Racing cyclists stand on the side of the road

A Sport So Tough, Half the Newbies Don’t Make It

or…how not to be one of the 45%

[content_box type=”with-header” title=”StartConfident Summary” text_color=”dark” color=”default” animation=”fade-in”]
  • Nearly half of new, licensed US bike racers never show up for their 2nd season
  • Don’t let the rag-tag nature of amateur cycling dissuade you from starting your journey
  • Understand the challenges of racing
  • Find a local advocate
  • Build a simple, actionable plan for your first season
[/content_box] [dropcap style=”default”]I’m tempted[/dropcap] to start a new subject category here at StartConfident. I want to call it, “tough love.” And this just might be it’s first post. That tough love is for those of you who are on the fence about racing. Or maybe better — for those who tried a season, and quit.

Amy Cutler, Elite cyclist for the FCS Cycling Team and purveyor of always thoughtful content on Facebook, recently shared an enlightening — or perhaps for many of us, confirming — blog post by Bill Luecke. The post was entitled, “Where did all the Cat 5s go?”

Bill is, as described on his blog’s profile, a “Government scientist,” and “masters bicycle racer.” The two personas come together perfectly in the revealing blog.

Through his research, which is substantial, he reveals that for the years he has data and through 2012, nearly half of all new Category 5 racers never come back for their second season.

Half? Poof…

Hopeful idealism and perhaps dreams of plywood podium glory gone unrealized. This lack of retention, Bill shows, has remained despite big spikes in growth of, shall we say less formal flavors of cycling, such as cyclocross.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]Ancient Chinese proverb: Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.[/callout]

This begs many questions, among them:

  • What motivates Category 5’s get a license in the first place?
  • What are their expectations?
  • For those that do roll up to a few starts only to decide that racing isn’t for them, what are the common threads to their experience?
  • And could — or should — something be done about it?

The resulting conversation on Amy’s Facebook page was equally insightful.

What has been the consensus? Well, there is no consensus. Most likely because there just isn’t enough data forthcoming by USA Cycling to be able to render a good hypothesis. All of our prognostications are in a vacuum. Those of us are who are part of the 55% can only bring our own experiences to the question. The resulting banter gets tossed about like empty water bottles at a pro tour race.

StartConfident was launched because of my own thoughts and observations about the new racer experience. Perhaps more importantly, I started it because of my greater life experiences involving wanting to be a “joiner” in other challenging activities and how I and others managed to stick it out in those environments, as well.

People of all ages and cultures want to do very difficult things. They become initiated in those Very Difficult Things, yet they keep going. In many of those areas, retention happens, and new adherents are developed. People learn to ride motorcycles. People learn to endure and excel in the discipline of the martial arts. And people learn to ride bikes in races.

I’ve personally experienced great memories in all of those for-instances. My experiences have shown me that there is a process to it. Successes can be replicated.

If you’re reading this right now, and you’ve never raced, reading this dour soup of data and dropouts can’t be very encouraging. You may have already experienced “cycling snobbery” from established racers when you show up wide eyed and fresh faced to a group ride. You most likely fall on one of the extremes of new riders; one side that knows very little about road racing etiquette and culture and is intimidated by that, and the other side that thinks, “how hard can it be? You’re just riding your bike fast. What’s all the fuss?”

And there’s both the rub and the opportunity: there is no established introductory process. No protocol. No real “recruitment” to the beauty, challenge, excitement, and even nobility of cycling. That wide range of expectation receives little if any guidance.

If you’re interested in racing, you’re essentially on your own. You fumble your way into your first race, and assuming it didn’t demoralize you enough to just take your helmet and go home, you fumbled — albeit less — to your second race. Once you started to get the hang of it, no matter if you were “successfull” or not, it became more of a lifestyle than a hobby.

Ultimately, if you’re like the lion’s share of American bike racers, you’re “self made.” The irony is, that tends to breed a kind of standoffishness when you’d think it would engender a sort of “upper statesman” class that would welcome in newbies with a gentle smile and warm advice.

Consider this comment from Amy’s aforementioned thread:

I can tell you as someone new to the sport, it’s the most unwelcoming sport I have ever been in. In fact my experience is new people are unwelcome and every one made that clear.

Pull up a chair, my young Cat 5’s and Cat 5 to-be’s. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Let’s get a few things clear:


Road bike racing is, indeed, an extremely difficult sport.

There is just no way to describe what I call the “shock to the system” of your first race. But like anything in life that ultimately results in accomplishment and joy, it’s downright tough. It’s like American Tour de France winner Greg LeMonds overquoted truth says, tho: “It doesn’t ever get any easier; you just go faster.” Know what’s magical about that statement? It presumes that you’re not going anywhere. It presumes that you’re in it. You’re a bike racer. You do this stuff. It’s hard. But it’s who you are.

It’s much, much easier to stay enthusiastic when you have an Advocate. Or three.

I studied Chinese martial arts over the course of 12 years. For most of that time, I had two separate teachers who were native-born Chinese masters, from the same system. All this despite the fact that I studied in very different parts of the country. Both were exceptionally pedigreed lineage holders. To say that the education was physically brutal was an understatement. It was downright alien. How did I, a slender midwestern boy manage to continue study even in a very challenging and globally respected New York City school? Two reasons: deep orientation, and the sibling method. The teacher wouldn’t just let anyone into his school (even a former student of the son of a living Grandmaster, like me) and once he did, you were assigned a “big brother” to teach you the intricacies. You always had someone you could go to when the going got impossible. They were mature, respectful, caring, but also the essence of the word, “professional,” even though they were just students like you. Find such a person, if you want to race. Find a current racer, more seasoned than you. Approach them. Openly tell them you’re seeking guidance. Let them help you get your license, get your bike ready, and help you mentally prepare for the “shock to the system” in a way that will convert it from an overwhelming experience that causes you to turn your back on the sport to a mindful excitement that anticipates getting better, stronger, and faster.

Start developing a plan for growth, now.

Cycling should be a lifelong passion. Through cycling, you can meet incredible people, have incredible self-discoveries, and achieve personal achievements that go beyond the simple expectations of “just riding your bike.” But to do so means you need a plan. It doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be as simple as researching and choosing a handful of upcoming races that suit your strengths, learning how to prepare for their specific needs both physically and mentally, and then following through on those races.

Ancient Chinese proverb: Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: What do you want to experience from your first race — or your first race season? Let us know, below.[/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.

  • Chris Hill

    One of my personality defects is that I don’t stick with or try things that I do not excel in. Racing bicycles is one of those things; however, my coach has been my “big brother” and has me excited for my second season. It is maddening and discouraging to see results on USAC such as 22 out of 25. Not my “normal” position in my endeavors. I am confident that I would have quit after just a couple of races if it were not for him as my mentor.

    • My first season saw me dropping out as much as finishing, and my finishes were consistently off the back. A few suggestions for you (and your brother! Awesome!) may have / may want to consider:

      – Always preview a course before you race it. is a great resource as many previously-raced courses throughout the country have been uploaded. Strava, of course is another option, if the “race flyer” online hasn’t already posted the course. Know where the hills and corners are, and discuss with your brother where the big moves are likely to happen. Then you can prep for them.

      – Bike racing is like painting a house: it’s all in the preparation. You need to know how long the race is going to last at your category’s speed, and train so that you have the endurance to last that pace for that long.

      – Finally, specific race skills to practice weeks ahead of time: breakaway speed and length, hill surges, and holding fast lines in corners.

      All of these are core skills to work on now during the prep to the spring season. Good luck, and work hard!

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