5 Biggest Obstacles to Racing at the “Pro” Level

01
Jul
2011

We’ve got a very interesting guest post for you today….coming at you from my friend Heather Nielson. Heather is the coolest Pro Rider I know and I love her outlook on life and cycling.  Have a look at what she has to say about the biggest obstacles in racing.

The 5 Biggest Obstacles to Racing at the “Pro” Level

by Heather Nielson

I suppose the first thing I need to do is define what ‘Pro’ means in bicycle racing because quite honestly, the lines are a bit….fuzzier….in women’s racing than in men’s racing. The smaller number of women racing, and therefore the fewer teams compared to men’s teams as well as the obviously smaller sponsorship dollars to support those teams results in a constant shuffling of women into and out of the ‘Pro’ ranks as teams are formed, top riders are picked, they compete nationally and internationally for a year or two only to find that the team has been dissolved for the next season and they are ‘forced’ to get re-absorbed back into the local amateur racing scene. In Northern California, this situation is amplified; which is why I came here. At every bike race I go to here, there are many women who are currently, or who have been ‘pro’ at some point in their bike racing ‘careers’. I knew that the pro teams race here a lot and there is a deep, rich history of bike racing here that holds within its’ pages a list of ‘who’s who’ in American Women’s bike racing. I feel honored to race against these women every time I roll up to the start line. There are many obstacles to achieving ‘success’ within the sport of bike racing and since one of my ‘dreams’ is to race at the ‘professional’ level, I’ll focus on the top five obstacles to racing at the Pro level, as Darryl suggested I do for this article.

In my humble opinion then, I feel that the biggest obstacles are:

  1. Money
  2. Time
  3. The glass ceiling
  4. Team dynamics
  5. Traveling

Money

Some would define bicycle racing as an elitist sport. There are large start-up costs to buying a bike, all the gear, maintenance, registration fees, traveling money to and from races and then later – upgrading equipment, bike repair labor….I could go on and on. Any person making a reasonable income could quickly spend a large percentage of their paychecks racing their bike every other weekend between the months of February and September. The non-spectator-friendly nature of the sport also adds to the difficulty in convincing sponsors to invest in even the international men’s bike racing scene, much less the national women’s racing season. As a result, the trickle-down effect is no less than exponential. While sitting with my @talkingtreads friends @michaelsmith & @TheKvR after watching the stage 2 sprint point in downtown Folsom (in the pouring down rain and wind) I was telling them about writing this article and they came up with some really great points when it came to the nature of spectator sports versus non-spectator sports like cycling. Sports like football, basketball, baseball etc. are able to charge entrance fees and charge exorbitant amounts for concessions which transfer into the pockets of the athletes in the sum of relatively huge salaries. I’m not against paying a professional athlete a large amount of money as I understand basic economics of supply and demand and also that the professional athlete’s career is relatively shorter than the more traditional ‘working man’s’ and so making enough money to support themselves after retiring at a younger age is also a factor in the large salaries. Aside from that however, they brought up a really interesting difference in the fan base between the more traditionally American sports like Football and basketball which are spectator friendly and bicycle racing. Some of the biggest sponsors for football and basketball are food and beverage related like Budweiser and Doritos, etc while the biggest sponsors for bicycle racing are cycling gear and parts-related companies. They offered the opinion that this was because to a large degree, the majority of the fan base for football and basketball don’t actually participate in those sports, while the majority of bike racing fans do ride a bike at least a minimum, recreationally. I believe this offers a unique opportunity then for professional cycling teams endeavoring to gain sponsorship dollars. I’m really not sure what the answer is, but I’d be interested in participating in the ‘conversation’, whatever avenue that takes place in as I would like to be a part of the advancement of women’s bicycle racing and an advocate of the bike in general.

Time

Cycling is a very unique sport. The time it takes to develop as an athlete takes years and years; a lot longer than most other sports. Fitness is layered, compounded and very individual. Each season brings a new focus on a weakness for the rider, as well as team and race commitments. The body changes physiologically, external factors put pressure on one’s ability to train, both physically and mentally. A lot of bike racers have difficulty with this part as it requires an enormous amount of patience. That is just the long-term aspect of the sport however. Additionally, the daily requirements in the time it takes to train, recover etc is also exceptional. There is no other sport that requires the sheer amount of time commitment to training as cycling does. ‘Training’ isn’t just time in the saddle by the way. The athlete’s ability to recover is paramount to being able to train day after day after day. Everything you do off the bike effects your ability to put that necessary 110% into the bike. Put simpler, it’s not just a 3-6 hour training and you’re done. Eating right, napping, using as little energy as possible, keeping your legs up &/or wearing compression clothing, massages, hydration, etc……it’s definitely a full time job for anyone taking the sport seriously.

