racing RenoThis is an opinion piece by Reno Toffoli. Reno’s opinions don’t necessary represent the opinions of Your Group Ride or its advertisers but I always enjoy his rants. If you’d like to write an article for YGR, please email me at



For whatever reason, I waited 20 years into my adult cycling career before I entered my first race. The biggest reason for this was that my memories of racing BMX bikes as a kid weren’t the fondest ones. As a 13 year old, I would get overwhelmed by nerves and adrenaline for the brief 2 minute duration of a race where one tiny mistake (yours or someone else’s) could take you out of the running

and get you a nice bit of road rash to boot. As a young teen with a brain made of scrambled eggs, I didn’t really understand what I was doing; I’d get overly competitive, and then beat myself up endlessly when I didn’t get a good result. Because of all this, I decided that I had much more fun just poking around on the trails, building jumps, learning tricks and all the other stuff that went with being part of the BMX culture in the 1980s.

By the time I started mountain biking, racing was the furthest thing from my mind. The memories of racing taking the fun out of everything had put me firmly into an anti-racing mindset. Besides, I wouldn’t have known how to find or enter a race even if I wanted to as things like the internet and YGR were many, many years away.

I’m not really sure what got me to enter my first race. I think some of it was just the thought of trying something new and I also wanted something that would motivate me to ride and give me a goal to look forward to. Another part of it was the fact that the internet and things like YGR now existed and local races were easy to find. I’m also pretty sure I saw videos of a couple local races and said to myself, ‘Hell, I can do that!

My first race was actually a time trial. In fact, it was a Taft Hill time trial just over 5 years ago. My goal was a realistic one; not to come in last. The result? I didn’t come in last, but I was damn close. The race was hard, and painful, and I wondered why the hell I was going flat out with my heart rate pegged at the limit because I never rode like this normally. I don’t know whether I would say that it was ‘fun’, but it was interesting and I learned a lot in that first race. One of the things I learned was that I wasn’t a time trialist. I questioned what I was doing and didn’t know whether I would continue doing it but there was something about it that kind of pulled me in and kept me coming back. The nice thing about using the time trial as a first race was that it was essentially me against the clock and I didn’t have to worry about dealing with other riders, or tactics, or anything like that so I guess it served its purpose.

I didn’t really get my ass kicked until I started my mountain bike racing career soon afterward. When I decided I was going to start racing, I was really thinking I’d be racing mountain bikes because I’m a mountain biker; I always have been and always will be. So, naturally (and arrogantly), I figured I’d be pretty good at it. My first mountain bike race was at one of the Laramie Mountain Bike Series races just over 5 years ago. I will very honestly say that I had absolutely no idea of what I was getting myself in to and no idea what a cross country race was really like. I damn near entered the open class because I figured, well, I’ve been riding mountain bikes for 20 years, I’m an expert level rider who can clean nearly anything, and I should be able to keep up with the best of them. Yeah, right. Some unexplained epiphany of clear thinking found me entering the sport/ intermediate class where I figured I’d finish in the top 5. Boy, was I wrong. I didn’t get last but I was nowhere near the top. This was where I learned that ‘mountain biking’ has nothing to do with a mountain bike race. It’s also where I learned that the races are won and lost in the climbs, and I’m a notoriously slow climber. The last thing I learned was that mountain bike racing is just time trialing on dirt, and I already knew I was no good at that.

But…but…something intrigued me about it, something kept me coming back. It still wasn’t ‘fun’ but I had to keep doing it, if for no other reason to prove to myself that I could do better.

5 years on now and I’ve got somewhere between 50 and 100 starts under my belt in everything from short track to cross country to cyclocross to endurance to criteriums. I still don’t know that I consider myself a ‘racer’ and I don’t hold any licenses. Everything I do is unlicensed, unsanctioned, and essentially at the grassroots level.  I like it that way because it’s cheap and easy and low stress which tends to make it more ‘fun’…but more on that later.

These days I race mainly to motivate myself to ride and have something to look forward to. I really don’t take racing seriously at all, I don’t ‘train’ any other way than by riding my bike. I don’t eat particularly well (in racer terms) but I don’t eat a ton of junk either. I just am who I am and show up and run what I brung. As an adult with a career and a family, racing is a nice diversion but it’s not something I’m going to sacrifice anything for…it’s just something I do every so often for a change of pace. It’s something I choose to do when it’s convenient, not because I feel I have to, and that keeps it stress free and ‘fun’.

