The One Book Every New Racer MUST have

Book Review: Reading the Race, by Jamie Smith (with Chris Horner)

[content_box type=”with-header” title=”StartConfident Summary” text_color=”dark” color=”default” animation=”fade-in”]
  • Being fast and strong is only part of bike racing
  • Learning how to race takes longer than learning how to be fast
  • A spoonful of sugar…
  • If you only buy 1 book on racing tactics, buy this one
[/content_box] [dropcap style=”default”]“You don’t know…[/dropcap]

…what you don’t know” is a popular saying and it certainly rings true for beginner bike racers. It was certainly true for me. I didn’t know I needed a license. I didn’t know you had to physically walk up to register after you signed up for a race online once you were at the venue. I didn’t realize how pissed off other racers would be if you drifted wide while in a turn. (I’ll stop here, because I could fill a blog with the innumerable things I didn’t know until I actually completed a few races. And who’m I kidding — I still have a crap-ton more to learn.)

Reading the Race by Jamie Smith with Chris HornerNewbies are, unfortunately, glowingly easy to spot in our sport, at least here in the United States. Without mentors to help shepherd them, most newcomers flounder through their first year, having as much worry over how to get to the start line for the right race as they do figuring out how to stay with the pack, which breaks to chase, or what to put in their water bottles.

It’s usually an unwelcoming environment, made worse by juxtaposed spirits that exude, “I learned on my own, you’ll do the same,” or a constant stream of advice that could only apply to a rider on a sponsored team.

Into this confusing swirl comes a beacon of clarity, served up with a quad-shot of humor; Jamie Smith’s book, Reading the Race, published by Velo Press. Veteran pro racer Chris Horner makes some notable cameo appearances.

Jamie Smith has spent years, ok, decades, really, calling bike races in the US. Mostly criterium (or more popularly, “crits.”) If you follow bike road racing, you’re no doubt familiar with the venerable Phil and Paul show, meaning Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen. But if you’ve attended any significant American crits, the voice you heard bellowing over the speakers, not only informing you about the race but also educating you about cycling was Jamie Smith.

Jamie has carefully, — and comedically —  poured this information into a beautifully organized and entertaining read. You don’t have to be a racer to enjoy this book. Any cycling-curious soul could pick this up and have a hard time putting it down because it’s just so darned much fun.

It Ain’t No Textbook…

When I got the book, though, I bought it on the recommendation of a Delta Airlines pilot and fellow local racer. This chap is, pardon the pun, as “by the book” as someone can be. We like to kid him over the fact that he methodically cranks out whatever assignments his coach gives him without really knowing anything about the coaching plan developed on his behalf. “Hey, I’m payin’ the man. I figure, if I’m gonna get what I pay for, I gotta just do the work!”

(This gentleman has an Ohio State Time Trial champs jersey framed in the local shop my team calls “home.” So I’m not berating his methods, believe me.)

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]There is a mistaken belief that masters racers will take it easy because they all have careers and families to consider. That kind of thinking will get you into trouble. Masters racers are nice on the outside, but their ancestors sailed on Blackbeard’s boat.[/callout]

When I started reading it, I thought it was going to be written like a textbook, given my reviewer’s reputation. I was way, way wrong.

“Have you seen this book?” he asked one night at the shop, peering over it at me through his half-eye reading glasses. “It’s got everything in here. He covers it all.”

If that sounds like an over-promise, well…it’s not. For a new racer, or for the un-cycling-initiated, it’s a survey course.

Racing, not Training

I want to be super clear: this absolutely isn’t a book about training. It’s a book about racing.

If you don’t know the difference, then that’s a bit of a litmus test for you. (Hint: buy the book.)

Jamie covers everything in how-to form: how to breakaway, how to ride in pace line, what to do to avoid being pinned against the curb in an wind-avoiding echelon, how to drop annoying wheelsuckers. Oh, yeah…and it’s even illustrated. What’s more, Vuelta e España winner Chris Horner’s salty stories about life on the road as a struggling pro, all the way up through world-class rider, give a colorful, and sometimes sobering view of racing on a completely different level. What’s really great about Horner’s anecdotes is how they’re juxtaposed against Jamie’s instruction for newbies. You get a genuinely panoramic view.

The book would be worth every penny simply for the brevity and clarity of the instruction. But Jamie puts icing on the educational cake by making it really all about the reason you ride your bike fast in the first place: fun.

I can’t emphasize enough how un-dry, un-stodgy, un-boring this book is. The chuckles keep you reading, and the action-oriented descriptions put you in a race mindset, even if you’re so new as to never have experienced them, yet. But that’s OK; the vividness will hit you when you’re on the road, in the peloton, rushing along. “Oh, yeah…Jamie said not to do the thing I’m doing right now. Instead, I need to do this, instead.”

Finally, in addition to fun and visual clarity, there is something that, as a new racer myself, hooked me completely on my first read: warmth. Jamie knows how difficult the sport of competitive road racing is. He essentially puts a big brother’s arm around you and gives you the straight dirt, with the occasional punch on the arm.

For example, here’s a snippet that completely rung true for me. As an older rider who had not raced, but had ridden in training with racers for a long time, I didn’t know if I should begin racing Category V, or if I should “ride with the old men” in my age group.

Jamie, of course, had an answer for that:

Races in the masters category (according to the USAC rule book, anyone older than 35) are often as fast as the top-category races due to the riders’ experience and training. There is a mistaken belief that masters racers will take it easy because they all have careers and families to consider. That kind of thinking will get you into trouble. Masters racers are nice on the outside, but their ancestors sailed on Blackbeard’s boat.

New masters racers, when faced with the choice of racing with their Cat. IV brothers or with their age group, often make the mistake of believing that the masters race will be easier because they think the old farts will ride slower and will therefore be easier to hang with. That is simply not the case. The masters field is notoriously fast and is full of thieves and pirates who will rob you blind.

I mean that in the best way possible.

There are other educational books out there for racers who are dedicated enough to the idea of advancing as a racer to become a student of cycling. In my mind, Reading the Race is one of the two books that you must not be without, and I mean that sincerely. My other “must” is Joe Friel’s Cyclist’s Training Bible. Where Joe teaches you how to train in a way you’ll return to time and again like a desk reference, Jamie’s will become dog-eared as you continue to gain experience; each chapter will become more meaningful as you’re able to bring your own insights to his colorful descriptions.

Get his book, and follow him on Twitter: @MobilePA

See you out on the road!

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: If you consider yourself a student of bike racing, what books would you recommend to other readers, here?[/icon_box]

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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.

  • legestrom

    training & racing with a power meter is a good read if you have the equipment.

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