Race report 2008 #1: Beloit.. And why cycling is the greatest sport in the world

2008: Race Report #1: And…why cycling is the single best sport in the world.


Race Report, Sunday, April 6, Burnham Racing Criterium Masters 30+, Beloit, WI. Team - 60 degrees, 20 mph winds, 26 miles, 35 riders, average speed – 25.4mph, average pulse 161 bpm, max pulse 190 bpm. Sprint speed 37mph.


April. Nearly two months before I usually hit my first race, my friend Matt encouraged me to join him at this little race in Beloit held on a race car track. It was a small pack of riders and it was windy and I was not exactly in racing shape but I decided to race the master’s race on my way to Madison to do some housecleaning and yardwork on my former residence there that is still for sale a year later.


The pace moved in fits and starts and the wind came from all angles as we moved through the curvy race car track. I stayed in the back and as the effort increased, coughed the dust of winter out of the crypt of my stagnant lungs, and felt that uncertain burn of untrained legs. Nonetheless I warmed up and approached some level of comfortability surfing the pack.


Near the end of the race two small breakaways got away – 5 men in total and the rest of us were sprinting for 6th place. I was pleased to feel that despite my lack of fitness, my sprint had returned after the heavy efforts of last summer and I began to feel that glow of confidence return – I knew I was going to be a contender for the finish line.


The final turn was about 450m from the finish – a long way by any standard – but also with a 20mph tailwind.


I made my decision midway through the race – I would take that corner on the outside and see if I could hold the advantage all the way to the line.


My plans worked out beautifully and I accelerated on the inside of the pack using the protection of their draft prior to the last right turn to the finish, and then swung on the outside of the two lead riders just at the apex of the turn with a full burst of hyperspace speed, seeing some shocked looks from the leaders as I slingshotted into the lead – 450 m to go, maxing out at 37mph.


With 300m to go I had about a 100 foot lead on the burgeoning field. With 200m I still had 90 feet. With 100m to go my legs began to lock up and the field began to surge. 10 meters prior to the line, the first rider passed me, and right at the line another rider swung by as well and I ended up 3rd in the sprint, 8th overall.


Nonetheless I was pleased with my relative fitness in April and ecstatic to have my sprint back after destroying it last season with overtraining.



So… why is cycling the single greatest sport in the world?


Three ages and three scenarios:


One: 35 - 75: Let’s say “you’ve arrived” – after switching jobs and questioning your career, finally, in your 30’s or 40’s or 50’s you have come to that weird and sudden realization that money suddenly is no longer the end goal – that you “have enough” to satisfy your needs – though not necessarily your wants. Meanwhile the questions pile up: “Am I really as old as my age says I am?” (How did that happen?) And then a little more subtly, “yes, where did my energy go? - and my waistline?” or, “How can I stay healthy?”


Two: 20 - 35: Instead, maybe you are in your 20’s or 30’s - finally ‘growing up,’ finally got a real job and doing well, thinking about career & family, moving up and moving out, fulfilling your potential - but wanting to stay in shape… how can I do it?


Three: 10 - 20: Finally, lets imagine you have a grade school or junior high school kid – band, drama, national honor society, soccer, football, track, baseball – so many choices - what activities should they choose?


Let me propose that the activity that the best answer – and I mean “best” in all its objective and subjective senses – is cycling.  Riding your bike is the best sport in the world.


I can prove it.


“Sure,” you immediately conjecture, “you must be some kind of cycling fanatic, aiming to convert the masses to your biased way of thought. Besides, who wants to cavort around in spandex and risk their lives in traffic?”




Possibly – possibly true – though I hardly fit the hard core, die hard fanatic persona. Lets instead examine each of the 3 examples above to determine whether there is any truth to my potential fiction.


Let’s work backwards from Three: the junior high school kid. Nominally, soccer, track, football, baseball, or academic pursuits are the typical achievement oriented activities for this age group. And rightly so – all of these have a teaming aspect and bring about important developmental opportunities of balancing individual performance against team gain. For most of these activities, true celebration and victory comes about from that of the group rather than the individuals.


Team sports are a mainstay of youth development programs the world over and provide many valuable lessons. There is just one huge, glaring problem – team sports for these kids tends to end as soon as high school ends. For some smaller percentage, it ends in college. And for that incredibly rare few it means a few years as a professional.


