So… I’ve written many times that I’m a ‘sprinter’ – what, exactly, does that mean in the world of cycling? In the world of track and field I would run the 100meters and maybe do long jump like I did in high school. On the velodrome (bike track) I used to specialize in the ‘match sprint’ which is a kilometer long race typically characterized by a 200meter sprint at the end. In 1986 I competed in this event at the junior world championships in Casablanca, Morocco after earning the top spot in the United States against my nemesis Jamie Carney – who also joined me over there.
So, one might ask, if what I’m truly good at lasts about 10 seconds, the what, exactly is someone like me doing racing 45 mile, 90 minute, master’s races or 100 kilometer, 2 hour pro races? And, how is it that someone like me can even keep up? Especially, as I occasionally forget, as I’m about to turn 40, and actually have a “real job” - and a demanding one at that. Professionals only race – that’s why they are pros, and many category 1 and 2 riders live to race and either ‘get by’ living hand to mouth working part time in bike shops, or have part time or limited “9 to 5” jobs with much better schedules than I. (However, Texas Roadhouse extraordinare and Superweek stage winner Paul Martin is a lawyer with a family – so I’d be remiss to suggest I’m the only one with a demanding job and a family – but Paul’s a ‘roadie’…”)
Let’s take a look at it, for a moment from the point of view of the endurance athlete – better known in cycling circles as a “roadie”. Roadies dominate cycling – it is their sport, their culture, their races, their training schedules, their blogs, and their wins that make the most headlines. It just makes sense – if you don’t have much of an aerobic motor (like me) than odds are good you’ll either be marginalized or quit the sport quickly as aerobic capabilities are the basic currency of most of the events.
Let me take it further – from a ‘roadie’ perspective, people like me (sprinters) are the ‘bottom feeders’ of the peleton – “sucking wheel” in the back the pack – never leading, only using the draft that they themselves work so hard to create. One of my favorite email forwards of all time was from my friend Jeff, who was on a group email list where the riders were complaining about the sprinters. It went something like, “we led 39 out of 40 laps – pulling through hard, keeping the pace high, and then at the end, those damn wheelsuckers appeared out of nowhere and blew by us for the win – its ridiculous – they didn’t earn any of it.”
OK, so apologies in advance to all my roadie friends (and that’s pretty much just about everyone in the sport – there are few true sprinters out there.) But this is where I’m going to beg to differ.
You roadies - so high and mighty in your tyranny of the peleton and the wind. Out there in the race, I watch you sitting in the wind, off the wheel as though the draft were merely a ‘nice to have’ while people like me – without your ability to process oxygen – suck off the draft like a diver would from their air hose – one breath missed – one second off a wheel, and we drown and float up off the back – dropped like a drowned swimmer.
You roadies think that the race is all about breakaways and out dueling each other for long stretches of suffering – suffering with a purpose – matching wits for the length of the race in order to guarantee success – but you fail to see or appreciate the role of the sprinter.
You suffer for a purpose – each lap you choose your suffering in order to put your best foot forward. But the sprinters? We have absolutely no purpose for our suffering other than to endure. As you string it out up front and our vision narrows to the 23mm tire ahead of us, we have one and only one purpose, “please don’t get dropped, please don’t get dropped, please don’t get dropped.”
You talk about suffering up front – yes, I’m sure you do it. But proactive, self determined suffering is different than the torture you inflict on us at the back. For us it’s a Vietnamise war camp and you are our torturers and executioners. We don’t choose this suffering, and unlike you at the front, we can’t just drift back for a few minutes to recover – if we lose that wheel in front of us, its over – just like that.
I have a running joke that I like to tell that starts like this, “You know that feeling, after you’ve taken a hard pull at the front, and then realize you’ve got a small gap, and then all you have to do is push it a little longer and maybe you’ll stay away?”
I pause for effect and then say…
“Yeah – I’ve never felt that before – ever.”
I’ve been racing for 32 seasons and competed in over 1200 road bike races and I’ve only been in two breakaways that have stayed away, and could count on both hands the number of breakaways I’ve EVER been in.
There’s another joke – another favorite. So, one of the other aspects of training and racing that differs for roadies and sprinters is the volume of riding that each must do. I’ve fallen victim to the roadie mentality several times throughout my career – the kind of mentality that, “if you didn’t win, you didn’t train hard enough.” Yes, for endurance athletes with type 1 muscles (slow twitch) there’s a pretty reasonable correlation between training and results. However when it comes to type 2A and 2B muscles (fast twitch A & B) that correlation gets sketchier and training becomes more about quality and less about quantity. Further, with a preponderance of type 2B muscles (like me) too much quality OR quantity can be deleterious to results.
