Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why You Should Take a Fast Chick Out for a Ride
Women's Competitive Cycling

By Kathryn Hunter

You don't know she's fast. It's just a guess. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes – stocky, narrow, short, tall, skinny legs, big legs. The best indicator is not a single physical characteristic, but a mental one. She's the type of woman who'd dive for a ball, jog through the rain, sacrifice a happy hour to fit in a workout, wake up for practice at five in the morning... In other words, she's the type of woman who likes to, or can't help but, test her physical limits.

And she doesn't know cycling is out there. It's like not knowing there's an underground wine cellar in your backyard, or never having heard of marshmallow fluff and peanut butter sandwiches. Do the fast chicks you know and the cycling community as a whole a favor, and introduce them to each other.

The challenges, and a few words of encouragement

While there are more Cat 5 men than ants in an anthill, their movements similarly erratic, women are in short supply at local road races. Often men's Cat 5 will start out at 40 or 50 riders, or sometimes 100 split into two groups, but the women – all the women, from Cat 1 to Cat 4 – can be lumped into a single field of 10 to 20 riders.

It's a strange phenomenon. Today athletic women are the social norm rather than the taboo, and there's no shortage of female marathoners, triathletes, and runners. Cycling's an endurance sport, too – so where are they?

One reason is that, regardless of gender, cycling is something you tend to stumble upon by accident. Most people start in their 20s or 30s. Many female triathletes make the switch when they discover their strength on the bike. Other women find the sport through a boyfriend, husband, or friend. To be honest, this tends to make getting started much easier, especially since (not to stereotype, but it's true) women seem far less likely to delve into the world of gear and strategy on their own. They just don't, as a rule, have the Cat 5 bravado and instant obsession with parts reviews. That comes with time.

Some say women aren't aggressive and competitive enough for the sport. One male cyclist I know went so far as to blame the scarcity of female cyclists on an innate lack of bike handling skills . I don't mean to villainize him or the other naysayers – it's true that women are generally less aggressive. But in some ways that's more of a pro than a con. You could say that women are simply more familiar with and honest about their limitations.

For example, men are four times more likely to die an accidental death. Even in the 75+ age group (I'm quoting a rather gray area of statistics here, no pun intended) when they're considerably outnumbered by the sweeter sex, men are still twice as likely to die as a result of an accident. When surrounded by a group of his peers, a man can be convinced to zap himself with a cattle prod, or do a triple somersault off a roof. (Evidence A: the movie Jackass; Evidence B: the fact that there's a sequel.) A woman, in a similar situation, would simply say, "No thanks."

So, while it's true that women may take more time to become comfortable with pack riding, it doesn't mean they're incapable of it. And if, as a woman, your fine-tuned safety meter is what's preventing you from signing up for your first race, there are a few pros to the Men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus conundrum that you should know about. A women's race is just plain different. Beginning men are overzealous, often bordering on dangerous. This balances out as they get more experience, or in other words, when they actually know what they're doing versus pretending to know what they're doing. But for women, especially since the field is usually much smaller, races are far less hair-raising. And you don't have to be extremely aggressive to do well. Once you get a feel for how it all works – and don't worry, it's intuitive, to a large degree – you'll know how to maneuver around in the pack without ever having had to elbow anyone in the gut, Cat 5 style.

That's not to say it doesn't take hard work, or that, coming from another sports background, you'll have instant success. You will get dropped. (Don't worry, it's good medicine.) You will suffer humiliation. (Learn to change a flat now, so you don't have to play damsel in distress.) And you'll have good days and bad days. But that's just the sport training montage leading up to total domination. Right? Right.

Tips for riding & racing

When I asked her what tips she would give a female cyclist just starting out, pro cyclist and coach Jen McRae said, "Be patient in learning your strengths, and have a friend or expert show you some secrets about bike handling and pack riding. If you do this right away, you'll enjoy the bike much more."

Jen got her start as an undergraduate at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She was a swimmer in high school and did some triathlons in college. The university bike club encouraged her to try bike racing because they thought she might do well, and they were right. She did her first race in 1989, and was hooked. In 2007, she came in second at the US National Crit Championships, and in 2008, won the USA Crit Finals in Las Vegas, placed third in the US Crit National Championships, and placed fourth in the US Road National Championships . "And now, 20 years later I find myself loving the sport just the same," she says.

Jen has made a life out of cycling. She and her husband, Chann McRae, own their own coaching business, and still actively compete. She regularly comes in at the front of the Cat 3 men's race. "Competitive cycling for me is one of those things that just gives me the opportunity to feel completely alive," she says. "Whatever sport it may be, it's when you can feel your adrenaline kicking in, your eyes wide open with a bit of fear, and your heart beating out of your chest to outperform the competition."

As a newbie, what you should know going into the sport is that no one feels completely at ease, and if they seem like they do, well, most of the time they're bluffing. There's an element of excitement and suspense to every race for every rider, because in road racing you're not out to set a best time. In fact, time doesn't matter much at all - rather, it's how you stack up to the rest of the field.

