Riding Scared

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Cycling is a pretty intense sport.  One that can/does take some “guts” to participate in.  In reality, it is relatively safe.  I mean that you would think that by watching it, everyone involved would be getting hurt on a pretty constant basis.  That isn’t the case.  Of course, we all do get hurt sometimes, but a casual observer would think that it would be constant carnage.

To get over the fears that one might have in the sport, repetition is what cures it.  Doing the same thing over and over again until you feel you are proficient at it.  Once you have confidence in a certain aspect of the sport, it comes much easier.

A few of the people that I’ve ridden with over the years have talked to me about trying to regain their confidence.  They haven’t been racing that much and riding much more alone.  They feel that they have lost the ability to ride tightly in a pack of cyclists.

A friend said that he was racing Master’s Nationals and the start was straight down long descent.  He said that he and a few other guys were hanging towards the back, scared and next thing they knew was that they were on the flats, 10 seconds behind.  But that 10 seconds turned into an hour chase.  My friend said he was super fit, but was blown by the time he got back to the climb to the finish.

I understand the worries.  I have to admit that I have no desire to race a wet criterium with left corners.  I do not want to fall on my left hip that I broke a couple years ago.  Not that I think that it is going to explode if I fall on it.  It is more an ingrained fear, emotional fear, not intellectual.

One thing I know in cycling is if you are riding scared all the time, the sport isn’t going to be enjoyable for you.  I’ve seen many good professional riders lose their confidence.  That is the start of the end for them.  When they feel that they are taking too many risks for the benefits, they make an intellectual decision to quit.  But it is really an emotional decision.

I was, and still am pretty much, never the best athlete in the races I compete in.  I have to try to compensate for this by riding smarter and by using my abilities better than the other guys I’m racing against.  This is one of the things that attracts me to the sport so much.  The best cyclist, truly the best rider, doesn’t have to be the best athlete, normally.  He has to be a very gifted human, but being the fittest in cycling doesn’t make you the winner normally.  You have to have more in your package than just the genetics.

Anyway, my friends that have been questioning their peloton riding, descending and such, shouldn’t stress about it so much.  I told them to just do the repetitions, put yourself in the situations and that will eventually become the new normal.

I always do this when I start questioning certain worries I have in the sport.  People always are saying it is because you are getting old or ask what do you expect now.  But I can look back upon all the years I’ve raced and realize that I sometimes had similar problems when I was a teenager, or in my 20’s or 30’s.  Eventually it all comes around.

If you didn’t start racing until your 30’s or 40’s, don’t think that it is not coming.  It is just a matter of time and repetitions.  That is why I encourage most new guys, that are super into the sport, to race as much as possible.  You can’t absorb the information in front of you when you are riding afraid.  You need to be comfortable before you can get to the next level, where you make more observations, learn more and then progress to the next level.

And I don’t think that there is a top level or end here.  I can’t think of anything I can do on a bicycle now, or have ever been able to do that couldn’t use some improvement.  I’ve done some pretty incredible things on bikes, but nothing close to perfect.

It is sort of like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  Work for the perfection.  The job is very rewarding.

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”
― Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull



Tucker gets so tired sometimes he sleeps with his tongue hanging out.

Tucker gets so tired sometimes he sleeps with his tongue hanging out.

He's a pretty happy puppy.

He’s a pretty happy puppy.


15 thoughts on “Riding Scared

  1. James

    No offense, but sorry you have it absolutely twisted backwards. The choice to race is the “emotional” decision. The rational “intellectual” one is to not.

    And frankly, the group riding skill set has deteriorated so much, further making racing a risky prop. It just is, so don’t sugar coat it. Go take the risk, do something every day that scares you. If you think about all the risks in cycling, you need to manage that everyday. Traffic, weather, or the 45 yr old master that just has to have that spot 5 min into a race.

    Lots of hp & staring at the stem, not a lot of skills otherwise. So you are correct, lots of ops to race up, just as long as you stay up!