One of the things I never expected when I started racing was how much I would learn about myself. Being in the middle of a pack during a mountain bike race where you can technically ride the course better than the people in front of you but just can’t go faster no matter what you do is supremely frustrating. I have improved my fitness and strength in the past 5 years so now I’m typically a top 5 or 10 intermediate racer and a mid-pack expert but my inability to go fast on a climb is something I’ve really, really struggled with. It’s also something that I don’t think is ever going to change or perhaps that it’s just not important enough for me to change because, after all, this is just for ‘fun’.

I have learned to be humble and accept my limitations. I try to capitalize on my strengths knowing that they’re never going to win me a race. The fact that I can descend faster than most and clean a course don’t matter a whole lot when someone else can climb twice as fast as me. I have learned to pace myself and let the field go. Sometimes I really am in last place on the course and it’s a very lonely and demoralizing place to be. I’ve learned to stay positive even when it seems that every single rider on the course has passed me. I’ve learned to have patience because I know that as soon as the trail points downhill or things get technical, I will catch back up and make passes. I’ve learned that I’m not a Formula One car but a more of a diesel truck just chugging along and waiting for the F1 cars to blow up. I’ve learned that I don’t give up, and that I can sprint.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned about is nutrition on the bike. It’s taken an incredible amount of research, experimentation, bonking, getting sick, and overall perseverance to get it so that I can stay strong through a race no matter the duration. Early on, I think this was one of my biggest challenges and It feels good to know that I’ve got it worked out.  

As I’ve gained more experience and gotten stronger, my expectations have changed. My main goal these days had changed from not coming in last to usually being either above 50% or top 10 depending on the race, the size of the field, and what class I enter. I will admit that I have come in last at least twice. Once at a LMBS race where I crashed and had two flats and the sweep rider actually caught up to me on trail and followed me in. She was really supportive and cheered me on the whole way back but I was so far out that it was getting dark by the time I made it to the finish. I was exhausted, felt about 2 feet tall, and just wanted to ditch my bike in the woods, curl up in the fetal position, and cry.  Another time I raced the Battle the Bear race and just had a horrible day…overheated, got sick, could hardly ride, and was the absolute last one on course. I was so far out that the volunteers had pretty much all gone home by the time I finished, and all the food was gone as well. One thing that I’m actually fairly proud of is that I’ve never DNF’d (knocking on wood desk right now)…whether sick or hurt or ‘mechanicaled’, I’ve always ridden my bike through the finish.

As time has gone on, racing has started to get ‘fun’. The things that I enjoy about racing are things like riding in new areas that I might not otherwise go to, making a good pass, cleaning a section that everyone else is walking (and passing them in the process), catching a rider on the last lap, and winning a sprint finish. Another thing that I really love is having it out with another rider for a whole race. They guys (and gals) fighting for 23rd place are riding and fighting just as hard as the ones gunning it out for first place and the tactical warfare and ‘cat and mouse’ games are just a blast to me. I live for letting a rider go so that he’s thinking he’s dropped me only to take him on the next descent or playing the psychological game of riding right on someone’s wheel while they destroy themselves in order to stay ahead. I’ve learned that I’m a strong finisher and tend to clean up in the back half of a race so these battles get fun as things get down to the wire. The other thing is whether I win or lose the tactical battle for 17th place, if it was a clean and honest battle, it’s something to be proud of. There’s nothing like the handshake or fist bump of complete strangers at the end of a race who have earned each other’s mutual respect from their racing dogfight.

One very strange thing I’ve learned in my short racing career is that the races I’ve had the best results in are not the ones I expected to have good results in. Criteriums are a perfect example of this. I’ve had consistently good finishes in crits for some strange reason (probably because there’s no climbing in the ones I’ve entered) and I enjoy them but just don’t see myself pursuing that avenue. Part of the reason is that I don’t like the idea that someone else’s mistake can take me out, and I hate crashing and being injured.

There are types of racing I’d like to try because I think I’d be good at them but I probably won’t due to the cost and/ or time commitment. Things like downhill racing are intriguing but I’m not about to buy an $8k downhill bike and drive to the ski resorts every weekend. The new enduro racing thing is interesting as well but the entry fees are steep and it ends up being a $500 weekend with food and lodging. My personal limit for entry fees is right around $50 per race (with one or two exceptions) and distance at right around a 2 hour drive (ditto). Fortunately, even with those limitations there’s still an overwhelming amount of racing out there if you look for it.

So, if you’ve been on the sidelines, wondering about racing, all I can say is: give it a try. You might find that it’s ‘fun’ or you might find that it’s fun. You may be good right off the bat, or you may never be that good. If you stick with it, you will probably learn deep dark things about yourself you didn’t know existed.  You don’t know until you try and there’s no better community to try it in than the one we have in Northern Colorado and Southeast Wyoming (I have to give a big, big shout out to all the SE Wyoming folks out there because their races completely rock!)

See you at the (grassroots) races.