Jennifer Mix, recently upgraded to Cat 2 and member of 787 Racing, has the reputation of being a tough competitor. And yet, she says, "I still learn something at every race, whether it be tactical or something about my physiology. And I'm still very anxious at the start of the race, often in awe of the talent I'm among. I still feel like that five-year- old little kid trying to play with the big girls."

Jennifer, originally from Boulder, Colorado, was a competitive gymnast from the age of 7 to 16. Later, she dabbled in weight-lifting and running, then when she was 28, started taking spin classes. Just before her 30th birthday, a friend suggested she go for a ride, borrowed a bike for her, and took her out on the dam loop. Two weeks later, she bought her first bike, and has been putting it to good use ever since. She began racing competitively in 2009.

She admits it can be an intimidating sport. "For most women I know, they use cycling as a way to 'stay fit,' not compete," Jennifer says. "Women's racing is generally not promoted and there's a lack of awareness of a competitive side for women in cycling. Thankfully, Austin promotes cycling and racing for women."

"As for someone entering the sport," Jennifer says, "it takes time, patience, and enjoyment of the process. A successful cyclist does not happen overnight. Going to The Driveway and meeting some of the racers, finding a local cycling club, or going to a bike shop and asking for help are all ways to get started." The Austin Flyers, an all-women cycling team, regularly puts on a women's racing clinic at the Driveway.

While it's true that most female cyclists are competitive to the core, when you're new and you have a question, nine times out of ten they'll answer it, even during a race. In fact, they seem to like giving advice. Note: it's best not to expect that level of friendliness the last 500 meters if you're sitting at the front. And get a bike computer if you want to stay abreast of the distance remaining – sometimes your neighbor will tell you, and sometimes she won't. It's all part of the game.

Free bike fit

So if all you're lacking is a little experience and general instruction, let us help. Austin Tri-Cyclist is offering free bike fits for beginning women until May 31. You can bring in your own bike, or get set up on a new or used bike at ATC. We won't give you a hard sell on anything unless we truly think you need it (most employees actively compete themselves, so a dirty drive train or rusty chain ring will pain their souls), and you don't have to come in with the intent of racing the next weekend. You do, however, have to have two X chromosomes (no exceptions on this one). Just walk in any time during normal business hours and ask for Adam.

And now, straight from a newbie's perspective, a completely unsanctioned and inexpert step-by-step guide to getting started:

  • GET A ROAD BIKE – You don't have to have an expensive bike to start with. Steel, carbon fiber, aluminum – it doesn't matter. A fancy bike won't make a difference until you're fast already. If you want to go all out on the equipment (this is what a man would do) you can, but starting out the most sensible purchase is a good set of tires, along with a proper tuning. That said, pay attention to components (we'd recommend at least Shimano 105 or SRAM rival components), or your bike won't shift right for long, and the parts won't be compatible with common upgrades and replacements. Spending at least $600 on a bike will save you money in the long run (this pricing is meant for new bikes, not used). Great bargains are available on the used market and previous year's models.
  • GO ON SOME GROUP RIDES – For beginners, the most important skill in road racing is simply being comfortable and safe riding in a group. Join a "no drop" ride, and you won't have to worry about getting lost or left behind, and you can get a feel for pack dynamics. Jack and Adam's bike shop has a ride that leaves at 8:30am every Sunday, and the Austin Flyers cycling club has women-only rides. There are many other options around town, sponsored by local bike shops and/or bike teams. The ATC ride is on Saturday mornings at 8:30am, but the best cyclists and triathletes in town show up for it on a regular basis, and the pace is brutal. Punish yourself with that one later. Making the ATC ride your first group ride is like cooking your first-ever omelet on Iron Chef.

    Triathletes, this tip is for you: Don't bring your tri bike on a group ride. And if you must bring it, stay out of the aero bars. A tri bike is fine for riding on your own, but in a group, you'll be the squirrely one making everyone else nervous, especially in the aero bars, where it's harder for you to reach the brakes and to see what's going on ahead of you. Besides, you can't use a tri bike for a road race, so you might as well practice on the right equipment. Again, you can get a decent road bike for around $600, and it's great for tri training, too – a good road bike will make long rides safer and more comfortable, not to mention easier on your back and neck.

