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I've been toying with the idea of joining competitive amateur (road) cycling for a while, but am unsure as to if the sport is right for me: I'm in very good shape and enjoy "basic" road cycling as well as weekend trips, but I have not joined any sort of cycling clubs because I don't feel like a Cyclist™.

I don't want to quit my day job-- I just want to have some competitive fun with other cyclists, and I don't know if "fun" in itself is a realistic expectation for official competitive events-- is this achievable, or is competitive cycling only for the most gung-ho?

Cycling community

What is the atmosphere like in most cycling clubs and at larger competitive events?-- are people in pelotons generally friendly, supportive, etc. or does everyone basically hope the others get hit by a bus so they end up winning? Do people e.g. go for a drink together afterwards? I don't know anyone who cycles as arduously as me, so I'd have to "find" some "cycling buddies", and am not sure how much of the "buddy" part I can expect.

Technological competitiveness

As stated above, I have no intention of making a career of cycling, and I see little reason to spend e.g. $10,000 on a hobby. Some people enjoy spending that much on something they will ride at 10kph on Sundays, but I have neither the capacity nor the willingness to do so. However, at local (amateur) competitive rides, I have pretty much only seen ridiculously expensive carbon-fiber/aluminium bikes and lots of flashy Lycra. There is nothing stopping me from riding e.g. a 40-year-old bike at such a race, but it's also no fun to be struggling at the back of the pack when others are whisking along effortlessly. In the end, fitness trumps technology, but, basically, I'd have to be ridiculously fit to keep up in a pack of 5kg bikes with brifters on my 15kg down-tube 10-speed. How "good" should my setup be in order to enjoy such an event and easily stay with the pack?

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Treating "competitive cyclists" as this single unified group (with three subgrouping) belies some prejudices. Like all walks of life there are a diversity of people, all with different motivations, morals and life experiences. As such there is no single correct answer your various questions.

For example:

are people in pelotons generally friendly, supportive, etc. or does everyone basically hope the others get hit by a bus so they end up winning?

Yes to both.

Do people e.g. go for a drink together afterwards, or do they put their $10,000 bike in its own personal transport before being chauffeured back to their hotels?

Yes to both.

Anecdote for the good in people

I have met many great people in competitive cycling who were very friendly and helpful. For example, during one long, hot road race a professional rider (who I trained with) waited for me after I got caught in a crash (one of our juniors collided with another member took out our whole team!). He helped first made sure everyone was ok, then we worked together to get back into the peloton. He didn't need to, and it was a lot of extra work for him to do so as it took us nearly a lap to catch back in. He still went on to podium that race, but maybe he would have won.

Anecdote for the bad in people

Once a number of years back when I moved to a new location my first club ride encounter was rather nasty, with a rider threatening to brake check me into the ditch if I drafted him again before the sprint. It turned out it was the club that was toxic. They even maligned and mistreated an amazingly friendly and fast former pro from Europe who had recently retired and moved to the area. Racing pro in Europe is damn hard, the fact he was willing to give his time and energy to the local community was cool, that club had no idea what they were passing up. The ex-pro ended up starting his own club and superseding the toxic club.

Take Home

There is no single unifying experience that makes up competitive cycling. There are definitely "gun-ho" types. (It is a competitive sport after all). Some are abrasive, some are are outgoing and nice, some are reclusive... you get the idea. Like any competitive sport you will get encounter more Type-A types than you would in regular life. But that is sort of the point, isn't it? You are looking for other people to be competitive with.

My best advice would be to shop around. If your area has a lot of clubs, do a trial ride with each club to see which one jives with you best. Some are competitive, some are recreational, some do both. Some people in the clubs are amazingly friendly and kind, some others are less so. Also make sure to try and shelve some of your prejudices about "competitive cyclists". Sure some spend too much money on bikes (the bike industry really pushed that hard), but there are many who are quite sensible and still very fast.

Like all of life, you gotta pick and choose.

Finally to answer:

How "good" should my setup be in order to enjoy such an event and easily stay with the pack?

I personally ride a steel bike and have no problems keeping up on fast rides (i.e., 40+ kph). Whether or not you stay with the pack has a lot to do with your base fitness, your max power threshold, how you ride (i.e., positioning in the pack and length and frequency of pulls), how well you anticipate moves within the pack and the condition of your gear. If your equipment is not kept up well, doesn't fit, or is highly inefficient then it becomes a hinderance. Without knowing what you ride this question is too open ended to answer.


PS. Quitting your job happens when the nice hobby becomes an unhealthy obsession. That said, others would argue you have simply dropped the shackles of societal expectations and become a free spirt. All I know is that my kids still need to eat.

