Friday, February 18, 2011

what it means to be a competent bicycle racer

Wade of made a nice little post the other day linking Maslow's stages of learning with general racing competence. I liked it enough that I thought I'd quote it here.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, and does not recognizes the deficit. An example of this might be someone giving racing a crack for the first time. He might be fit but still does not understand how to bike race. The best place to introduce someone to the race environment would be in D-grade.
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it. This would be after a few races getting comfortable in D-grade and then racing in C-grade. This is a pack of cyclists who have a good fitness base but still learning the major details of how to bike race and the skills required. Things are still being learned such as how to roll turns properly, how to corner, where to position yourself.
  3. Conscious Competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration. Now we’re getting into the B-grade level of racing. Everyone who is good enough to be out there is committed to racing. Many people’s ambition is to make it into A grade but there is still lots experience required to put what has been learned into practice.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned. This should be the skill level of an A-grade cyclist. An A-grade cyclists should know how the game is played, the tactics involved, and not have to second-guess details such as cornering, positioning, attacking, counter-attacking, the direction of the wind, echeloning, holding your line, etc.
The "grades" Wade is referring to are how amateur bike racing is organized in Australia. From what I gather, it's more of a self-policing category system, unlike the more institutional USA Cycling category system here.

I like Wade's application of Maslow's model to cycling. However, I believe a distinction should be made between what I'll call race survival skills and race winning skills. Race survival skills are more or less technical in nature, easier to achieve competence in, and you don't necessarily need to race that much to get there. These include skills such as drafting, pace-lining, echeloning, cornering, holding a wheel when you think you have nothing left to give, how to close a gap, knowing how to eat and drink in the peloton, knowing when to eat and drink to survive the race, and countless other things you just learn by doing a lot of riding with others. Race winning skills are less technical and more nuanced in their application, and are thus harder to learn. These include skills such as positioning, attacking, counter-attacking, when to burn matches and when to save matches, how to race with teammates, how to race without teammates, etc.

[The rest of this post was written with novice to intermediate collegiate cyclists in mind as audience (it gets kind of lecturey), and is posted on the Ship Cycling blog without this explanatory note, in case you were wondering.]

The distinction between these two types of skills is important, I think, because the four levels of bicycle racing competence that Wade describes seem, at first, to map nicely onto the D-A category system in US collegiate racing, where D fields are comprised of novice, USAC Cat 5 riders, and A fields are comprised of elite, USAC Cat 1-3 riders. However, upon reflection, I think the comparison is a more appropriate typology only for race survival skills. Race winning skills, well, that's another matter. While every pro cyclist is likely fully competent in race survival skills, there surely is a great deal of variance in race winning skills (one reason I suspect directors are so adamantly opposed to the elimination of race radios--they want control over in-race tactical decisions because they don't trust their riders' judgment). And I think an argument can be made that some riders are natural racers, which is to say that they seem to have an innate gift for reading a race, attacking at opportune moments, conserving when attacking would bear no fruit, etc. These riders can't really explain how they do it and may be only vaguely aware of the difference between themselves and others in the first place. However, like any skill, no matter the rider's disposition, education and practice can make him or her better, whether that person is the equivalent of a tactical moron or race-reading genius.

Education and practice. With emphasis on the later. Unless you are orders of magnitude more fit than your competitors, wins will not just fall in your lap (and if they do, you're racing below your category). In bicycle racing, to win you have to try to win.

And, in my opinion, that speaks to one of the great ironies of bicycle racing--that those trying hardest to win the race often finish amongst the last in the standings. You see, once a cyclist reaches some standard of competence in race survival skills (and requisite fitness), it's not really that hard to hang on for a top 25 percent placing in any race. Race conservatively, and with minimal effort you'll find that's easy. But to win, you have to be willing to risk colossal defeat. So it would seem that the limiters to winning (if you're counting) include being willing to risk personal pride. And it may be useful, at least from the racer's perspective, to think of a race as having one winner and n-1 losers. No second place. No top 10s. There is just a winner and a lot of unhappy losers.

So that comfortable (and respectable) top 25 percent placing? Screw it. Exhaust your matches winning or lose big trying.

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