Guest Article: Commuter Racing by Jack Elder of NZ

The other night I got home from work. “Hey dear,” said my wife, “how
was your day?” “Excellent,” I replied, “I overtook three people on the
climb up the hill, and one guy made a big effort to overtake me,
couldn’t keep up the pace, and cracked. It was really great.”
Really. That was the one thing I was thinking about. Because,
although many people will deny it, there is a subtle race going on.
It’s often referred to as “commuter racing” or the “great race”, but
it’s seldom talked about openly (the first rule of commuter racing is,
of course, that you don’t talk about commuter racing). And one of the
first things you’ll find out when you start bike commuting is, everyone
does it but few people admit it.

Think about it. When you see someone 100m further up the climb you’re
on, do you think “Ahah, a comrade, a confrere, a brother cyclist toiling
up the same ascent as myself – perhaps I could catch up and exchange
some knowing banter about the difficulty of the gradient?” Do you like
heck. You think “His arse is mine”, and you put the hammer down to try
and catch them. And if you do, you don’t slacken off and have a chat in
the Spirit of Cycling Fellowship – you breezily say “Hello!” as you go
past (in brief acknowledgement of the S of CF), while going as fast as
you can without making it obvious that you’re trying. And if you do
slacken off and ride next to someone to have a friendly chat, it’s
usually to demonstrate that you’re able to talk normally while the other
guy is clearly riding at the point where they can’t get out more than
three words without gasping.

But, y’know, it’s not a race.

Of course it’s not a race. If it was a race, you’d have numbers on.
And you’d have all started at the same time. As is, you often see
people who’ve just started their 5k saunter back home pitting themselves
against someone who’s coming up to the end of their 20k of rolling
hills. You’d also be on roughly similar bikes; as is, road bikes
compete with mountain bikes with sit-up-and-beg town bikes. The blatant
inequality of equipment is all part of the fun. Have you ever seen the
face of someone on a town bike when they pass a roadie in full team
replica kit? You can see the grin from space. I know a number of
singlespeed mountain bikers who dedicate their commuting lives to
overtaking riders on geared bikes. You, the guy with the beard riding a
vintage 70s touring bike you’ve owned from new – you’re telling me that
you don’t get a buzz from passing a 20-something on $4k of carbon fibre?
No-one’s immune.

If it was a race, there’d also be some agreement about such things as
start and finish lines. You come up behind someone: maybe they’re
riding all the way to the top of the mountain, maybe they’re turning off
halfway. Maybe you can afford to put out a hell of an effort to stay
ahead of them until the turnoff to Johnsonville, after which you can
grovel slowly up the rest of the hill secure in the knowledge that you
held the contender off. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Do you feel lucky?

If it was a race, you’d have an agreed list of participants. In
practice, you just try and keep up with/overtake people as you see them.
As you pass one rider, you spot the next one ahead and start chasing
them. Over time, you get to recognize other people on your commute. I
know three riders who do roughly the same route I do at about the same
time who are stupidly, stupidly faster than me. Really. They pass me
like I’m standing still. I’ll be rolling at 30kph and they’ll blow past
at 40. But I don’t need to think “Damn, I’ve lost that one” – they’re
clearly so far out of my league that there’s no pressure to feel as
though we’re competing.

And of course, if it was a race there’d be winners and losers. As is,
if you overtake someone you can glory in your victory; if you get
overtaken, you can just think “Och, it’s not a race” and deliberately
slow up a bit to show that you’re more concerned with the bike as a
means of transportation rather than some silly macho competitive thing.
The best of both worlds.

This is not, by the way, to imply that all commuter cyclists are
cut-throat macho types who like nothing better than grinding others into
the dirt. Of course there is a spirit of fellowship: any time I
puncture on my ride home, I can guarantee that at least half the riders
going past will slow down to call out “You OK there mate?” in case I
don’t have a patch kit on me. It’s just that there’s a certain
competitive instinct that comes out of the mildest-mannered person.

So if it’s not a race, why do we do it? Because it is a race. It’s a
race inside my head. And I’m winning.

Five tips for commuter racing:
* Obvious effort is frowned upon. Unless you can make it look like
absolute eyeballs-out full speed head is your normal commute pace,
trying too hard makes it look like you’re, well, trying too hard. You
may well be, of course, but nonchalance is important – when you pass
someone, you’ve got to look as if there’s no effort involved. Bonus
points for putting on a spurt behind someone and then passing while
audibly freewheeling.

* Drafting is fine. C’mon, it makes it feel more like a real race. But
don’t just wheelsuck. If you are drafting, take your turn. Especially
don’t wheelsuck for ages and then do a big sprint around to pass your
imaginary finish line. OK, the pros do it, but it’s annoying.

* Pay attention to traffic and the road. It’s pretty easy to get so
involved in the prospect of overtaking the dude on the Bianchi that you
miss the BMW about to turn across your path. Don’t forget that you’re
on the road, and that there are drivers, kids, little old ladies and red
lights around. And for the love of god, obey the road rules. Yeah, you
can gain a few seconds on someone by blasting through a red light, but
it makes you look like a twerp and further tarnishes cyclists’
reputation. Obey the rules and treat red lights as a chance to practice
your track sprint starts.

* Local knowledge counts. After a while, you get to know your route
really well. Get used to stuff like timing the lights. The rider who
sprints off as the light goes green but has to wait thirty seconds at
the next light down the road doesn’t look as smooth as the rider who
knows that if you stick to 20kph, you hit the next light just as it
turns and you don’t have to get a foot down. Style points count for
stuff like this.

* Don’t bring it unless you can take it. Passing someone is only half
the job – now you’ve got to stay ahead. If you’re just hanging on to
someone’s wheel with a severe effort, you probably don’t want to put
yourself into the red and pass them. Overtaking someone and then falling
off the pace just makes you look silly. You can try to pretend that
you’ve just taken a short turn pulling and are now dropping back to
draft again, but you’re not fooling anyone.

About the author

As one of the original founders of He has helped build this site into one of the leading and oldest bicycle commuting blog sites. Filled with passion for everything two wheels, RL Policar covers a multitude of subjects from product reviews, news, articles and technical how to's.