The summertime ritual of amateur bike racers all over the USA goes something like this: one or two evenings a week, they duck out of the office about half an hour before they are supposed to, quickly change into their lycra, and ride double-time to their local race series.
This is an absolute rite of passage, and for anyone looking to dip their toes into the churning whitewater of bike racing, we heartily recommend giving it a try. But let’s not beat around the bush: weeknight racing can be intimidating. It can also be really hard to begin racing, for reasons too numerous to list here, and it can be a bit painful, of course. There’s also the consideration that it’s an order of magnitude less glamorous than the stuff we get to see on TV. But anyone who has spent a season or two chasing other enthusiasts around their local race circuit can tell you how much fun it is, and how it can make you fast. For the uninitiated, here’s a run-down of what to expect from the weird world of weeknight bike racing.
These will range from carbon superbikes that wouldn’t be out of place on the start line of the Tour, all the way down to bikes that can only be described as ‘much loved’. There’s a moral here, though: weeknight racing isn’t about the quality of your bike, it’s about riding hard for an hour, then heading home safe in the knowledge that you’ve earned your dinner.
In addition, an evening spent with an amateur peloton will provide a brief but unforgettable history of cycling technology. Top tubes range from the unapologetically horizontal to more modern slopes, and frame shapes start with the traditional diameters of steel tubing and end with the convolutions of carbon. You’ll see components you had either forgotten about or never knew existed, and have the chance to marvel at the sound of forty pairs of wheels rolling past at once. It’s louder than you might expect.
Those who take the time to marshall amateur bike races are, in our opinion, minor saints. Take Luciano, who flips the lap board and officiates at Portland’s PIR series [near to where Rapha’s North American HQ is based], every week, all summer long – although he’s best known for shouting advice at the newbies in the lower categories and cracking wise at the antics of the fast group. Luciano is critical to the running of the evening’s racing, and his role requires a good knowledge of bike racing and a level disposition. His rationale for being a marshall is more prosaic. “You don’t need a winter of base training to officiate,” he explains, “besides, I can’t really race anymore.”
At this point, Luciano broke our conversation to turn to the track and shout: “Neutral doesn’t mean stop! Keep pedalling! Neutral doesn’t mean stop!” Then, voice lowered, he added: “I have to say the exact same thing every week…”
And now for the cycling equivalent of a public service announcement. There isn’t an organising body in the sport that isn’t crying out a spare set of hands to help marshall, and anyone who has spent any time racing in the past year should consider volunteering for a race. You might learn something from someone like Luciano.
Like any shared experience, heading to the local race is a shared experience that creates a bond between its participants. The faces become familiar, as does the routine – pinning numbers, warming up, frantically searching for your missing chamois cream/water bottle/gel. It doesn’t take long before these behaviours become second nature, and being expertly prepared for an evening’s race becomes as easy as heading to the pub for a quick post-work drink
There’s nothing that unites a group of amateur racers quite like the unending dissection of their race. Tactics, the course, the wind, the latest team kits, anything and everything is analysed and reported.
At Portland’s PIR, local racer Robert Mayfield – who races on Tuesday nights as part of his training for track – had the final word on the course’s characteristics. “There’s no other crit like this, truthfully. It’s flat and fast, and there are no features to separate the group out. The result is that you find guys here who might not do well in a four-corner crit, where you have to sprint out of every bend. Here, you don’t have to brake at all. On the other hand, the sprint is really long, which I enjoy but most hate.”