I’ve been meaning to write a post describing what I like about the big races, but have had trouble finding the perspective I was looking to describe. I received this question via Twitter today, and figured I’d post my response here in the form of this post. Enjoy.
For better or worse, amateur bike racing easily lends itself to delusions of grandeur. You line up with a field of similarly matched competitors decked out in team gear. There is an announcer screaming your name and keeping spectators appraised of the race situation. There will be prize money, but probably not podium girls waiting for you at the finish.
It can be easy to get caught up in this at any level. Win a few Cat 4 racers and your peers will know who you are. We all know each other in the relatively small community of a few thousand regional bike racers, and winning a “Pro”/1/2 race may seem like the pinnacle of sport… But it really isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. I’m lucky enough to have a reasonable expectation of an opportunity to win these local races, but that is the draw of bike racing: most of the starters have a chance at winning.
However, the few big races I enter every year are different. I have no hope of winning. This is even more true in cyclocross, where races are more predictable. There are racers who have slowly clawed their way up the results sheet when the big races come to town (Allen Krughoff) and been noticed on the national stage, but that isn’t really why I race them.
The big race is my opportunity to take my delusions of grandeur one step further. Every racer dreams of what it must be like to live the life of a pro, and I get my little chance to experience it when the big race comes to town. To experience the large crowds, professionally designed/marked courses, loud PA systems, and media attention at a big race is my opportunity to get a taste of what it is like to race at that level. For me it is a highlight of my season, but to the travelling pros, it is just another stop on the calendar.
We also make our own goals when we line up at the back of the Elite field. Finishing on the lead lap is an honorable goal and I’ve been successful on a few occasions, although I was well off the mark last weekend.
I’ll also mention that it is a major learning opportunity. The next time you’re at a large race early in the day, you’ll see a handful of riders following the top riders as they warm up. This is the best chance many riders will get to truly analyze the techniques of highly skilled international level pro racers in the home environment. It can be hard to get an idea of tire selection and course conditions based on race photos alone, so simply seeing course conditions and the tires selected by top riders in person can be very helpful.
I’ll also make a quick mention of road racing, although the question was posed for Cyclocross. On the road there is always the chance for a lucky result. Perhaps you’ll make the right move and get your photo or a mention in major cycling media. There also is much higher risk and there are often serious crashes. I’m a pretty tough racer and I like exciting, technical courses, but sometimes I can’t quite imagine the lifestyle of back-to-back-to-back National Calendar twilight criteriums with large, agressive fields, big prize lists, screaming fans, loud announcers, and the constant threat of bodily injury.