Glass ceiling

It’s no secret that women get paid less than men, in nearly everything we do for a living; and the discrepancy of salaries in athletics are even larger. Many men would argue that women’s sports simply aren’t as aggressive or exciting as men’s. I have also seen many men be more vocally supportive of women’s bike racing than many women themselves. Regardless, I hesitate to get into a ‘feminist’ discussion on the topic but it is quite simply a fact.

Team Dynamics

Once you upgrade from Category 4, then 3 and then finally to racing at the Pro/1/2 level, if you’re racing by yourself, it’s basically a suicide mission. You need to be on a team or you’re more than likely to get chewed up and spit out every race. When you look at the television feed from a helicopter over say, The Tour of California, if you don’t understand the tactics behind bike racing, you usually just see a pack of riders riding along the road and probably think ‘that looks boring, they’re just riding….’ However, bicke racing is basically a moving chess game. There is so much going on all the time that a 60 mile road race goes by in what feels like an hour and time virtually disappears during a 45 minutes balls-to-the-wall criterium. So not only do you have to be exceptionally fit, but you also have to be able to make split second tactical decisions for (in most cases) the benefit of the team your are racing with, all while riding in a close pack of riders. I’ve already described several unique characteristics to bike racing, but there is one more specific to the team dynamic and that is that bicycle racing is the only team sport in the world where individuals win. The dynamics between teammates then, necessarily have to be based on respect and trust. You don’t necessarily have to be best friends with your teammates, but you better respect them enough so you’re willing to bury yourself so that they can get on the podium….for the team. Your ability to work hard, communicate with your teammates and respect them are crucial if you want a successful season, whether you’re at the amateur or professional level.

Traveling

The traveling part of racing is about as hard as the race itself. The early weekend wake-up calls, packing for a race, the physical demands of traveling, and then traveling home after you’ve just taxed your body to its’ maximum can wear you down on a whole other level outside of the actual training and racing demands of the sport. To some degree, your body adjusts, you become efficient, car-pool, and become more or less mentally desensitized to it. It’s not uncommon though, for interviews of some of the top professional bike racers in the world to use the response to the question of what they like least about bike racing to be: ‘the traveling’.

Heather Nielson is an elite bike racer for Touchstone Climbing, a USAC certified Coach, and in her free time she likes to draw pictures and spend the rest of her time laughing, sleeping and eating.  Be sure to check out her blog, www.heathernielson.com, and find out more about how she acquired her love for cycling and see what adventures she’s having as she tears up the cycling circuit.

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6 Responses to “ 5 Biggest Obstacles to Racing at the “Pro” Level ”

  1. Harry Chung on July 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    I rowed for 4 years in college ( and that’s how I started cycling, and I throughly enjoyed the article. 
    I find rowing and cycling to be very similar: near-zero sponsorship, non spectator friendly nature of the sports, and ultimate fitness that athletes need to achieve in order to success. (unfortunately, there are no “pro” rowers – no one gets paid to row except national team rowers)

    despite the sad nature of the sports, and I really do enjoy watching/participating in the sports b/c I, and everyone else who enjoy the sports, know what it takes to play those sports. I think that ties everyone in the circle tighter than other sports fans.

    at the same time, I don’t think I’ll race for the reasons that you stated in the article. 

    • Heather Nielson on July 1, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      You’re absolutely right!  ONe of my best friends, who used to race professionally started out as a Rower and was internationally ranked while competing from her home in Canada.  She was lucky enough to have the support of her parents while she competed as a rower.  You’re right, there’s so many common threads among sports, professional or not. 

  2. Kelly on July 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I know very little about professional cycling (remember, I just bought my first grocery pannier :) ), but I am fortunate to live only a few miles away from Heather. Two weeks ago, I had the chance to see her race…and I am hooked. The energy at the race (Nevada City Classic) was almost palpable; Heather was awesome and informative and intense; and I learned a great deal about how it all works. Even better…I took my mom with me. And she had a great time too.

    Great article, my friend. Now I just need to get you over to the house to teach me how to clean my bike (which I have never done). :)

    • Heather Nielson on July 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm

      Hahahaha!  You’re awesome Kelly.  It’s not very often that someone who is brand new to the sport VOLUNTEERS to do a water-bottle hand -up, which you did perfectly by the way!  I’ll be over soon and I’ll show you everything I know my friend.  You’re awesome and I’m really glad I met you and feel lucky to be able to call you ‘friend’.

  3. Anonymous on July 1, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    That’s an interesting point about the difference in fan bases of cycling versus the big American sports of football and basketball. I get the sense that the football/basketball fans are living vicariously through their sports stars while most cycling fans at least participate in some way in the sport of cycling. That’s really evident at the big tours where you see hundreds of folks in full kit on the side of the rode, especially on the mountain stages, because they rode their bike to watch the race. 

    Down here in Florida we don’t have a racing scene like you do there in NorCal but I wish we did (not that I can race) whether it’s men or women. I checked out your website and results. Congrats on some great races.

    • Heather Nielson on July 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      Thank you for reading and thank you for your comments!  Yes we all learn something from each other everyday don’t we?

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