By: Heather Nielson
I started out a mountain biker long before I ever touched a road bike. I met someone who told me he knew a lot about bike racing and said that I should pick up the road bike because that’s how you get really fit. I did my first road race, which was actually a stage race, in Las Vegas wherein the categories for women were so small that all the categories were combined. So, as a cat 4, I lined up for my first criterium next to a few pro’s that had quads twice the size of my trunk and I thought…’they’re gonna eat me for lunch’. Not only did I survive and finish with the group after my first criterium, but my love for road racing began and I quit racing mountain bikes and never looked back.
I upgraded within a season and 1/2 to a Cat 2 and so thought I’d better join a big elite women’s team if I was going to go anywhere as a bike racer. I have learned a LOT since then. I had a lot of natural ability, dedication and willingness to sacrifice and stay focused that helped me upgrade so quickly but getting my Cat 1 was the most difficult upgrade to earn for lots of reasons; but I wanted to talk about how the complex dynamic of bike racing as a team sport played a role in my story. It is the only team sport where individuals win. As a result, the natural human condition to compete, jealousy, self-entitlement, selfishness and basic survival come to the forefront more than they do in other sports.
My first season as a Cat 2 on that team, I DNF’d (did not finish) more races than I actually finished. I spent a lot of energy doing what I thought I should do as a teammate to those who were more veteran riders. Trying to ‘earn’ your spot on a team as a member who the team is going to work for later isn’t so cut and dry. Also, this wasn’t a professional team, so I wasn’t getting paid a salary to do ‘my job’; and yet I still felt all this pressure to work for other teammates. I think this is because of the nature of women in sports. Women feel a larger obligation to other women, we want to be liked and we also want to be asked to return to the team the following year. I believe though that a healthy balance can be made between racing as a teammate while working towards your own goals; although it can be difficult. Some things that I learned over the past several years that may help:
- If you’re doing what you should, when you should, during a race to give yourself the best possible chance of winning/getting a result, then you ARE being a good teammate by representing your team as a bike racer and athlete. Just don’t race against your teammate. Don’t chase them down if they get in a break or block them in a final sprint. (It happens!) Unless you’re getting paid a salary to do a specific job, or you have agreed before the race starts that you’re working for someone, race your race.
- Realize that it’s a bike race, a sport, not a social gathering, or a girl’s/guys-day-out. Don’t take things personally by your teammates or your competitors when they attack or do what they need to do in a bike race to secure a result: ITS A BIKE RACE! That’s why we’re there. We’re competitors. Let’s push each other to the limits, not drag each other down.
- Be professional in the ‘office’. The office as a bike racer is the before and after the race. The car pool rides, the warm-ups, the preparation, the team e-mails, meetings and sponsor agreements. Be responsible, show up on time, take care of your gear and yourself, don’t expect other people to take care of your travel plans, bike, equipment, food etc. Reciprocate, do trades, be pleasant and don’t make it all about you and your race. (Ironically, I find this part of bike racing to be the most difficult part for most of us).
Some of these I learned quickly while others took me YEARS. I hope that this helps you learn how to approach this season as a teammate and an individual athlete.