I ask myself that question often. Frequently the unfortunate response isn't wholly evident and that in fact, there really isn't one clear cut answer. That is pretty much where I am right now in terms of avocation but it is also where I find myself in terms of bicycle racing, particularly MTB racing, as well.
Over the past few years I've been working hard on training technique and more importantly listening to what is going on inside to make the call as to what I need to be doing on the bike. This and a bunch of time riding my bicycles has resulted in some success at the races, at least on the MTB and the cyclocross bikes. Truth be told, there are a number of other factors that have contributed to the results, one of the biggest of which is that I got older and was able to race against people none of whom were younger than myself. I've also been steadily learning over the years since we started racing, so am still in the natural progression mode some what, at least on the cyclocross bike.
When it comes to the MTB though and racing, I'd have to say that my performance probably hasn't changed all that much since we picked racing back up in 2008. The cast of characters in the age graded 40-49 Cat1 (Expert) field was a little different then and the competition was stiff but until JB and Kevin came back into racing, my results were often near the top end and the battles were primarily between three or four of us. Even after they came back I was usually within reach, though never quite close enough to displace their results, which I could live with, if never be content with.
With those results and a bronze at Nationals that season I decided to start competing in the Pro/Cat1 open category the following season. That season I was taking things very seriously, training like crazy and trying to see just what I could do. I even enlisted Frankie Mac as my coach to try and do all of the right things. The season was met with relatively good results with 7th in the first race and a 3rd in the second race of the season, both of which drew deep fields of well respected racers. With that I requested a license category upgrade but because USA Cycling had just shuffled category designations and done away with the Semi-pro, the next step was Pro. I was reminded by the nice folks at USAC that I was not, in fact, a Pro regardless of results and I should be content being a Cat1. You see, their plan was for the Cat1 field to stack up a bit, which would make it a stronger field. I took it personally and lost a little motivation.
When my results tailed off as those who hadn't spent the winter training like mad came into form, I became disenchanted. The open race was hard, really hard, and often a little longer than my body could handle. It was common for me to be physically sick after a race, having to make frantic stops on the way home. The limit seems to be about two hours. I can go at or just above threshold for just over two hours. Much more than that and my body revolts, though usually not until an hour or so after the race. It then lasts up to a day until the residual effects dissipate.
Along the way in 2009 I had a conversation with JB and he really put things into perspective. He reminded me that you need to be doing the things that help keep you motivated to continue and not those that eat away at that motivation. Winning is a great motivator. For me, it is a huge motivator because of the unfortunate truth that there is only one direction to go from there, the wrong way. Killing myself to be mid-pack was fine when I was younger but just wasn't as much fun now that I was in my forties. Who was I kidding, I wasn't a Pro and I wasn't 25 years old. I couldn't rebound from the punishment and I just didn't have the physical ability to ride within my limits for that period of time while chasing people who were dramatically better than I was. It was a great experiment but I came to the conclusion that it was the wrong place for me.
So with that in 2010 I went back to racing my age and category and ended up doing far fewer races, taking things much less seriously. I did venture into some of the EFTA Elite races, where I had relatively good results on occasion. For 2011 the offroad racing was again limited with us taking part in even fewer races all together. Last year however I finally decided that road racing was a losing battle, one for which I simply wasn't smart enough for, so I did very few road races. I also decided that I was a fair weather racer, so I only did select MTB races. Part of the reasoning behind this swing was that I'd plan to focus primarily on cross last year. That was where the bulk of my goals were laid as I knew that because I was the youngest guy in the age category (45+ men) that my chances were as good as they would ever be. It worked and things went well, but that is a different story, though arguably with a common theme. Anyhow, last season went very well on the MTB as well. In the seven races I entered, I either flatted out, which happened two times or was successful. A number of those races were also some of the hardest fought battles that I'd ever had. That said, some of the races were not quite so close.
This season I've been riding pretty hard and am seeing some pretty good indicators so far. With that and the fact that some of the closest MTB competition in the old men's category are currently on the disabled list, I'm left wondering what to do. This past weekends Root 66 series opener at Hop Brook had me flipping back and forth between doing the Cat1 40-49 race and the Pro/Cat1 Open race. The decision came down to the fact that I'd been going really hard the past couple of weeks and felt that I couldn't afford an over the top effort on Sunday if I expected any reasonable performance the following Saturday at Battenkill, a secret stretch goal of mine. I also looked at the long list of registered racers and knew that if I had a really good race and really pushed myself hard, I could probably crack the top ten. The answer was simple, I'm too old for that sh!t.
