and not-so-experienced competitors.

This wasn’t my first race. But I was far from a veteran. At 48, conventional wisdom says I should be retiring from bike racing, but this is the start of my second race season. Last year was the equivalent of dipping my cautious toe into the icy pool, and although the chill momentarily took my breath away, I found myself immersed in figuring out how I could ultimately become a skilled member of The Polar Bear Swim Club — of mature bike racing.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]With as much finesse as he’d gotten into the jam, he was attempting to extricate himself from it; bare fingers gripping the chain like a lawnmower’s starter cord, yanking with a kind of frenzy that reveals both his lack of wrench skill, and his squeamishness at the approaching start.[/callout]

The previous year, I rode alone; I had no team designation next to my name on my USA Cycling Racing License, and my results bore that out. Try as I might, I could never finish any further up the field than midway. That is, when I finished. 

This year was different.

The local shop that I called “home” had formed a men’s team, and 5 others wore the same jersey as me, today, shivering in the sub-freezing morning temps.

While last year I shook from nerves, this year I only buzzed from the cold. Inside, I was quiet. I’d read voraciously. I’d adopted a specific training regimen. I was a veteran of internet forums, downloaded ebooks, had purchased an intermediate indoor trainer plan, and had hit the gym. My diet was as specific as if I was preparing for the Olympics 4 years down the road.

Right. At 53.

Meanwhile, evidence of other’s nerves was apparent.

At the start, we were all huddled together like cattle. The scene was as complete as a winter bovine picture could be, right down to the breath pulsing from our pink nostrils. It was hard to tell if we were crammed together simply because each of the category fields needed to be separate from each other — or if we were just so damned cold.

A combatant-to-be, at my immediate left shifted his weight rhythmically, arms clasped tight around his chest. He wasn’t wearing a base layer, or a long sleeved jersey. Just arm warmers and a summer weight jersey.

Noob.

Despite being a late 20-something, he had all the jitters of a teenage boy nervous at how to prepare for his first kiss or his first time behind the wheel. He told me he had completed numerous triathlons and even Iron Man races, but I knew he’d discover bicycle road racing to be altogether altogether different.

In a triathlon, you aren’t bumping elbows at 30 miles an hour, and you’re not in need of faith that the wheel 6 inches in front of yours will carve a calm path while descending a steep pitch.

Already, we were packed in like frat boys in a phone booth, and the more experienced Category 4’s in front of us had not yet been set off on their race. Somehow that just added to the cold we were feeling, because we knew that after they clipped in and headed off, we’d have to stand. And wait. Again. 

Looking over at me, my mate attempts to hide his uncertainties with a muttered, “This is going to be great. Gonna be fun. Yeah.”  He nodded, as if to further reassure himself that this was all going to be just fine.

I stood, stoic. Feeling good, actually. My arms crossed, eyes safely hidden behind mirror lenses. Beneath my helmet was a fleece-lined helmet liner. I wore full-fingered racing gloves over top Italian full-fingered liners. My wool long-sleeved base layer was over a GoreTex vest, and my arms further armored with roll-up arm warmers.

Don’t get me wrong. I was chilled.

But I was not nervous.

I was focusing on my breathing, running through a mental meditation I had learned years ago as a martial arts student, when the screeching sound of metal-against-metal yanked me out of my warm quiet.

“Damn! I was in the wrong gear!”

Just to the right of tri-guy, was a fellow Cat 5 who was behaving a bit more Cat 5 than either of us. Looking down and seeing he was in an undesirable gear with which to shove off at the gun, he’d attempted to hoist his rear wheel by by the saddle, and turning the cranks while shifting. The maneuver managed to throw his chain from the big ring all the way off the crank, so that it was now firmly wedged between his crank and his chainstays.

With as much finesse as he’d gotten into the jam, he was attempting to extricate himself from it; bare fingers gripping the chain like a lawnmower’s starter cord, yanking with a kind of frenzy that reveals both his lack of wrench skill, and his squeamishness at the approaching start.