Regardless, the fundamental flaw of these team sports remains the same – they end. Joe Montana isn’t playing adult league football somewhere and for 99% of these talented (or untalented athletes) the result is the same – ‘retirement’. There is no extended ability to create a healthy routine from these kinds of team sports.


With the waxing age of the players comes a waning availability for opportunities to play them – the requisite leagues, fields, locker rooms, schedules, referees, coaches are in relatively short supply versus the “golden high school/college years” and the associated infrastructure and funding. So for a majority of team sports players it all just ends… and hence the legions of former football, basketball and baseball players the world over are now become couch potatoes, lounging and snacking - watching the games they used to play.


Indeed – what to do if there isn’t a league near you? Run, bike, swim, walk, hike, climb…Several recent studies concluded that grade school and high school participants in individual sports – swimming, running, cycling etc. were considerably more likely to continue their sport – for life – versus these highly acclaimed team sports. Further they discovered that with the corresponding continuance of physical activity comes a correlated decrease in weight, heart disease and other ailments. Indeed for many of the team sport individuals, they find themselves mid-life in need of finding a “new sport” and masses of these sports minded individuals join softball, running, cycling, and triathalon clubs each year.


Want to help your junior-high school student have a full, healthy, active life? Consider individual sports… in particular cycling…


Now lets consider Two: the twenty/thirty-somethings. Work lunches, late nights, travel and the associated fast foods, Friday night beers and cocktails – all without the physically active lifestyle associated with walking across campus or intramural Frisbee.


Witness the arrival of the second ‘freshman 15’ weight gain. Team sports may still be an option – and if you are single – might still be the best option: find a league dominated by the opposite sex and you’ve got a sure fire way to potentially ensure continued health (and the motivation to manage it.)


But sooner or later odds are you’ll settle down – and suddenly 4 hour softball games a couple nights a week with single girls in shorts and tight t-shirts, and post game rituals of pitchers of beer after the game may not fly so well with your fiancé – and definitely not with your pregnant wife unless you are both part of the league. And, seriously – is swatting an oversized ball and jogging a few bases really an equal balance to the beer, shots, hamburgers and brats?


At this point, running might seem the best option – easy to do anywhere, no equipment other than shoes and shorts, and even city living presents no serious obstacle. That is, until the first injury… Lots of 20/30 somethings decide to train for marathons – often a doubly noble goal of getting fit, accomplishing a difficult task, as well as raising money for charity. However, there is a significant downside. According to several studies running a marathon and similar extraordinary pursuits can create irreparable damage to bones and tendons. Even if an injury isn’t serious, a sidelined ‘occasional’ runner may well lose weeks or months of activity while recovering, and will likely be more cautious in the future.*


(*sidenote – in 31 years of cycling I’ve never had an injury that kept me from riding, and indeed, all injuries were from crashing – not from the actual activity of pedaling)


Finally, One: the productive 30/40/50+ year old. No longer in the full bloom of youth where muscle pulls are rare and bodies recover quickly, these maturing adults: professionals, teachers and production workers, working mothers and fathers etc. still need exercise. Indeed it is more imperative than ever for success in work, family – in life, to reduce stress and increase productivity, as well as to manage weight and blood pressure – with heart disease being the number one killer of adults in the USA.


Running remains a temptation – but becomes more and more fraught with injury perils with the exception of those naturally birdlike lightweight runners whose frames can withstand the pounding.


Now those other team sports – softball, racquetball, tennis, football etc. become more and more untenable – either from a schedule standpoint – or from an injury standpoint. In the modern office workplace it seems that a majority of casts and splints are a result of one of these sports – the sudden twists, sideways movements, stops and starts – these begin to push the limits of the aging musculature and thinning bones.


So… whats left? Swimming, cross country skiing, walking, and cycling. All of these are low impact sports and tend to be relatively injury free. Each has their limitations – lets start with swimming. For some dedicated few water rats that don’t mind being in a liquid habitrail with no sights and no sounds, swimming may be the perfect addiction – safe, all muscles used, aerobic, no impact – an excellent choice assuming you live near a gym with a pool that has lanes available and you don’t mind all of those other limitations.


How about cross country skiing? Potentially the ‘perfect sport’ for winter – scenery, low impact, all muscles, strength, power, speed, and aerobic conditioning – it also requires… snow. Not exactly year round.


