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Bumping Up: Scaling the Race Category Ladder

The banter up front was tough to decipher over the roar of coasting freehubs. Side-by-side, we spun our way through an industrial park as a team, relishing in a temporary pedal-powered escape from our inboxes and voicemails. These lunch rides always felt like we were getting away with something, like we were a group of high school kids who’d just gassed Mom’s minivan out of the parking lot on a Friday afternoon, bailing on the last class of the day. In the middle of the bunch, a coworker leaned over and said, “Did you hear about Nick?” He spoke it with urgency, in one of those serious tones that made it seem like something terrible had happened. “No, what?” someone shot back. “Dude, he bumped to Cat. 1 over the weekend.” We glanced to the front of the pack where the jovial demeanor of Mr. Nick was obviously different from that of last week’s ride. He’d finally made the bump.

Photos: Re Wikstrom

As an employee of a bicycle equipment manufacturer in town, I happened to be in a position of working with a bunch of these budding cyclists who were clawing their way through the local ranks. At the time, I was on a race team with some of them, but my level of dedication had been waning, taking a full-time backseat to my academic pursuits. Needless to say, many of these dudes were in a category foreign to me, literally and figuratively, which made their stories of moving up all the more interesting. It was sort of an outsider’s glimpse into life of the local pros’ daily grinds.

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One particular friend of mine, a guy who had been training on that “personal coach” level, started seeing his training program pay off in terms of both weekend results and more prestigious race invites. Supplemented by a healthy dose of our town’s weekly crit series, this rider grew stronger (and smarter), quietly slipping his way to the top of the Cat.1s before he really knew what was happening. He confided in me on a group ride that the move up sort of caught him off guard, as it served as the entrance into a new “what the hell have I just gotten myself into?” classification. He used his first major out-of-state professional race at the Tour of Gila to put it in perspective. He said the pack’s speed never dipped below the 50kph mark for the first 80k, all before any of the day’s categorized climbs were even reached. He was concerned—for the first time—that his 53×11 setup wasn’t tall enough. The pack was also tighter and more fluid than back home, with a sense of bike-handling and trust among surrounding riders he hadn’t experienced. He hung in there, and just surviving the weeklong race within time cut felt like a big accomplishment.

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Those who’ve ridden long enough, either from firsthand experience or from the stories of close friends, undoubtedly have similar tales of what changes occur while moving up the categorized-race ladder. In the realm of bicycle racing, upgrading is viewed as a rite of shaved-leg passage, with each bump up bringing on a heightened level of commitment to our skinny-tired obsession. We quickly see the way logging saddle hours matter more than ever, how training schedules and detailed nutrition plans gobble our attention, along with the inevitable dwindling of the personal lives we once knew.

This all comes in the name of not just hanging in there, but also remaining competitive, with a new class of riders. On paper, the prerequisites seem a bit daunting, but the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that accompanies the move up, while difficult to explain to those who’ve never leaped from one category to the next, somehow always seem to justify this new level of dedication to the sport. The hardest part of all of this, believe it or not, comes down to our futile attempts of explaining to our loved ones why we’re always so damn busy.