  2. jeffc

    haven’t done a group ride in ages… (a good 4 years)… most of my riding is done alone as I bike odd hours (late at night or early morning). I don’t race anymore, so its just a matter of keeping fit now. But, when I did race I tried to get out as much as possible in group rides. Really tunes the cardio, tunes the fear factor of riding in a pack and getting in many races is key to the psychology of it all (when to lead and when to follow). I’d typically stick on the outer edge of the pack just in case someone made a foul move. Easy to ditch the bike to the side of the road rather than to incoming traffic.
    Some horrific crashes in crits though.
    And, I’ve seen some bad crashes in mtbing…. most amazing was an older fella (65 or so) who broke a collar bone, he kept on riding the transrockies.com. Then there was my ex, I flew over a train track at the bottom of a hill. The track traversed at an angle, hit that thing incorrectly and you fly over your handlebars. That’s what happened to her – she split her shoulder blade and collar bone. Supposedly it takes great force to break both, but she managed to break both….
    cycling for the most part isn’t a dangerous sport.

  3. Steve Tilford Post author

    James- The choice to race or to quit are both emotional decisions. You think you are making intellectual decisions for both, but you aren’t.

    You are right, the riding skills have went to shit. And just because it is an established training group doesn’t mean that it is going to be the right one. I am constantly amazed by travelling around the country how many local training rides are really training races and how little information is being exchanged.

  4. JB

    And some of us just enjoy the bicycle without ever racing them!

    (not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

  5. channel_zero

    But that 10 seconds turned into an hour chase. My friend said he was super fit, but was blown by the time he got back to the climb to the finish.

    A reasonable person, knowing the permissive doping controls in the sport, wonders about the riders your friend was chasing.

  6. Krakatoa East of Java

    I remember being 19 and out for a training ride just north of UCSD. A drunk driver was merging-in from Genesee Ave onto PCH (I was continuing straight) and hit me from behind at 40+ MPH. Launched me through the air for a good while. Miraculously, I was relatively uninjured (considering what I’d been hit by).

    The incident SERIOUSLY affected my risk-taking from there on-out. Once I regained my nerve in a couple of weeks, I was back racing, but always more cautious. If I had bad position coming into the final 1k of a race, I’d sit-up and coast in, not wanting to crash while stupidly chasing after 15-20th place. I stopped going to races with “crash-fest” reputations, etc. That racing year was my last for another 13 years.

    The funny thing is, I’d been involved in numerous race crashes up until that car incident. 4-5 of them resulting in a pretty “cut-up” Krakatoa. No problem. It wasn’t until the car hit me that I felt the severity of what could happen.

    When I started racing again in my 30’s, of course, everything had changed. No one could handle their fucking bikes anymore. They all absolutely sucked at it. Racing was so much more fucking dangerous compared to how I remembered it. It was a broken hip (suffered at low-speed during a training ride) that ultimately led me to hang it up. I still ride. Even in groups. But no more racing.

  7. Krakatoa East of Java

    In case you’re going “WTF?”, that intersection has since been re-engineered and tweaked so that Genesee never merges into Torrey Pines. Northbound Torrey Pines now must stop and turn left onto Genesee.

  8. steve

    the thing with group rides and road racing, you are putting your safety and well being in those around you. not me.

  9. Erik

    It’s really interesting to read your last paragraph and all the other ones on the same topic. When I rode with the SDBC in San Diego back before the wheel had been invented we spent so much time on Saturday rides learning how to ride in a group, in a pace line, in an echelon, in the wind, and there were some guys and gals who were really masterful at pack dynamics and bike handling and who would help you understand, nicely and helpfully, of course, when you needed to learn. Two years of riding with them and I thought that was how the world worked. It’s actually reassuring to hear that it’s not just me who’s disappointed at the lack of ability, and worse, the lack of care for pack riding skills these days.

    I don’t race anymore, but I really miss having a group like that – Hannah North, Ralph Elliot, Bob Visser, Pete Kendall, and the dozens of other folks whose names I have forgotten really made it clear how the pack is a social entity, and you have to know how to get along in it to really do well.

    Oh well. Bartender, another round…

  10. Krakatoa East of Java

    Small world. Those same people taught me to ride with SDBC. Saturdays, 8AM in the parking lot at UCSD. Don’t forget Brian Comer, Adi Bulsara, Tony Olsen. Even Richard Bryne. Ralph would ride his (ancient in my eyes) Schwinn Paramount, which (of course) is far less out-of-date compared to what I ride these days.