    When you're riding in a group, here are a couple of things to pay attention to and experiment with:
    • Follow close, and notice how much easier it is to ride behind someone than out in the wind. When you're going into a headwind, stay just behind the person ahead of you, but slightly to the left or right – this is safer if the person suddenly slows or stops.
    • If there's a strong crosswind, it may make more sense to ride to the left or the right of the person, parallel but a foot or two behind. (See this video for an exaggerated and entertaining example) When you're riding with a pack, most of the time you can just follow other people's lead on this. The pack will fan out in a staggered row, or echelon (like birds).
    • When you're going around a turn, always put the outside pedal down. If you put the inside pedal down and take the curve, you're more likely to clip your pedal on the pavement.
    • Most importantly, try to stay relaxed – if you're holding your arms stiff on the bars, that interferes with your bike's ability to "roll with the punches," so to speak. Jenn McRae explained it this way: "Keeping your upper body relaxed and remembering to exhale helps keep you rolling smoothly. Also, it's more our reaction to things that causes us to crash – so trust your bike, let the tension go, and enjoy the ride. One thing that helps you have this relaxed mindset is to know the riders around you and trust in their skills."
  • SIGN UP FOR A RACE – You'll start out in category 4, a group of newbies like yourself. Some races will have a "Women's open" category, as well, which anyone can sign up for. A rider "cats up" by scoring points at races – the number of points depends on how you finish and how many people were participating in the race. (Visit USA Cycling for more information on scoring and categories.) Since women's races are often small, sometimes all the categories will start out together even though they're not scored together.

Types of races:

  • Criteriums (aka crits) – The course consists of loops, and is defined by time rather than distance. "Prime" prizes are often awarded for the first person who crosses the line on a given lap - sometimes you won't know which lap is a prime lap until the officials ring a bell, which tells you it's the next one. Crit racing involves a lot of high speed turning and the course is often crowded, which can make it challenging for newcomers. (Try a road race, too, for comparison.) The Driveway offers a great crit series every Thursday night from March 17 to October 20.
  • Time Trials – Triathletes and duathletes, this is familiar territory, and you finally get to use that tri bike. If you don't have a tri bike, don't worry – it's still fun, even if it is much slower. Your position is very important on a tri bike, so get properly fit at a shop. Do get in the drops if you're on your road bike. In a time trial, you'll get a specific start time, and you'll need to line up just before it. Each rider starts out individually, and there's no drafting out on the course. Often you roll out from a small ramp (that's not as bad as it sounds, and you can opt to start out flat if you want), which means you can get going without having to shift up. Someone holds your seat while an official counts down to your start time, then the person lets go (no pushing involved), and you pedal down the ramp. From there, you just follow the course and go as hard as you can. Unfortunately, while a TT can help you win overall at a stage race, a TT alone won't get you points to cat up. Road races and crits do.
  • Road Races – Distances vary for road races. A standard distance might be 30-60 miles, with the higher end of the range at 100 miles or more. Road races are usually calmer than the crits – more open, often slower, and with less turns. At the start, you tend to roll out "neutral," meaning no one gets to take off from the pack until you've passed a certain landmark. From there the contest is often who can do the least work for the longest amount of time, which you can play along with, or forego completely. If you choose the latter, be prepared for the pack to let you go, then slowly reel you in and spit you out the back. It's an educational experience, either way. Keep in mind that 5th or 6th position in the pack is ideal – you get more of a draft, but you can still chase down a break if you need to, or stay with the lead pack if there's a sudden acceleration. Often the best place to attack is on a hill. Keep this in mind both for attacking and for staying with the attack. Your No. 1 goal in road racing is to never, ever let the lead pack get away from you. Once that happens, you're toast without the draft, and if you're not toast, you will be by the time you catch them again. So go ahead and kill yourself to keep up – the fast parts are usually brief, and you can depend on having a rest soon. Stay on that wheel.
  • Stage races – These involve multiple races. Sometimes you'll have a road race and time trial in the same day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and then another road race the following day. GC means "general classification." You're scored by total time with a stage race, so the more time you can get on your competition in any of the events, the better you rank in the GC. Keep in mind that if you finish with the main pack at the line, you'll get the same pack finish time. Stage races require extra stamina because of their duration and the strategy involved, but they're a lot of fun, and you get to pretend like you're in the Tour de France.

Some terminology:

  • Center-line rule – No one's supposed to cross the center line of the highway, and if they do and they're seen doing it, they're disqualified. Sometimes riders will sit right on this line so that the rest of the pack can't draft, and if the crosswind is coming from the opposite direction, ditto with the right side of the road.
  • Neutral – If an official in a car tells you that you've been neutralized, it means another race/category is coming up behind you, and you have to let them come around without interfering (i.e., getting in front of them, jumping into their draft, etc.) Once they get out of the way, then the race is back on.

For more info, visit these websites:

You don't have to compete to enjoy cycling, but it does keep you from getting complacent (i.e., lazy). You're always learning, always challenging yourself, and always pushing your training a little bit harder because you know it'll be put to the test. Plus, it's fun.

Email us at with questions or comments. And don't forget the free fit for women!! (See above.) This is open to beginning cyclists of all stripes – triathletes, cyclists, and weekend riders. Read up on how it works here.

Copyright 2011 Kathryn Hunter


  1. thats me in the first pic : )

    Sheri Rothe

  2. Indeed it is, and now you have a proper caption too!