His bike was gray.

As in “portent of doom” gray.

But I ignored any semblance of foreboding, and instead, drowned it in a healthy, heaping pile of bike snob.

Arms still crossed, I turned my head slowly from his plight, and focused instead on the race official and the moto referees mounting their bikes, and starting their engines.

After the obligatory safety lecture barked through a bullhorn, the signal was given, and we were off. We were all too jealous of the Cat 4’s who’d sped off several minutes before; by now, they’d have worked up a nice, balmy sweat.

Yet another reason to “cat up.”

I clicked into my pedals, and began getting into a rhythm, when the portent resurfaced.

“Shit!”

The voice from several places behind me was to become a familiar one. Although he’d managed to hoist his chain back on to his crank, he failed to address the reason for it’s coming untracked in the first place: a woefully adjusted front derailleur. No sooner than we’d all gotten onto the main straight, had he decided to shift up into his big ring.

Never mind that we were barely moving at this point. Never mind that virtually everyone knew the best thing to do was to just get spun up and warm. Gray Portent was nervous. And since this was a race, he figured, he should be in his big ring.

But this time, his chain stays would be fine. Because, this time, he’d overshift, and the chain would come off outbound rather than inbound. He caught the chain by his right rotating pedal and shoes.

I remember my reaction, and I’ll admit: I’m still a bit ashamed. I pursed my lips, exhaled long and slow from my nose, and just shook my head slowly. A clear, unabashed exposition of that characteristic that I really, really don’t like in an experienced rider: cycle snobbery.

Yes, this was a race. And yes, every man for himself. But there was no need for me to dismiss his anxieties and lack of H and L screw prowess with an overt nod of the head.

I shifted into my own big ring, and promptly made my way to the front, leaving Portent in my non-existent rear view mirror. I did so partly because I didn’t want to be the snob that everyone saw back there, and partly because — this was, in fact a race, and I had aspirations of doing well. I didn’t want to be taken out by a fellow who seemed prone to self-inflicted mechanicals. Just as I didn’t want to spread a thin layer of snob, I didn’t want his chain grease on me, either. 

cassette

Sometimes, your kit is like jewelry. And sometimes, it’s just mocking you…

Comeuppance

The first lap was nearly done. The sun was now out, and with the final turn before the start of the penultimate lap, I was feeling like pushing the pace.

From the front, I took the liberty of enjoying a wide arc around the turn. Ahead of me was a slight rise in the road, a perfect place to put a little elastic into the field behind me. Carrying my momentum from the turn, I quickly hit the front shift lever to drop me into the small ring, so as to cruise up and over the rise.

I suddenly found my legs floundering with zero resistance. The grade instantly sapped all forward momentum. Cries of “whoa!” came from behind and around me, as other riders carrying speed quickly came upon my spun-out form, a hapless victim of entropy.

I had thrown my chain.

No. Freaking. Way.

I was now having my own personal “chaingate.” My little Andy Schleck moment. One of my teammates up ahead said he waited for me as long as he could, but now facing a headwind, realized it was suicidal to let the safety of the pack get a gap. And I was left for dead.

As a snob should be, of course.

Feeling strong, feeling confident, I was ready for that race, or so I thought. Ultimately, I time trailed alone for the remaining 2 laps, and took my beating from the cruel midwestern wind. Where before, I was confident of a top 10 placing, I had to content myself with 21st.

Suffice it to say, at the start line these days, I’m more than eager to lend a hand to those with rubbing chains and misaligned brake pads.

I’ve learned my bike karma lesson. Bike snobbery doesn’t pay.

Author’s Note: The triathlete finished 16th. Truth be told, he could’ve won the darned thing…

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: ‘Fess up: Ever been bit by the Snob Bug? Didja learn your lesson?[/icon_box]

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required Email Address *
Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required Email Address * First Name Last Name