Harder Than It Looks

In my youth sports and high school days, my parents made an effort to be at as many events as possible. Baseball, cross country, track, band – they put a lot of miles on the ‘ol 1992 Chevy Lumina. And when I was older, they followed me to a pair of marathons.

But for this latest phase of competition – call it hanging on to youthful exuberance – they’ve been mostly absent. There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with the very real possibility of bone-crunching destruction.

Of course, I do have a track record. In the horrible summer of 2009, I went to the hospital four times. Two visits resulted in overnight stays. One was merely a broken finger.

Yeah, I can’t see why they wouldn’t want to go to a bike race.

But I finally convinced them to come out last weekend for a criterium held about 45 minutes from my hometown. Within five minutes of setting up their lawn chairs, a Cat. 5 racer ate it in a corner right in front of them, blowing up his bike and losing most of his skin – and shorts – on his right side.

There were more crashes later in that Cat. 5 race, which did nothing to reassure my parents that I wouldn’t be next. But my wife talked them down, explaining that as the afternoon went on, the riders would be better and better – able to handle the course mostly without incident.

She was right, of course, though there were plenty of close calls. That said, any time you’re riding elbow-to-elbow at 25-to-30 mph, turning every two blocks and spiking your heart rate, you’re going to have close calls. But instead of skittering across the pavement, close calls are corrected and mitigated.

In my own race, where we went very fast on a very fast course for 55 minutes, I could feel fatigue robbing me of my technical ability as we went on. A bad line in a corner, an inattentive run down a straightaway … there were plenty of opportunities to wad the whole thing up.

Magnify those opportunities, then, over a 120-mile stage of the Tour de France – every day for three weeks. It’s not the terrain itself that’s dangerous, it’s the stress of the race, compounded over miles and miles and miles of effort expended. They’re among the best riders in the world, and they’re among the most stressed-out riders in the world.

Or, in other words, if I was cross-eyed and ready to barf after 45 minutes, how do you think it feels to have survived the Col du Tormalet (and the descent) and then have to go back up Luz Ardiden? Think your technical abilities would keep you safe until the end? And if you’re not worried about yourself, what about someone else’s abilities? Like that dude on your right elbow who looks really stressed … .

Riding a bike is easy. Riding a bike fast is slightly harder. Racing a bike is hard – much harder than it looks. Were it just about going fast, we’d see a lot more riders entered in local races. But it’s about managing your effort, maximizing your ability, reading the race and – yes – staying upright.

Bike racing itself isn’t dangerous. But stress that comes with it is.

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