Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Loss of perspective

Last week I heard about a 13 year old bike racer who sleeps in a low oxygen tent in the garage to prepare for important races. The same kid rides a $5,000+ bike and has an assortment of wheels and components that would make a small US pro team jealous. Every weekend his parents and team mates push him to race as much as possible "so he will get stronger." Email messages from the team coach read, "second and third place is not acceptable." It is all perpetrated by well-meaning adults who have their heart in the right place.

Although I was somewhat shocked when I heard about it, it really is not that unexpected. It is totally in line with parents getting their preschoolers ready for college or teaching their two-year olds to play the violin. Unfortunately it is equally unproductive, if not more destructive. Promising young riders burn out before they get a chance at real competition.

Something is amiss with junior racing, or should we say with children's sports programs in general? Parents, eager to produce the next (put in your favorite cycling hero here), push their kids way past what is healthy for them. Coaches and team directors, eagerly oblige, often edged on by sponsors who want to see results week after week. All of it leads to exhausted, overreached and burned-out teens. Fortunately serious overuse injuries are rather rare in cycling. Not so in many other sports.

Cycling is somewhat of an odd endeavor in the US. The pool of racers is rather small, much smaller than that of Belgium, a country the size of Maryland with a population the size of NY City. More than half the licensed racers in the US are masters and many are over 45. An inordinate number of them "train to train." So much so that one famous blogger called "training to train" the very essence of amateur competitive cycling.

Unfortunately, it is these experienced masters who are guiding much of junior cycling. With their obsession with long distance, and a slight aversion towards intensity, these guys, who overwhelmingly picked up cycling in their adult years, are the blind guiding the not-yet-seeing. Unlike Europe, where distances for younger age groups are limited by law, American parents and coaches seem to think: the longer the better. Young riders are forced to race in Category events, where they are matched up against adults instead of their peers.

Category racing is a US-specific phenomenon. It mixes racers of all ages that have acquired a certain number of points to upgrade to the next category. Category 1 represents the top amateur group. Higher rankings in general mean longer races. But because most US cyclists are masters, these longer races are relatively low intensity events interspersed with bursts of higher intensity sprinting. Juniors tend to be good at speed -better than the older adults- and so they have a fair chance of winning such events if they do not drop out from exhaustion before the end. Winning is seen as a sign of progress by their coaches. What is not so easily seen is that these youngsters are now routinely riding 90-100 mile events, something that would be illegal in Europe. Ironically enough they do so to prepare for racing in Europe!

Long races are but one issue. The second is an obsession with material possessions and a focus on high end gear. Because their American parents are well off, junior offspring are riding the latest carbon concoctions with all the bells and whistles. They ride the same bikes the pros ride. That also means their focus is entirely on equipment and away from fitness and health.

It is something the bike manufacturers wholeheartedly endorse. With a limited (quasi-stationary) pool of customers, revenue has to come from second, third and fourth ultra-high-end bikes, as a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out. Or low-oxygen tents, never mind the developing brain!

A summary of recent workouts:
Wednesday, May 26, I ran 7 miles in the hills.
Thursday I rode on rollers for an hour.
Friday I rode 28 miles, about 20 with Alistair and the rest alone.
Saturday I drove Alistair to Livermore and rode 15 miles on Patterson Pass Rd, Tesla Rd, and Vasco.
Sunday I rode 35 miles through Orinda and Moraga.
Monday I ran the 10.5 mile Shepherd loop. It had been a while since I did that. I did not run up the BMX hill, but I did run fast on Skyline, catching some bikers.
Tuesday I ran 7 miles in the hills.
Today I ran 9 miles in the hills.

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