Shortly after registering for my age category race I saw a newly minted 40 year old had also registered for the race, one with whom I have had numerous battles in the past. John turned the corner and is now in the 40-49 group. I'd raced John in the elite races a few years back and also have had countless 35+ cyclocross races going back and forth with him. This gave me pause and I was a bit nervous, not that there was a lack of competition from the others, which is not the case at all, but more about it being unknown. As in all walks, confidence is a key component to success. I like the feeling of confidence though try never to cross the line in to arrogance. I fully understand that anything can happen at any time and that the bottom line is that there is also someone better at any given thing than you are. I'm continually reminded and humbled by how many people right here in this area are drastically better than I am and use that as grounding.
So this years Hop Brook race started off fast and frenzied as people sprinted for the hole shot. I chose to sit back, start from the second row and follow. Rob took the lead and got a gap on everyone in the single-track early. I was back in 4th or 5th and John was a couple spots ahead. Though there were lots of other men to keep tabs on, he was my main concern. When we hit the pavement after the first single-track he jumped. I followed suit and tucked in behind him. When we hit the climb out of the field onto the rocky off-camber single-track, John passed Rob. I did as soon as I could also, following closely. When we got back on the short pavement I pulled ahead wanting to hit the longest climbing section of the course in front. I was overdressed and melting down, the climb though short was brutally steep and excruciating painful and John was right on my wheel. We finished the lap in lock step and started the next the same. Coming into the climb the second time I was going unsustainably hard and knew it. I never looked back and kept grinding up the hill, passing a rider from a different field on the way.
At the top I could hear John right on my wheel and I knew that it was over. He matched my hardest effort, an effort I couldn't sustain. It was with pure shock and utter joy that I saw the racer from the younger group come by me as we started to descent from the top. I'd started to compliment John in fact and had to correct myself. A quick check back showed that it was just the two of us so I recovered briefly then passed the rider back and charged forth with a renewed confidence. From there I could race my race, at my steady and conservative pace, and not have to worry about putting the digs in to try and wear down another person, the same digs that took their toll on you.
In the end the new bike, the 2013 Cannondale Scalpel 1 worked great on it's initial full length race, save one incident with the remote lockout getting pushed and riding with the fork locked out for about half a lap. I really do think that lockout is stupid and wish that there was a good way to remove it without needing new shocks. The bike is crazy light and super fast but also handled the rocks and abuse without issue. I'm very happy with it. This was also the first race where we were able to rock the new Bikeway Source/Bell Lap Racing team kits. Very spiffy and they actually match the bike, which is ultra pro.
Speaking of ultra pro, Cathy had a phenomenal race in a huge field coming in third in the Cat1 35+ and fourth overall amongst all of the Cat1 age groups. That is a super result for her and hopefully an indicator of things to come this season. The longer races suit her well and in reality, she was killing it on the climb, ironic given that she loves to say she can't climb. It's just about watts regardless of whether up, down or flat and Cathy has the watts. Hopefully she will realize that for good and once we get her technical confidence back to where it was ten years ago, she will be crushing.
Lots of words and a big meandering post. My point to start was that I'm not sure where I belong. I've had very good success where I am, but does that make me a sandbagger and should I move on? Is there competition in my field right now? Tough questions. I know that depending on who shows up at any given race is what dictates what the competition will be and that there are a whole bunch of 40-49's out there that are really fast and show every once in a while, in addition to those fast guys that show every race.
Right now and in reality for the past few years, the Cat1 Men's 40-49 race is the biggest, the fastest and the deepest of the Cat1 fields. But where does that leave me? Should I suffer through the Pro/Open races, physically exhausting myself for mid pack finished and again become disenchanted? Should I just stop racing all together and just ride for fun? Isn't racing fun though and if not, why do it?
Or is it reasonable to think that building up the Cat1 field will draw competition back in for those old guys like me that don't feel the need to claim we race at the elite level? I guess that I'll see how it goes the next race or two, see who shows up and see what people think. I don't want to take anything away from anyone and if I'm doing the wrong thing than so be it.
As a footnote, my time from Sunday's race would have put me in 12th in the Pro/Open race, by the way. The last time I did Hop Brook was in 2009 in my first Pro/Open race and I finished 8th in a similar field. I was happy with that result. Not sure I'd be so happy with this one.