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.


  1. Jamis_Bater

    Haha. Love it. Don’t forget the glorious ego boost of blasting past non-commuters after work. Generally they are on fun rides after their workday with barely a water bottle and seat bag, while we “breeze” past them with racks loaded with panniers or trunk bags, headlight and battery, and jersey pockets loaded with the excess clothing that was needed for the chilly ride in that morning. We look like pack mules passing Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds.

  2. Eric

    Wow. What a great deal of writing talent we have here among the readership! That article had me laughing out loud. I however, have pretty much been the one getting passed – and usually on the hills. But the past year was my first year of commuter (racing). Maybe this year I’ll be able to step it up a notch. Fortunately I am in an urban area, so no one will be able to distinguish my racing heartbeat from the construction jack-hammers as I pass… 🙂

  3. enrique

    Hahahaha! Goes to show that regardless if we’re on foot, cycling or behind the wheel, the competitive spirit is always there.

  4. Jeremy

    Guilty as charged 🙂

  5. Gavin

    Good post. I make a particular effort to overtake people that go through red lights.

    Zero point for slow cyclists overtaking while stopped at traffic lights though.

  6. Henrik in Norway

    Even tough I tell myself not to do this on my ride to work (you know, getting sweaty), I always do.

  7. William

    Guilty too! I also feel some of the same charge when I take my toddler out for a ride on my single speed on the bike path. I am wearing jeans and a t-shirt other cyclists are wearing lycra. They’re bent over their aero-bars and here we go past them. All right, I’m probably going to total 10 miles on that trip and they could be a the end of a 50 miler but still:-)

  8. Printenv

    Don’t forget going past the attractive girls who are coming up on the sidewalk. When I am riding on the road with traffic and see some cute girl running my direction on the sidewalk, I always have to make sure I am going a decent clip and not look like I am on the verge of a purge. Once I pass her, well, then I can double over in pain, but not till then.

  9. Hyper7

    Brilliant post, thanks!

  10. Ghost Rider

    Fantastic “tips”… we appreciate the guest article!

    I don’t have enough fellow commuters around here to practice these techniques too often, but on the rare times I do see a bicyclist, I give it my all to catch up with them, pull alongside and chat for a minute, then blow their doors off. Fun stuff!

  11. Moe

    I learned my lesson about ‘commuter racing’ after I got my ass handed to me by the ‘old’ dude on the ‘old’ Univega.

  12. Conrad

    It is especially rewarding if you catch and overtake a hardcore roadie when you are on a mountain bike.

  13. cafn8

    For me it usually goes like this: I’m on mile 7 of 8 on my way home. I’ve been pushing hard most of the way because it really doesn’t matter if I’m sweaty when I get home, and for that matter I never really do a very good job of NOT pushing hard for very long. As I hit that last long uphill stretch, a bunch of shameless Jr High age kids hop on their BMX bikes as I past and laugh as they race past the “old guy” on the road bike.

  14. Smudgemo

    I would never, never engage in such behavior.

    But if I did, I’d add that once out front, the best time to really hit it (without looking like you are) is around a corner where you can’t be seen. Opening the gap a little more at each opportunity is demoralizing for chaser.

  15. Catspit

    Fantastic article, and also very very true.

    Similar to cafn8 I was passed while doing the c2c ride in the UK on a steep 1m hill by 3 kids… doing wheelies all the way up it.

    Granted they were doing 200m and I was in the middle of a 3 day ride but my head was still hung in shame. .

  16. Jack

    Thanks for the good words. I should point out in my defence that I’m not a particularly fast rider – I’d describe myself as average – but there’s just something competitive that comes out in me when I’m riding my commute. I am a simple man, and simple things amuse me. 😉

  17. Adrienne

    Then there was the fellow in full racing kit who passed me this morning as I was returning home with two panniers full of groceries on my daughter’s vintage Huffy, at which point I committed the tactical error of being too polite and hanging back just out of drafting range. My clever plan to pull up brightly next to him at the four way stop sign was foiled when he blew right through it.

  18. SF Bike Commuter

    When I get home from work I always have the commuter race story for my family. I love passing the carbon wonder bike on my steel commuter with pannier! I also own a Bike Friday and passing people on that bike is the most humiliating experience (for them not me) you just hear the wind being knocked out of them as you pass!

  19. Cafiend

    I seldom encounter other cyclists on my long, rural commute, but whenever I do it seems to turn into something like this. It doesn’t help that I’m usually running late, so I ride it like a time trial just to limit my tardiness.

    Everyone who does anything self-propelled races, whether it’s running, cycling, cross-country skiing or what have you. Why pay an entry fee and put up with a bunch of rules?

  20. FlynRyn

    Good article. I look at evryone as a potential challenge. It’s always fun to see how much you can push it and how much someone can push you. Once sized up properly it could be a challenge of strenght or i could pass them and be on my way. Most of the time I look for that roadie riding the gucci bike wearing a replica kit and try to sock it to em 25% of the time it goes in my favor.The other 75% of the time they are usually cat4 and below roadies or in some cases 45+ State champs. Iv’e got my a$$ handed to me on more than one occasion but it’s the times that you bring it that makes up for it!! For me it makes me want to oush harder. I do a 14 mile commute one way. On a good day i do a 39 minute ride over 14 miles @ 21 mph. Keep in mind i ride a bike path from the coast into anahiem. No stop lights no car traffic. Just hooligans bums the occasional tagger and people that dont pay attention.

  21. Di

    I really didn’t realize it until now, but I am guilty. I am incredibly competitive.

  22. Mare

    As a chubby suburban matron who very, very tentatively and very, very slowly began bike commuting two months ago – at the urging of my 23 year old hard core any weather Massachusetts bike commuting daughter – imagine my surprise when I found myself competing on the road. How ludicrous for me to take on other riders, except that every once in a long while I “win”! Mostly I am the one being smoked, but what real glory can there be for those young bucks on carbon who blast past me on my 30 year old Nishiki with fenders and panniers?

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  25. Sofia

    haha I wasn’t really much of a bike rider but I recently bought a cruiser at and I’ve been doing just that every time I ride haha

  26. AW

    This was all entirely new to me. There is no competition. None whatesoever, but I nearly always win.

    And, should someone overtake me, well, they’re at least 20 years younger.

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