Many eons ago, while warming up on rollers for a sub-freezing crit in the Boston area, I thought I had it all figured out. But I didn’t. You see, I had that distinct feeling, correc, confidence that the race was going to be mine. I had won on that course before under worse conditions and this time around, in spite of the bitter awful cold, it was a matter of formality: hold the wheels, be smart, stay at the front on the last few laps and the checkered flag will have my name on it. I am not, and never was a sprinter. But I know how to handle my bike, I was fit, and at the time I really fancied racing tricky, twisty crits. What’s not to like about them as a young buck? Short, aggressive, pushy, and in your face, I enjoyed the Joe Pesci characteristics just fine (imagine him on the sidelines yelling, “YOU’RE HURTING? I’LL SHOW YOU HURTING!”). I had a few good teammates, excellent and experienced riders with good skills who knew what to do.
Then I saw a portly fellow at the line up. I wasn’t sure if the cold was fogging my glasses, or if he was wearing extra clothing (which was merited), so I let it be and never paid any mind. Well, that one rider in particular went on to cross the finish line first. Yes he was on the “robust” side, and most intriguingly, as he got better throughout the season he got thicker, replacing the pillow under his jersey with a bigger one after every notch on his license upgrades. How is that possible? How could he move so fast, in such a gear, and navigate the 6-corner, 1km course (with hills no less) and leave us scrambling? The rest of the day was a painful lesson in humility: the husky guy rode away at some point, winning the race, and I wiped out on a mossy grate in one of the turns. I still finished the event, battered, bloodied, bruised, ego crushed under the heft of my unforgiving lesson in prejudice.
As riders we like to model ourselves after our heroes at the top of the sport. It’s double true if you engage in competition, and quadruple true if you’re an amateur of the middle category variety, aka a Joe Racer. It makes sense. The general rule that heavy-duty endurance sports result in weight loss is a well-accepted truth. But therein lies the plot sneakiness, for it wasn’t really the trouble of being beaten by a corpulent foe – the dude was just better. It was the surprise factor, as it’s not every day you have your behind handed to you by a competitor with a much bigger behind. I wonder if that’s how some pros felt when, say, Dario Pieri schooled them back in the early 2000s with a string of podium finishes at the classics, plus a well deserved win at E3 Harelbeke. I can imagine the riders distracted by his bike creaking, twisting and begging for mercy as he pounded his close to 90kg carcass around World Tour events, scaring children, smaller pros, and flattening cobblestones. Maybe that was the trick after all, his opponents downplaying his might till it was too late and he was gone, high on BBP (Big Boy Power), leaving the competition scratching their heads, trying to make sense of what has just happened.
Clearly this misconception is our own fallibility. Ignoring BBP and its appetite for dishing pain may result in a tummy ache when you find yourself on rolling terrain with a big fellow in tow. Because it will be your fault if/when you get beaten to the line by someone whose natural power and momentum will just steam roll through you, John Degenkolb-style. You may scoff when staring at the XL (or XXL) bibs while you wait for the best spot to attack, but in reality you wish you had such a clever decoy; you wish folks would drop their guard while you make minced-meat of their victory plans. Or perhaps we’re just jealous that some large gents are better at it than we are, extra kilos notwithstanding, subverting the sport’s aesthetic conventions. And believe me, I threw all I had into the quest of thickening my limbs: weight training, pork rinds, thick beer, cheese, ice cream, and all that I got were a hangover and a crappy nickname (Gustarving).
So next time you’re lining up for a crit or rolling race and you see a fellow racer bursting from his kit, think again: watch him carefully, jump on his wheel in case he attacks, and save the jokes for after the event. You may make a new friend, and who knows, maybe even have a nice meal together.