Leaning against a tree by the side of the road, camera at ready, you notice the quiet. In the field across the way, a handful of horses nibble at the grass. It is a pastoral scene reminiscent of a 19th century painting.
The horses lift their heads, their ears flicking back and forth. Peering down the road, you hear a faint swoosh-swoosh. And then he is past, faster than the shutter speed of the camera, followed by a second and a third rider. These three lead riders, who have broken away from the pack earlier, are a half mile down the road before the lead car, a white pickup, appears, escorting the main group of road racers. Its lights flashing, the lead car maintains a steady pace followed by the twenty or so riders in their moisture wicking nylon/spandex shorts and jerseys.
Swoosh-swoosh-swoosh, the soft whistle made by the air passing over the racing wheels shifts to a higher pitch as the forty legs move in syncopation. As each rider passes you at 30, 35, perhaps even 40 miles per hour, the pitch drops again. While the riders are not huddled together, as they were at the start line, they are still close enough to touch. They know just how far apart they have to be for safety and how close together to minimize wind resistance.
The end car trails behind, with its cargo of spare tires, screws, clips, allen wrenches and other emergency accouterments which might be needed on an eighty minute, thirty-odd mile road race.
A few stragglers follow, those who are having an ‘off’ day, who are not as well trained or are just plain tired, but they too will find that small spot of pride which gives them the final push to finish, even under the most adverse conditions. The stragglers get caught full-on in the sudden Florida downpour the leads avoided and the huddle flew through.
It is the Florida State Championship Road Race 2008 (FSC) and it is beautiful. The combination of man (or woman) and machine coming together to achieve a level of speed and artistry, using the greatest muscle of them all, the brain, to plan strategy for a race against other road racers who are as well or better equipped and trained is impressive.
The FSC covers two days and includes races for individuals from the age of ten to seventy-plus. Races are segregated by age and sex; the teens are broken into four groups and the adults into five year age groupings for the men and ten year brackets for the women. There are two teens, two women and five men’s races on Saturday, some of the age brackets having been combined. On Sunday, only the adults race and they are divided by category and sex, category being determined by results of previous races. Most of the adult road races are 21 to 49 miles in length and run about 90 minutes. The espoirs, males ages 19 to 22, who presumably are at the peak of their youthful strength, have a 56 miles race and on Sunday, the category 1 and 2 racers, the professional contenders, will clock 75 miles.
They line up, on their carbon or titanium machines, thin racing wheels, jazzed up with the latest gear cassettes. The Cat 5s (minimal or no previously recorded racing experience) cast longing looks at the Cat 3s (some experience, having achieved reportable racing results) who, in turn look to the Cat 1s and 2s (professional level racers). Meanwhile the ‘Freds,’ those who think spending enough money on their gear will compensate for inadequate or desultory training, cannot figure out why they are not the leaders of the pack and remain bemused by their lack of success.
In some ways, a bike race is like any other race and in others, it is totally its own beast. There is a start and a finish line, a course to be run, rules to be followed, which will vary according to the type of race, timers to be collected and distributed. However, there are no cars crashing, no revving of engines, no ‘snaps’ called out to opponents. During road races, except for the announcements at the beginning and end, and the counting of laps, almost total quiet pervades, the concentration a palpable thing, not dissimilar to a chess match or surgical suite. As much as the bikers are racing each other, they are racing against themselves, striving to achieve whatever level of perfection they are capable of obtaining, taking something home from each race that they can use to improve their skills in the future.
Racing breaks down into three segments: road racing, time trials and criterium. Road racing is speed racing against other bikers, distance determined by the catagogy of racer. Time trials are run with a computerized chip, a kind of stop watch, tracking the rider’s individual time, irrespective of anyone else racing or the skill level of the other racers. Criterium races, which are street races and highly technical, are generally a set time and so many laps of courses that generally vary from .7 to 1.5 miles. The racers may have five or six closely spaced turns to handle and crashes are not infrequent. To the unintiated, crits look like bike messengers run amok. Racing requires dedication: training, time, money, love, ambition.
Practically anyone can ride and enjoy the experience, whether you plop yourself on an $80 special from a variety store or a specially made model, which can cost upwards of $10,000. Custom Serotta frames alone can cost $7,000. Add brakes, derailleurs, wheels, seats, computers and you're well into the double digits. Having a bike fitted properly, getting a helmet comfortable enough that you will wear it and cycling shoes suitable for riding (with or without clipless pedals) will enhance your ride. Devotion, training, enthusiasm, group rides will improve your skills and teach road safety as well.
Group rides are useful training tools. In addition to the enjoyment of riding with others, they are an efficient way to improve your knowledge and skills. Road safety, how to ride in a huddle, maintaining safe distance, communication cues can all be learned during group rides. While traffic can be daunting to a solo rider, a group offers protection and community, keeping vehicular traffic at bay.
As gas prices soar, bike riding becomes more than a pleasant afternoon, more than a competitive sport; it becomes a viable alternative means of transportation. This two-wheel solution, in addition to not requiring the use of fossil fuels, promotes strong muscles, aerobic conditioning, weight loss and improves the temperament. The endorphins released during exercise and the increased metabolic activity last long after the cycling shoes are packed away.
Bicycle riding, at whatever level you choose to ride, can change your perception. Whether you are a dilettante clocking a few miles now and then, a critical mass biker parading down the avenue, a racer devoting every weekend to the sport, an avid cyclist pulling down 200 to 300 miles a week or a triathlete combining cycling with swimming and running, there is a level of equipment and group to support you in your quest for fitness, fun and fatigued satisfaction.
For more information on riding and racing, go to www.floridacycling.com, www.floridafreewheelers.com, http://floridawomencycling.blogspot.com, www.probicycle.com/mainnet.html, http://alansnel.blogspot.com, www.tbfreewheelers.com, http://oliverscycles.com, http://stpetecm.cjb.net. A calendar of upcoming races may be viewed at http://www.floridacycling.com/calendars/racing.asp
NB: If any readers catch “the bug,” the paper will deny any responsibility for that occurrence.
Disclaimer: Robyn rides an $80 junker four days a week. Every now and then, she is forced onto a Cannondale Six13 Feminine 6 (compact) in the hopes that she be infected and train for the “Bike MS150" to be held on September 20-21, 2008.
UPDATE: Robyn has recently upgraded to a 1994 Cannondale SuperV900 and joined an "urban assault" group.