Peanut butter and jelly. Mustard and ketchup. Justin and racing. No advanced mental gymnastics needed here. I yearn for start lines and checkered flags. I ride to race but sometimes, during a race, I yearn to just ride. So what does that mean? Is the rider or the racer the better definition of a mountain biker? Let's discuss...but be prepared... this probably leads to an open-ended destination...
My coaching program requires monthly racing from athletes. Why? The best way to get better at racing is, racing. Simple. June in Colorado poses a small challenge to this charge. Unpredictable weather inspires weariness in race directors so the event list is sparse. Without a marquee event on the calendar June provided me the chance to simply ride. Limited structured workouts, unlimited choices, and weeks of simply being on the bike.
Riding bikes. That's why we started taking this sport seriously in the first place right? We loved to get lost in the woods, spend the day seeing lots of nature and minimal people. Big climbs to vista views and blistering descents to brunch, lunch, or dinner. That sweet feeling of spending the day doing one activity, blinded to the rest of life's responsibilities. So in June, I rode.
Colorado's Front Range, Iowa, Phoenix, Vail, Crested Butte, and more Front Range. I pedaled big routes and small jaunts. I sent double-black-diamond-chunky lines and flew through smooth forest hardpack. I tested my ability to finish 3 hours on a single bottle of fluid and sometimes I stopped for a mid-ride quiche and cortado. I rode to the ride, logging dozens of pavement miles for only a handful of dirt miles. I drove the van to trailheads and kicked back with a book prior to a pedal. I rode.
But did I ride hard?
Kind of. And this is where racing comes in.
I'm a Strava user. You judgmental purists can take a minute here to lambaste me all you want. Strava helps me track my progression while being a solo rider. Traipsing all over the country, repeating rides annually and biannually, makes it more challenging to track progression as opposed to the rider who punches the same routes weekly. Admittedly I do spend more time on Strava than most riders, but, I don't have TikTok so give me an ounce of credit. So I ride, I see great views, and I check and see if I'm faster year-over-year on iconic rides. For the most part, I am. I'm consistently faster on nearly every ride over the past several years. HOWEVER, and here is where we transition, however, RACING is the catalyst for these improvements.
It boils down to effort. I cannot draw in to the effort needed to race successfully when I am out simply riding. I've tried. I've cued up aggressive playlists, I've guzzled 300mg of caffeine, I've set absurd "I'll be there by __ o'clock" plans, all with the goal of driving my effort nearer to race effort. And still, I don't dive deep into the hole that I do when racing.
Am I mentally weak? I'd argue I'm not.
I took a moment just now, after typing that last question, and finished my mug of coffee. I looked out my window and then to the ceiling. I stopped to embrace that below-the-belt question. Here's where I landed: I'm simply human.
300 generations of human evolution has made us spectacular at energy conservation. You paleo-diet fanatics already know that we walked upwards of 7-12 miles a day as hunter gatherers, but, spent the rest of the day being as still as possible. Before the advent of agriculture we lived in borderline caloric deficit. Moving was hard! So we moved the bare minimum for the survival and extension of our species. I simply ride like an early generation homo sapien. When riding I do what's demanded of me but not a lot more.
There's a 6 mile gravel road climb ahead? Great! I'll spin it out.
There's a technical, climby bit around the corner? Perfect! I'm shifting up the cassette and picking my way through cleanly. Never riding around.
But in a race? Well, that's different. In a race I'll charge the road at, or above, threshold. This is a clean place to pass riders and get into a groove (not to mention eat and drink). If there's a technical bit ahead, I'm out of the saddle and driving through the challenges in an effort to put a gap on those behind me. I'll max out my heart rate!
The energy behind racing weighs much differently on me than the energy around riding. In a race I risk crashing out, suffering from dehydration, and will pedal through cramps if they rear their ugly head. In a ride I mights stop for a sushi burrito if both opportunity and a barking stomach present themselves.
So, on June 11th I raced the Colorado Endurance Series event, Salida Big Friggin' Loop. 104 miles of gravel roads, Colorado Trail singletrack, and both Buena Vista and Salida's town trail networks. A self-supported, with 1 manned aid station at mile 50 from Black Burro Bikes, backcountry adventure route that demanded more than a riding attitude. Was it harder than the hundreds of miles I logged otherwise in June? You decide:
You could fill your tabletop salt shaker with a simply finger swipe down my cheek. I drank 8, 24-ounce cups of cold water before I got the tingling of a pee. I went deep.
So we must beg the question, why? Why does racing pull out our greatest efforts when the activity, on the surface, is the same?
Racing is an honest depiction of our greatest capabilities. When we register for a race we agree to several parameters: route, distance, support, competition, and on and on. If we quit a race, we get a "DNF" not a "he/she/they tried hard and had a good day on the bike". Nope. A DID NOT FINISH. How we finish a race is how well we can ride, at our best, at this exact moment in time.
Who wants to show up to a first date, major interview, wedding day, or hometown mall Glamour Shots with anything less than the best representation of ourselves? Racing brings the gravitas demanding we show up. Even the most contentious, weekly, team ride falls short of that. Nobody tapers for an after-work spin.
So is racing better? Is racing the best type of mountain biking? No.
It might be too heavy for that designation. Racing is taxing: physically, emotionally, and mentally. If every time I had to ride I had to go race-mode I'd probably quit riding. Hell, it's supposed to be enjoyable! BUT, I have to race. I have to race to elevate my understanding of what I'm capable of. I need to look at an unbiased representation of my best. I want to evolve and part of evolution, of growth, is marking our next best effort. Therefore I race at least once a month. In June I rode just under 700 miles. 104 of them were race miles. Those 104 miles will be more responsible for more enjoyment in July's hundreds of miles than the remaining 596. They showed me what I can really do and that confidence will pour into today's fun ride. Race. Grow. Ride. Repeat. All year long.