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    +1 I was going to write an answer, but it couldn't be better than this one :-) – andy256 Jun 18 '15 at 9:16
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    The only thing I'd add is to talk little and listen lots. – andy256 Jun 18 '15 at 9:17
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    @andy256 - That is good advice for all aspects of life, even public speaking!!! – Rider_X Nov 17 '15 at 20:31
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Replace "cycling" in this question with any competitive sport. How should we know if it's right for you? How should we know what the community of cyclists near you is like, or whether or not you'll get along with them?

Enter a race. Did you have fun? Enter another one. Or don't. Your call.

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  • Good suggestion-- I suppose the generalization of my question could be: "How can I find a sociable, supportive sports community?". Still, am I alone in noticing a few "trends" in the kind of people who join certain sports?-- e.g. those who regularly play basketball seem to have different things in common than those who regularly go skiing. – errantlinguist Jun 17 '15 at 22:19
  • The answer to that is, really, "be sociable". Meet people. Did you like them? See them again. :P No sport has a monopoly on a supportive community, nor are the communities surrounding a given sport the same between towns, states, regions, or countries. Go do things you think are or might be fun. If you meet cool people, great. – Stephen Touset Jun 17 '15 at 22:35
  • You might find this question interesting. bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/29579/… In the end your question sounds like you are afraid to try and want some reassurement. Go do it. – gaurwraith Jun 18 '15 at 0:41
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Take the plunge and try it! Either you'll find that you don't enjoy it or you'll have discovered a wonderful new aspect to cycling. Regardless, you're only out a race fee.

Community

The cycling community is just like that of any other sport. You have some people who are pros, those who were, some who wish they were, some who think they are and some who don't care. Within every group, you have the people who are out to crush everyone and those that just want to have fun. It becomes an incredibly complex and impossible to map ecosystem, but in the end it doesn't matter; what matters is that you are getting what you want to be getting out of the sport.

Find a group of people who are interested in the same things as you and ride with them. If you enjoy it, great. If not, keep looking. I have one weekly group ride that turns into a hammerfest, while the next day I have one where we usually all hang out at the shop later. It is what you make it.

If you're looking for "cycling buddies" who are also interested in racing, one option is to look around at some of the more race-focused bike shops in your area. See if they have group rides and jump into one!

Technical competitiveness

When I started racing, I was on a bike I bought used for $200. My current bike was purchased used for less than $1000. Both bikes have modern shifters, are 9 or 10sp, weigh around 20lbs and are more than adequate to keep pace with or beat people on bikes costing 10x as much, especially at the low- to mid-levels (Cat 3/4/5 in the US).

From my experience (marketing departments to the contrary), the bike typically isn't the thing that holds a cyclist back. That being said, my advice would be to try to ensure your bike has these main advancements:

  • Clipless pedals.
  • Integrated shifters ("brifters"). You can do well with down tube shifters or with a fixie, but integrated shifters will make things much easier.

The other advancements are great - carbon frames, 11-speed, electronic shifting, carbon wheels, etc - but they're not essential for jumping into races. If you're curious whether your setup is "good enough" for racing, take note of how well you keep pace with your peers in one of the faster group/shop rides in your area.

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I'm going to attempt to approach the question a different way than the other two answers. This issue has been on my mind for a bit. Note that the answer refers to my experience in the US a lot. I do so only because I live in the US; the things I discuss likely go on elsewhere, but I'm not as aware of dynamics in other parts of the world. Basically, certain aspects of traditional road racing likely inhibit the experience of many amateur riders. However, there are other bicycle-based experiences that have competitive dynamics and are friendlier and more enjoyable for amateurs.

Running as a counterexample to cycling

In running, there seems to be a lot of room to let the primary competition be yourself. In other words, while you can focus on your placing relative to the competition, there is a lot of room to just focus on bettering your previous time. Running races are over a set distance, e.g. a marathon is 26.2 miles, a 5k run is 5 kilometers. While environmental conditions and elevation obviously influence your pace on a given day, as can race dynamics, there's an objective measure for your speed, e.g. running a sub 2-hour marathon in 'real world' conditions is currently just out of reach for the very top male marathoners. This means that you don't have to be "ridiculously fit" to derive enjoyment from the sport. You just have to better your previous self, or your expected self, or something similar.

