I am fortunate to live in the largest cycling district in the United States – Northern California – and to enjoy the myriad of benefits that comes from an active and thriving race culture of more than 5000 licensed participants. We are lucky to have races every weekend all year long, and to be home to some of the best development and elite programs in the country including California-Giant, Team Tibco, and the Specialized Junior Team (among others) but if I had to pick a single program that defines NorCal racing it would be the Early Bird Criterium Series.
Ok, so it’s not the Early Bird series, but it is crit racing in California – back in the Tour of California ’07 at Longbeach.
The Early Bird Criterium Series (The EBs) is a five-week block of training races that have been around for over 25 years. It’s a chance for riders at every level to shake out the cobwebs of the off-season and start to put a fine point on their race fitness, but the real benefit – their raison d’etre if you will, is the rider development program that offers new racers a structured curriculum to help learn the fundamental racing skills that experienced racers may take for granted. I am one of the five directors that create and manage the curriculum each week, and then share it with our cadre of committed mentors who volunteer their time to help new and aspiring racers “get it” faster.
By The Numbers
Year after year the EBs continue to bring out a large contingent of riders looking to jump into the world of racing…lots of riders…typically 300 a day for the races. Of those more than half typically participate in the training clinics. We have five directors, and each leader has 3-5 leaders that help lead the weekly curriculum. These riders are backed up by an all-volunteer group that ranges up to 40 mentors per weekend, all ready to help new riders integrate into the community.
There are two mentoring sessions each day, one in the AM for women and younger Cat 5 riders and an afternoon session for the older Cat 5s. There is also a clinic each day for our aspiring junior riders – and this has shown tremendous growth over the past few years – we had more than 50 participants in the junior clinic alone last week!
Race Learning 101
Each week we run series of drills built around racing fundamentals.
- Week one
Paceline drills follow, gradually getting the lines closer together, lap after lap we work on overcoming hub fixation, unnecessary braking, the importance of relaxing and anticipation. These may sound simplistic, but that’s the point – teach the basics, affirm the basics, reinforce the basics.
- Week two
Teaching the nuances of close quarters riding is impossible if you simply let ideas run, so we stick to the basic curriculum that includes important concepts like those mentioned above and then seek to offer specific insights that matter. Counter steering, leaning the bike, and steering with the hips are introduced
A perfect example is the ‘progressive response model’ of contact at the elbow. We start with the default of riding the drops with the elbows flexed a little. This creates an immediate buffer of 3 to 6 inches between bars, safer. Contact is inevitable, but too often riders default to a hyper aggressive response when first touched, they push back in an effort to assert their domain. Instead we want the EB riders to learn to be supple on that first contact – absorb that hit with the elbow and body, no reaction.
The second time the rider stiffens the elbow a little – sort of a “hey, I’m right here!” response. This keeps the riders bars apart and sets a little bit tougher tone. By the third contact we are looking to defend our territory and so we step up to a rigid response, but only at the elbow. A death grip on the bar translates all subsequent movement directly to the bike and creates instability, so we strive to avoid that!
- Week three
First we demo each rider on a good jump by holding them static and having them simulate the sprint form – without moving. Then we line ‘em up and send ‘em out for 25 m of straight line sprint in a large gear four times. Check.
Next we move them up to 100 m unrestricted, then 200 m unrestricted sprints eight times each. That’s a lot of structured practice, but not quite enough so we stress to the riders that they should practice their sprint technique every week on every ride.
- Week 4
- Week five
Jumping into racing is an intimidating proposition for most new riders. Lots of speed, lots of close quarters, lots of presumed risk. The Early Bird Training Series has been offering new riders a structured curriculum and mentored approach to the basics of racing for over 25 years. This series is a great model for any rider looking to get some “Spring Training” in the mix as they prepare for a season of racing. The skills are straight forward with an emphasis on safety and long-term participation in the sport – we seek to build lifetime racers! USA Cycling has been working with the EB Directors to begin incorporating the curriculum into a National model that can be easily used by clubs and districts to foster their own rider development in the coming years.
About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more by visiting his website at www.sterlingwins.com.