    The 13 year layoff I had apparently killed the sport. When I returned in 2000, as that song by “The Pretenders” goes… My City Was Gone. Everyone seemed to have individual coaches, trained in isolation, took drugs, you name it. I suppose the things I saw (and related to) in the sport in the 80’s were different than the things people getting into the sport during the Lance era saw.
    – Patrick Mannion

  11. Krakatoa East of Java

    BTW, can you imagine the racers of today having to reach down and actually shift? They’d all wipe-out. I remember having to sneak in a drink, dangle a water bottle from my mouth, shift, hammer, and then fetch the bottle again (only after being able to sit down again). You could even throw-in hitting a pothole, getting bumped by the guy next to you, and you’d still be upright (and so would everyone else).

  12. Erik

    Ha. Downtube Shifters? How about having to pick up a banana off the ground while pedaling full on. Don’t know if you ever raced in Baja, but that was the standard feed zone style down there – they’d leave the food literally on the road and people would pick it up as they went by ‘en bloc’. Dusty (what’s his last name, little guy who rode a Medici) and Hannah were particularly good at that trick and tried in vain to teach it to me.

    Probably my favorite memory from those days (or at least the one that dug deepest into my psyche) was Shawn Storm yelling at me to put my gloves on without stopping while riding down the Banner Grade in a cold rain on one of the Christmas Trips (he didn’t want to have to ride alone and we had both been definitively dropped). It certainly stuck with me that you should be able to do anything on the bike that you can off the bike, even if the wind is blowing and you can’t feel your fingers or see the road.

    It’s great to hear those names again. and really nice to know that someone else remembers it too…In hindsight it was an amazing club (and a great time to be riding in SouCal) and I’ve searched in vain for another like it since then.
    -Erik MacDonald

  13. Krakatoa East of Java


    I remember Hannah very well. She was our Jan Raas (aka “the boss”) when it came to pack riding conduct, be it group rides, training races, etc. I suspect the same must have been true in her events. Hannah was an assertive one.

    Shawn Storm. He was the guy in that Skid-Lid poster (right?), stealing the win from a guy who sat-up and celebrated a tad-bit too early. Of course, Skid-Lid was the key to his success 😉
    He was a “bit” before my time, but I knew of him. My most active years were 1982 – 1987.

    I did race a few times in Baja Mexico, and those events remain (to this day) my favorite races. Almost always point-to-point. They never started on time. They started in “Mexican time” (which meant “Any time is Mexican time”). They’d hire off-duty motorcycle cops to do crowd control, which basically means “Uh folks, we’re the Policia. You’ll need to stop, as we’ll be having a little bike race here for a few moments. Gracias!”… Informal, yet VERY formal.

    Talk about cheating… I remember getting a FRONT ROW position at Rosarito-Ensenada one year (17,000 riders) when I was 18 (and damn fit) and passing endless groups of people who’d just skipped the crowds and started early. I was conceivably one of the first “legal starters” to cross the line down in Ensenada, but there was no telling due to the mass quantities of cheats ahead of me. So yeah, even in Gran Fondos, people have a very long history of cheating.

    The best one was Tijuana – Ensenada in 1985. It was late February, and a bunch of euro-pros were in San Diego training and decided to drop by. There I am, a 17 year-old junior, and I’m in the lead group riding up “La Missión” with Danny Franger and a shitload of other pros. There were never any categories. Just one race. Oddly enough, we’d have more spectators in these unannounced races than in any US race we did. People would see the approaching race, drop what they were doing, and cheer us on. Especially the little kids. I loved that.

    The only time I ever encountered the “hey, look what I found here! A water bottle!” was when (former Olympian) Marcello Arrue’s father would help his sons cheat the feed zone rule in road races. He’d drive up ahead (out of sight) and leave all kinds of gifts on the climbs. BTW, I’m not dumping on the Arrues. They didn’t really have a choice in how pop expected them to race.

  14. Larry T.

    It’s really a shame that nobody seems to want to learn anything these days. I was lucky enough in the South Bay of LA to learn from guys like this http://cycleitalia.blogspot.it/2013/12/a-cycling-sage.html but these days everybody’s an instant expert and don’t you dare suggest they try X or Y instead of the stupid crap they’re doing at present. Guys like Bill Ron simply gave up after being told by so many experts that his decades of teaching newbies how to ride were no longer valuable. I’m amazed at how few can put on or take off a jacket while riding or even look behind them without wobbling all over the place!! Back when I had hair the ONLY place I wore a helmet was on a group ride where I didn’t know or trust everybody, now the crash-hat’s on the old noggin pretty much all the time, but riding near some of these so-called experts still scares me!


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