Competitive road cycling may be too optimized for elites

When the original poster said "competitive cycling", they seem to have meant road racing. Aerodynamics shapes the tactics of road racing much more heavily than running (although NB, Elihud Kipchoge's benefitted from the draft of a peloton in his sub 2 hour marathon distance run). That is, in road racing, the entire peloton might well finish at the same time, i.e. the race ends in a bunch sprint. It is much more difficult for a breakaway to succeed, unless the rider(s) is/are that much stronger than the field or other team dynamics are at play. Thus, we don't really pay much attention to objective finishing times in regular, competitive road racing.

In principle, one could imagine a sub-discipline of road racing where you pay more attention to objective times. That would be time trials. Unfortunately, you can buy a lot of speed with aerodynamic equipment, and time trials have always been a sub-discipline of road racing. That said, in the UK, I believe there is a regular amateur time trial circuit, and there may be in other countries.

Because an objective standard for finishing times isn't as viable as in running, road races seem to devolve towards just who wins or places top 10. All races have a winner takes most or winner takes all sort of dynamic going with regards to attention, financial rewards, and the like. In traditional road racing, I suspect that dynamic is amplified. I've heard it said that you have to train very hard just to suck in road racing. At the time of writing, there seems to be a strong consensus in the US that traditional road racing is dying off. I suspect that was also the consensus at the time the original question was asked.

I recall a Youtube video by Ross Tucker on talent identification and management. I forget which specific video. I believe he made the passing comment that a country can optimize its sports talent identification and management system to produce elite athletes, or to produce broad participation. He didn't give an example of what these optimizations look like, nor was there a lot of context. However, I'd posit that in traditional road racing, the talent identification and management system, as well as the rewards system, are all set up to maximize production of elite athletes. This comes at the possible expense of broad participation.

I lack the same depth of experience with running, but it could be that the sport as a whole has aimed more at a balance between broad participation and producing elites.

There are alternatives off-road

There are a growing number of alternatives to traditional road racing. In the US and likely in other countries, there is an emerging gravel racing scene. At least right now, the races are very participant-driven rather than being elite-driven races or categorized like traditional road races. Gravel races may let the elites, if there are any present, start first. However, for the most part, it's a full mass start, like a marathon.

The terrain, lower speed, and broader spectrum of ability levels all do seem to attenuate the aerodynamics-driven race dynamics that are in play in road racing. That is, you don't expect one big bunch sprint, and riders typically arrive separated by quite some time. Even though tracking your finishing time doesn't seem to be a trend, there does seem to be a big focus on participation by a broad range of riders. Many people do it for the intrinsic challenge.

It is likely that we will see more professional gravel racers. It's possible that if the whole sport gets too professionalized and elite-driven, it could sour competitive dynamics for the rest of us. However, right now, this is speculative.

In the US, Dirty Kanza is probably the most well-known such race, but races of a similar level in the US might include Rebecca's Private Idaho, Mid South, and SBT Gravel just to name a few. Smaller-scale rides that have strong regional competition also exist; I posit that the now-closed Almanzo ride in Minnesota and the ongoing Trans Iowa ride are smaller-scale but well-known gravel races (NB, Almanzo spawned two successors in 2020, the Heywood and the Spring Valley 100, but these are not ongoing this year due to the COVID-19 epidemic). It is likely that there are at least some smaller events in your state or a neighboring state.

There are alternatives on road also

There are similar participant-driven rides that are on tarmac, or are primarily on tarmac. Bicycle touring, audax cycling, and similar disciplines might be one example of very long-distance road riding. I am not as familiar with this type of riding, but proponents would say that this has been going on much longer than gravel. In the US, the Race Across America could be the most well-known of these, although the distance might be too formidable for many amateurs. Multiple-day road rides might be more acceptable to a broader crowd.

There are also century rides (100 miles) and Gran Fondos. It is likely that at least some participants here will ride these in an informal competition. If you want a road racing-like experience, I suspect you might be able to get it at many of these events. One of my most memorable rides last year was the Tour de Tonka in Minnetonka, Minnesota. I completed it in 4 hours 33 minutes despite getting dropped from the lead group. Yes, there was a lead group. No, I'm not in that sort of shape. However, because of aerodynamics, I was able to hang on for the majority of the race. After I dropped off, I was able to regroup with smaller groups of riders who were closer to my ability level.

If you are not up for a century ride, many centuries organize shorter distance rides. For example the Tour de Tonka and the Jesse James bike tour in Northfield, MN, organized multiple distances from about 20 to about 80 miles. Because the distances involved are often somewhat objective, you could aim to better your time at a certain distance. However, there are aerodynamic effects involved; for example, there is no way I could have completed 100 miles solo in 4 hours 33 minutes. (Also, the distances will vary from year to year due to road closures; the 2019 Tour de Tonka century was actually 98.15 miles.)

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