A Triathlete’s Perspective on Bike Racing

SarahP photo for blog

By TWCP race team member, Sarah Portella

Scary. Technical. Hard. These are the three descriptors I would use to describe road racing. As an outsider (read: triathlete) looking in on the cycling world, racing bikes seemed a bit dangerous. My running background led me straight past road cycling and full on into triathlon, where hours on the bike were spent solo in the time trial position. There was no drafting and no sharp curves at high speeds. Oh, and spiking my heart rate and power? Not a chance. So, how did this triathlete fall in love with bike racing?

For several years, I trained for triathlon at a very high level. I put countless hours into training for and completing an Ironman. With that challenge checked off my list, I turned my attention to half Ironman races because I knew I could be more competitive at that distance. The 2017 World Championships were to be held in Chattanooga, TN, so I set my sights on racing to qualify. I received my qualifying spot at IM 70.3 Ohio in 2016, and spent the next year doing high volume, high intensity training so I could be competitive at the World Championships.

When Worlds were behind me, I wanted and needed a break, but I didn’t want to stop training all together. Earlier in the year, I had received an email from Zwift advertising their Zwift Academy and had signed up on a whim. The Academy started the week of Worlds, so after recovering a couple of days, I started riding my road bike in Zwift, completing intense workouts and enjoying the change. At the end of the Academy, I was notified that I had done well and advanced into the semi-finals with nine other women. That meant another round of workouts before three women would be selected for the finals and a free trip overseas to train with the women’s Canyon Sram WorldTour team. One woman would receive a Pro contract with the team. Talk about incentives!

I worked hard, but the competition was fierce, and my lack of cycling-only training put me at a disadvantage. I did not make it to the finals.  While I was heart-broken, it made me realize I was pretty good at this cycling thing. I was hooked, and the following season was suddenly consumed with bike racing while triathlon took a back seat.

Entering into my first cycling race was scary. It was a stage race in Georgia with some pretty amazing ladies competing. I learned a lot! As a triathlete, I became very aware of my lack of bike handling skills. I had never trained (much) on a road bike, ridden in large groups, taken sharp turns at high speeds, drafted, or ridden so close to someone else that they could put their arm around my waist.  And suddenly I was doing all of that–and in a race no less. What was I thinking?! My biggest problem was holding my line on turns. Thankfully, the ladies I was racing against were kind to me. I finished well enough in the race that I instantly signed up for another race!

As I completed more races, I began to realize that each race dynamic would be different. In general, my average power was much lower than in the bike portion of triathlon, but the power spikes and surging could leave me spent.  I also had to learn not to burn too many matches early on—to read when a group might split and determine if I could or should go with them without burning out later in the race. I also learned that my endurance riding helped throughout a race but if it came down to a bunch sprint, I would be dead last.

Is cycling still scary? Kind of. Is it still technical? Heck yes. Is it still hard? Most definitely. But I have learned that my fears—and overcoming them—actually make me race better, and I’m inspired to improve my technical skills and learn more about racing.  And if it wasn’t hard, it probably wouldn’t be all that fun now would it?!

While I still compete in triathlon, I have discovered a whole new world of training and racing and I am looking forward to another season of learning to race bikes!

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