Commuter Racing | Bike Commuters

The other night I got home from work. Hey dear, said my wife, how was your day? Excellent, I replied, I overtook three people on the climb up the hill, and one guy made a big effort to overtake me, couldn't keep up the pace, and cracked. It was really great. Really. That was the one thing I was thinking about. Because, although many people will deny it, there is a subtle race going on. Its often referred to as commuter racing or the great race, but its seldom talked about openly (the first rule of commuter racing is, of course, that you don't talk about commuter racing). And one of the first things you'll find out when you start bike commuting is, everyone does it but few people admit it.

Think about it. When you see someone 100m further up the climb you're on, do you think Ahah, a comrade, a confrere, a brother cyclist toiling up the same ascent as myself  perhaps I could catch up and exchange some knowing banter about the difficulty of the gradient? Do you like heck. You think His arse is mine, and you put the hammer down to try and catch them. And if you do, you don't slacken off and have a chat in the Spirit of Cycling Fellowship  you breezily say Hello! as you go past (in brief acknowledgement of the S of CF), while going as fast as you can without making it obvious that you're trying. And if you do slacken off and ride next to someone to have a friendly chat, its usually to demonstrate that you're able to talk normally while the other guy is clearly riding at the point where they cant get out more than three words without gasping.

But, y'know, it's not a race.

Of course its not a race. If it was a race, you'd have numbers on. And you'd have all started at the same time. As is, you often see people who've just started their 5k saunter back home pitting themselves against someone who's coming up to the end of their 20k of rolling hills. You'd also be on roughly similar bikes; as is, road bikes compete with mountain bikes with sit-up-and-beg town bikes. The blatant inequality of equipment is all part of the fun. Have you ever seen the face of someone on a town bike when they pass a roadie in full team replica kit? You can see the grin from space. I know a number of single-speed mountain bikers who dedicate their commuting lives to overtaking riders on geared bikes. You, the guy with the beard riding a vintage 70s touring bike you've owned from new  you're telling me that you don't get a buzz from passing a 20-something on $4k of carbon fibre? No-ones immune.

If it was a race, there'd also be some agreement about such things as start and finish lines. You come up behind someone: maybe they're riding all the way to the top of the mountain, maybe they're turning off halfway. Maybe you can afford to put out a hell of an effort to stay ahead of them until the turnoff to Johnsonville, after which you can grovel slowly up the rest of the hill secure in the knowledge that you held the contender off. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Do you feel lucky?

If it was a race, you'd have an agreed list of participants. In practice, you just try and keep up with/overtake people as you see them. As you pass one rider, you spot the next one ahead and start chasing them. Over time, you get to recognize other people on your commute. I know three riders who do roughly the same route I do at about the same time who are stupidly, stupidly faster than me. Really. They pass me like Im standing still. Ill be rolling at 30kph and they'll blow past at 40. But I don't need to think Damn, Ive lost that one  they're clearly so far out of my league that theres no pressure to feel as though were competing.

And of course, if it was a race there'd be winners and losers. As is, if you overtake someone you can glory in your victory; if you get overtaken, you can just think Ouch, its not a race and deliberately slow up a bit to show that you're more concerned with the bike as a means of transportation rather than some silly macho competitive thing. The best of both worlds.

This is not, by the way, to imply that all commuter cyclists are cut-throat macho types who like nothing better than grinding others into the dirt. Of course there is a spirit of fellowship: any time I puncture on my ride home, I can guarantee that at least half the riders going past will slow down to call out You OK there mate? in case I don't have a patch kit on me. Its just that theres a certain competitive instinct that comes out of the mildest-mannered person.

So if its not a race, why do we do it? Because it is a race. Its a race inside my head. And Im winning.

Five tips for commuter racing:

  1. Obvious effort is frowned upon. Unless you can make it look like absolute eyeballs-out full speed head is your normal commute pace, trying too hard makes it look like you're, well, trying too hard. You may well be, of course, but nonchalance is important  when you pass someone, you've got to look as if theres no effort involved. Bonus points for putting on a spurt behind someone and then passing while audibly freewheeling.
  2. Drafting is fine. C'mon, it makes it feel more like a real race. But don't just wheelsuck. If you are drafting, take your turn. Especially don't wheelsuck for ages and then do a big sprint around to pass your imaginary finish line. OK, the pros do it, but its annoying.
  3. Pay attention to traffic and the road. Its pretty easy to get so involved in the prospect of overtaking the dude on the Bianchi that you miss the BMW about to turn across your path. Don't forget that you're on the road, and that there are drivers, kids, little old ladies and red lights around. And for the love of god, obey the road rules. Yeah, you can gain a few seconds on someone by blasting through a red light, but it makes you look like a twerp and further tarnishes cyclists reputation. Obey the rules and treat red lights as a chance to practice your track sprint starts.
  4. Local knowledge counts. After a while, you get to know your route really well. Get used to stuff like timing the lights. The rider who sprints off as the light goes green but has to wait thirty seconds at the next light down the road doesn't look as smooth as the rider who knows that if you stick to 20kph, you hit the next light just as it turns and you don't have to get a foot down. Style points count for stuff like this.
  5. Don't bring it unless you can take it. Passing someone is only half the job  now you've got to stay ahead. If you're just hanging on to someones wheel with a severe effort, you probably don't want to put yourself into the red and pass them. Overtaking someone and then falling off the pace just makes you look silly. You can try to pretend that you've just taken a short turn pulling and are now dropping back to draft again, but you're not fooling anyone.
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