As the racing season approaches, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the challenges and concerns facing novice bike racers. I will give you a few pearls of wisdom and a primer on how to prepare yourself for your first race. First, I think it’s important to emphasize the difference between two commonly conflated conditions: nervousness and anxiety. Chemically, these two conditions are similar, if not identical. However, mentally and emotionally, nervousness and anxiety couldn’t be more different. Think about things that may be anxious about: paying the bills or going in for invasive surgery, for example. Now think about the things that you’ve been nervous about: going onstage in a school play, taking the field for your first game of rec soccer, or coaching your kid in their first game of rec soccer. There is an important distinction to make between these two scenarios. The first, those anxiety inducing events, are things that we really don’t want to do. We feel some obligation to do them, but they make us anxious because we know that to not do them carries dire consequences. The second set of scenarios makes us feel nervous. These are things we’ve chosen for ourselves. Things we actually enjoy and look forward to doing. Nevertheless, our bodies “fight or flight” instincts are confused by the distinction and many of us will subconsciously be thinking “flight, flight, flight!” Instead of attempting to ignore this nervous energy, embrace it. Cycling is all about finding energy in unexpected places. As long as your energy is the result of nervousness, and not anxiety, it will prove quite useful to you in the race.
As a mentor of mine once said, somewhat tautologically, “you’re not going to know it until you know it.” This statement came in response to what was probably my hundredth question about my first race, an out and back individual time trial near where I grew up on the Jersey Shore. What I didn’t realize at the time was that no matter how many question I asked, and how many thoughtful and accurate answers I received, I was never going to be completely prepared to race my bike for the first time. There were so many variables that were out of my control, and until I had witnessed them firsthand, there was no way I would be mentally prepared to react effectively. Remember, it is okay to feel nervous and even unprepared. Bike racing can only be learned through firsthand experience. While the learning curve is steep, gains come fast and improvement is rapid. With that in mind, remember that there are things that you can control as a novice bike racer. Here are a few:
Make a list of things you will need to do before you can get in your car and drive to the race. Here are some things you’ll need to remember to do:
Fill your water bottles and set aside some energy food.
Pack a change of clothes
Print directions to the race
Pack something to eat after the event
Set your alarm
DON’T FORGET YOUR CYCLING SHOES AND HELMET!
Many of these tasks can be accomplished a night or two before the race. Taking the time to organize yourself before the morning of the event will put you at greater ease. That way you can give yourself plenty of time to wake up, digest a decent breakfast, and drink a cup of coffee (or two). Chances are that your nerves will make it a little difficult to sleep the night before. If this is the case, just remember what I’ve always been told. The sleep you get two nights before the event is far more important than the sleep you get the night before. You will have plenty of adrenaline to see you through the race, just so long as you were well rested the day before.
2)Relax and have fun!
That’s right. I’m not going to give you a very long list of things to remember. Chances are, there are going to be a lot of people telling you what you should do and how you should act at a bike race. Just remember this, the whole reason you got into this sport is that you find it fun and exciting. If cycling becomes a major source of stress or anxiety in your life, you are approaching the sport in the wrong way. Even a race is supposed to be fun. Over time you’ll get to know your fellow racers from other clubs, and you will look forward to the races as a chance to catch up with old friends and put all of that training you’ve been doing to the test. I know too many bike racers who take themselves far too seriously. If you remember to relax and have fun, your performance will improve, I promise.