Competing As An Elite

What It Takes (and Doesn’t Take) to Compete in the Elite Wave


I use the word “compete” loosely. I recently finished my second season in the elite wave, racing in all but one round of the Coconut Cup and a few rounds of the Florida State Championship Series. (To be more specific, I race the 40+ expert class.) At my best, I was near the front mid-pack, although at one round of the FSC, I finished only one minute behind the overall leader. During the race, I remember thinking to myself, “Why is everyone going so slow?” Either they all secretly agreed to slacken the pace that race (and didn’t tell me) or I had something special that day. In the Coconut Cup, I tallied a number of seconds in my class and usually finished in the top five overall. But then again the Coconut Cup does not draw the same number of competitors as the FSC.

Don’t mistake my honesty for self-pity, however. I didn’t ask for this; I was bumped up into the expert class. And so I race against the fastest off-road cyclists in the state on a regular basis. I am a proud mid-pack elite waver. I must say, however, that I still feel like Cat. 2ers and 3ers are my kindred spirits. I occupy a nebulous position: I feel like an amateur athlete, but I received cash payouts on several occasions for top-five finishes. Because of my between-and-betwixt status, I thought I’d share my thoughts about what it takes (and doesn’t take) to compete in the elite wave. My purpose is to demystify the aura that surrounds the off-road cyclists who start first at every round of every cross-country event.

What it takes #1: Ridiculous amounts of training aggression. No, it’s more than aggression. You must inflict pain upon yourself. But it’s more than that. It’s downright masochism. You reach the point where you need that pain; it lets you know that you have paid your dues. In my forthcoming book, Confessions of a Midlete: Who We Are, Why We Do It and How We (Occasionally) Kick Ass, I turn to Nietzsche’s conception of the Ubermensch to explain this aggression and Freud to explain the masochism. Nevertheless, if you want to line up in the elite wave, pay your dues.

What it takes #2: Assuming you’ve met requirement #1, confidence is also important. You have to feel like you belong there. Like many other areas of my life, I had to fake it at first. When I taught my first class at the college level, I had to fake being a college professor. When my first child was born, I had to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing. After a while, I actually got really good at these things. The same applied to racing in the elite wave.

In fact, I would recommend having fun with that confidence. On race morning, swagger past all the non-elites as you move to the front, say “excuse me” like you’re a bad ass. And line up behind the tape like you’ve been doing this your whole life.

What it takes #3: A very understanding spouse. If your marriage has not yet come under stress, it will. If you have kids, the stress triples. If you can’t work some magical math to make the numbers add up—enough hours spent with your wife, with your kids, at your job, training, and going to races—then you have a few options: forget about racing in the elite wave, divorce your spouse, and/or be a shitty parent.

(And to my competitors who are single, I’m sure you—gleefully—realize that you have an unfair advantage. You should race in a separate class: Elite Singles. You shouldn’t race against Elite Marrieds. Let’s add another class while we’re at it: Elite Marrieds with Children.)

What it doesn’t take #1: race-day stress and anxiety. Racing in the elite wave is less stressful than racing in Cat. 2 or 3. Why? Because in the elite wave, everyone goes fast, and everyone knows what they’re doing. No need to worry if you get a bad start. I have watched the fastest riders in the elite wave pass me and a bunch of others on their way to victory. When I raced in Cat. 2 and Cat. 3, I knew that inevitably some douchebag would get a good start and bottleneck me and a bunch of other angry competitors. (I unfortunately re-experience this during the mass start of an endurance race, where too many wannna-be’s reveal—to the detriment of everyone behind them—that their fitness level does not match their overzealous competitiveness.)

What it doesn’t take #2: a coach. Not only that, but I’ll share a really embarrassing secret. I don’t even use a heartrate monitor. I’m not just low-tech, I’m no tech. I could tell you that I’ve been doing this long enough that I know my body, that I know when the intervals are working, that I know how hard to push. And I think I would be about 75% truthful. The fact is, I will hire a coach sometime in the future. Nevertheless, you can do it without.

What it doesn’t take #3: mechanical skill. I can say this with certainty (in the form of another embarrassing confession): I am the worst mechanic on the line of the elite wave. I suck at working on my bike. I don’t want to learn. I don’t want to learn because I hate working on my bike. Because I hate working on my bike, I suck at it. I am a professor of literature, after all. All of my knowledge is theoretical—zero practical knowledge. Thankfully, mountain bikes are pretty bullet proof these days. My mechanics are patient with me. They know I can ride the hell out of my bike, even though I don’t know how the hell it works.

So these are my confessions. If you see me at the races, go ahead and make some fun. But I would bet you my competitors have their fair share of embarrassing secrets as well. They may be the fastest off-road cyclists in Florida, but they are—mostly—human.