So we are left with walking and cycling. Walking is amazingly healthful – a long walk burns fat, strengthens muscles, improves coordination, and gets oneself outside (weather permitting) to bring in that other significant contributor to health and reduced stress – nature.


That said, walking feels a bit mundane for many – and because it limits output, is necessarily a low aerobic exercise – very difficult to approach aerobic thresholds or test oneself.


Finally – we are left with cycling. An interesting sidenote here: guess what, according to a recent poll, is the number one preferred leisure activity for adult Americans? No – it’s not cycling, running, skiing, swimming, baseball, golf, soccer or football.


It is ‘going for a drive.’ Americans love their roads and their native invention the automobile.


Cycling is low impact – the smooth rotation of the pedals causes few injuries. Cycling is both aerobic, as well as anerobic – the body is naturally stressed to accompany the needs to accelerate, shift gears, climb hills. The fat burning characteristics of low aerobic efforts like walking are enabled during flat steady efforts. But this is complemented by the muscle and bone building strength exercises caused by accelerations, stop signs and hills.


So… there you have it – for teens, an individual sport like cycling creates a lifelong skill and interest that will increase their lifespan and happiness. For twenty-somethings it can replace time consuming team sports or injury prone activities like running, and for the rest of us 30+ athletes, provides a low impact sport that burns fat, builds bone and muscle and serves as a surrogate for the #1 US pastime of ‘going for a drive.’


But all that is a lot of data – let me end with two stories:


Story 1: When I was growing up – as a young teen – there was a guy in my cycling club named TJ Hill that led a lot of the rides where I grew up in Detroit. He was sort of ageless – lean, muscular, and incredibly strong. On club rides he would take the lead for long stretches and we would all draft off his strong legs and amazing endurance.


I went to college over 20 years ago and never moved back to Michigan. Nonetheless a couple years back I joined the email newsletter of my old cycling club in Detroit – the “Wolverine Sports Club” and lo and behold, TJ was still leading rides and a key figure in the club.


For the last couple of years I continued to read about his exploits without much thought – “that’s TJ” I thought.


It never really occurred to me that TJ could have aged in the process.


It wasn’t until I read a ‘race result’ from a 100 mile tour/race in Northern Michigan a couple summers ago that it brought home the legacy I had always observed but never comprehended growing up. Those ‘ageless’ guys leading the rides? They weren’t 20 or 30 something athletes – they were 40/50/60 something studs continuing to practice their craft.


The race result I read? 1st in the 70 – 75 year old category – TJ Hill. 100 miles: time? 4 hours and 17 minutes.


70 something years old and he averaged over 23mph for 100 miles. TJ is now 75 and rode 12,313 miles last year (yes – that’s nearly 40 miles a day, every single day). He just got back from a two month training camp in Alabama where rode 58 days straight and averaged 67 miles every day.


Sure – he’s a freak – an anomaly of nature to do so much and do it so fast. But do this – go to a century ride or charity cycling event – you’ll be amazed at the number of healthy older individuals out making their mark and helping others.


Story 2: This one is simple. Think back to when you were a teen or maybe young twenty something. Remember how you used to skip stairs, or bounce down them? Sometimes you’d take them 3 at a time, and with a good rhythm seek to skip and reach for the 4th stair? Remember sprinting all out to chase the dog or a Frisbee or having the control to leap off a stump or curb? Remember that confidence, quickness and coordination?


I am 39. I’ll turn 40 in August. I’ve been a cyclist for 31 seasons. Today I skipped 3 stairs (and considered a reach for the 4th) on my way chasing my 7 year old daughter up the stairs. Sometimes in the winter, when work overwhelms and riding in the gym becomes a bit boring, I’ll start to feel my age, walking heel-toe when barefoot, clearing the cobwebs from my back when bringing things up from the basement – but I’ll tell you this: with the cycling season back in full swing and being back outside riding and enjoying the spring air almost every day – my youth is still here. I pad lightly around the house on the balls of my feet with a spring to my step no different than when I was 19, and when I tense my legs to chase my daughter or my dog out in the lawn – it is still with a burst of furious speed when I pursue her giggles and flailing tresses.


Its hard to describe, but after a good hard ride, you’ll never feel more alive. THAT’s why cycling is the single best sport in the world…


…because you can experience runner’s high without running.


To really living,