But, back to the roadie joke. Roadies are notorious for their anal retentive addiction to their training schedules – rain, snow, or sleet, if their training regimen calls for a 5 hour ride, then that’s what they do. So here’s the joke, paraphrased from when it was originally sent to me.
My alarm went off on Sunday morning – another wet March day, and another 5 hour slog in the cold and damp. I slid out of bed trying not to wake my wife and headed to the front closet and numbly dressed – shoes, booties, shorts, insulated bib tights, undershirt, jersey, rain jacket, neoprene gloves, hat, helmet, heart rate monitor etc.
I made toast with honey and peanut butter, tea with more honey, and drank some accelerade. I filled three bottles per usual and stuffed my pockets with tubes and inflation devices and power bars. I sat in front of the TV and munched and then listened to the report: “sleet and freezing rain, dangerous roads, cars in ditches.” I paused, still chewing and waited for the forcast – more of the same and getting worse.
I sighed and threw in the towel – just today, just one day, I would not go out - I’d have to make it up on the trainer later. So I took everything off – booties, shoes, bibs, shorts, jacket, jersey, gloves, hat, glasses, helmet and put it all away. Then I tiptoed back into the bedroom and slid under the warm blankets next to my wife and cuddled up to her whispering, “Its god awful out there.”
And she huskily mumbled back, “Yeah – I know – can believe my husband’s out in this crap? Thank God he’s a roadie else I’d never see you.”
One of the best, if not THE best book on cycling ever written was written in the early 70’s by a Dutch author by the name of Tim Krabbe’. Its an elegant short tome depicting one single road race complete with flashbacks to other races and events in Tim’s life.
The Rider is written very clearly from the mindset of the ‘roadie’ and one of the things I love about it is the internal struggle Tim has for the “sprinter” in that book – the “golden boy” name Reilehan. At one point in the book he says, “its all about squandering energy isn’t it?” as he refers to Reilehan’s wheelsucking, but later in the same book, he mocks one of his other competitors for not knowing how to race – when to push it and when to conserve. I’ve read the book 5 times and after contacting Tim, proposed the idea of writing the equivalent of its sequel a little while back and asked whether he’d be interested in writing a forward if I did write it. (Tim’s over 60 but still racing)
Here was his response,
“Your idea sounds interesting - a portrait of the sprinter. I can relate to it because although I'm not one of those superfast guys (I've started racing again with the 60+ Masters) I did mix (and still mix) in every final sprint, even for 8th place, and occasionally for first - and I do win a few.
I've always been interested in the 'life of the sprinter' - they're sometimes treated like pariahs and act that way, some never trying to be in breakaways, just waiting to ply their trade, whether it's for 1st, 5th or 12th place.
The tactics, strategy, dangers, excitement of the sprints themselves are of course addictive - and you, as an ex-pro, would know a side of it that I don't; the massive sprint as a team sport in professional cycling. Although gifts are given and grudges will be fought out, in my amateur races sprinting was always essentially an individual thing.
There are a 1001 sides to sprinting.
Which goes to say that trying to write that book does seem worth the effort - although at this point, even if I'm flattered that you should ask, I don't know whether I would want to write a foreword.”
So, I’ll take that as a “maybe.” : )
So, roadies, let me tell you how it is. Your job is to drop me. Keep a fast pace, shake and bake me, form breakways and single file paces. But after all that, let’s be fair then.
If you don’t drop me as I suffer with an average pulse of 180+ , as I twist in the wind and strangle for 2 hours in asphyxiating oxygen debt and agonizing muscle complaint, then I assert that I have every bit as much right to that podium as you. For every hard pull up front and breakaway attempt you make, I’ve made parallel efforts to hang a wheel or bridge a gap.
Stated another way, if it comes down to a field sprint, and I suddenly materialize out of the bowels of the pack and manage to sling past you to the finish line using the 8 seconds of the one and only strength God gave me, don’t shake your head in frustration. Don’t be angry or contemptuous that “he didn’t do anything – just sat in the back.” Know what it is really like for me – for us – for sprinters like me.
Instead, how about replacing that contemptuous remark with a rueful smile and the thought of, “damn, he must have really suffered back there today – but he hung on and pulled one out - good for him.”