By Matt McNamara
I am fortunate to live in the largest cycling district in the United States – Northern California – and to enjoy the myriad 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.
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 brings general pack etiquette and concepts like 360 awareness, predictable movements, protecting your front wheel, heads up – hands in the drops, and assertive vs. aggressive riding.
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 we tackle cornering. Basic outside-inside-outside cornering is a good jumping off point, and sounds pretty fundamental right? Well, it is, but we try to put in place a process that has the rider constantly returning to the fundamentals – a sort of mantra for safe racing. We move from single rider lines to side by side and quickly to three abreast.
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 we jump into that most prestigious of skills – sprinting! Unfortunately, sprinting and new riders don’t always go hand in hand, so the EB series tries to offer some fundamentals to help. The first key is to sprint in a straight line – so we mark off a series of 200 m courses at each corner and rotate the riders through in small groups.
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 is when we try to put in some formation and anticipation into the mix by emphasizing the varied skills learned over the first few weeks with pack skills riding . In previous years we’ve run a variety of skills like “thread the needle” where we positioned mentors as moving “cones” a bike length or two apart and had the participants slalom through them, working on peripheral vision and 360 awareness. We’ve put a group of riders “in the box” with mentors acting as the four corners. Then we have them rotate through the “box” at low to moderate speeds. This forces them to deal with close quarters riding and protecting the front wheel. We also run a double pace line and have the participants go “up the middle” of the narrow seam. These drills are great for developing confidence and competence!
Week five is when we put it all together and try to simulate race conditions. Of course there is also a race each Sunday of the series that gives the riders additional real world experience. All told the Early Bird participants get five to ten hours of instruction on race fundamentals and five weeks of practice races to reinforce the learning!
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 McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. You can find him on www.facebook.com.. Facebook.