Bicycle Racing and Stem Cells
All photos (in this blog post) of me racing were taken by Scott Robarts Photography.
Before we engage in a mini-series directly related to exercise (cardio, lifting, short-term, and long-term training) and stem cells, this is a good time for a one week "breather" to have a brief break from science. Since launching the new website and the blog, I have had numerous messages from those that know me well asking me to blog about cycling. It’s strange to bounce between the science of stem cell biology, regenerative medicine, and sports in blogs. However, as I perform the transition from scientist to athlete daily, perhaps it’s not as odd as might be initially thought. As I type the initial draft of this blog post, I am in final training preparations for the Western Challenge being held at the velodrome within the Harry Jerome Sports Centre (Burnaby, BC, Canada). The photos incorporated here are all from that race weekend. My mind is constantly hopping between gears (sad attempt at nerd/cycling humor…mostly silly because track bikes, unlike most bikes, do not have gears to change whilst riding the bike) of science, sports, and a host of other topics because I have a tremendous amount of curiosity and love learning.
So, what does it take to ride a track bike? Perhaps first and foremost, one has to abandon fear. A careful look at the images of the bikes in the blog or online demonstrates that track bikes have no brakes! Additionally, the bike has “fixed gears.” That is, as I have already mentioned, the bike does not have gears to change whilst riding, but even more, the pedals cannot coast (there is no freewheel and the gear is fixed to the hub of the rear wheel); the rider must continually pedal to avoid crashing/flipping over the handlebars. So, no brakes and no ability to coast coupled with a need for continual pedaling means that when a rider crashes, it can lead to a huge crash involving many riders in the field (there are numerous riders in bunch races). Take the fear that one has/may have and toss it away…it’s not needed at the track. One of the first rules my velodrome coach told me was, "if you think you're going to crash, pedal faster!"
I have met amazing track cyclists that have helped me each step of the way…and are continuing to do so as I grow in this sport. Even the experts never stop learning, so there is much to learn for those of us newer to track cycling. One of the big difficulties of riding a velodrome is actually finding a track (velodrome). There are several velodromes within the United States, but they are disappearing rapidly (as a fun piece of trivia, New York's Madison Square Garden - was the source of the name "Madison race," which is a track race in which two riders function together and use "hand slings" to "throw" the other rider into the race while the other rider moves higher onto the track and cycles much slower...exchanging numerous times in each race). Moreover, there are just two indoor velodromes in the United States - Los Angeles (250 meter) and just recently, a short (167 meter) velodrome opened in Detroit. Colorado Springs, the home of training for Olympic athletes, has a long (333 meter) velodrome over which a dome is temporarily placed (this past year was a trial of having the dome cover the velodrome 365 days). Unlike indoor velodromes which are made of wood, outdoor velodromes (like Colorado Springs or the Alpenrose velodrome in Portland, OR) are made of concrete.
Neither wood nor concrete are inviting for crashing (especially at high speeds). That is about the only consistency amongst the various tracks around the globe; each velodrome has its own unique characteristics, speed, and best/fastest lines. That is, each track has its own “life,” and varies from other tracks which one may ride. Bank angles on the straights and in the turns vary from each other and both of those vary from track-to-track (additionally, the radius of the turns vary from track-to-track). The Burnaby velodrome has roughly a 15-degree bank in the straights and 48-degree banks in the turns on its 200 meter track. So, to be a competitive track cyclist, one better understand physics and then learn how to translate the understanding of physics into performance on the bike. Understanding physics, having massive power, and having fast leg speed (how quickly one can rotate the cranks/pedals) only go so far…technical expertise is required to race fast. It’s also a difficult thing to learn and requires others to watch and comment and then hundreds and thousands of repetitions to master the techniques. In other words, to improve, one should find an expert with experience at fine-tuning the technical components of riding and racing a bicycle on a velodrome.
Dedication. This cannot be said enough. Inherent in the definition of dedication is the necessary amount of time and effort that must be put into the commitment to ride safely, improve, and race well. My training schedule (this includes road cycling, lifting at the gym, core work, velodrome, and indoor trainers/roller) has me training nearly every day. Moreover, as a sprinter on the track, it is often a dedication of 3-5 hours at the track with each workout - this includes significant downtime to allow the body to recover between efforts. Plus, driving to and from the velodrome, hauling gear, etc generally is a 5-7 hour dedication of time 3 days a week…just for training elements at the velodrome. For me, dedication also includes lifestyle choices (e.g., sleep, eating), but we don’t need to get into that in this blog.
Why the velodrome? First, to place this blog in some sort of "stem cell" world, I do believe that exercise and racing are helpful for my health and my stem cells (we'll review literature on exercise and stem cells in the forthcoming mini-series, Exercise and Stem Cells). Think back to your first childhood exhilarating experience on a roller coaster. Remember going from a slow climb, to increased speed with a descent followed by turns with high g-forces? That’s the feeling most cyclists describe after their first experiences on the velodrome. Simply put, it’s FUN!!! Couple that with the necessary understanding of physics and incorporating that into one’s plans and strategy and a glorious combination of childhood freedom becomes mixed with physical and split-second thought challenges and plan enforcement. Being focused on sprints is interesting; any delay or second-guessing leads to a loss (assuming it’s a crash-free ride). The cat-and-mouse of the opening 200-350 meters of the matched sprint is all about trying to capitalize upon a move that leaves the other racer with a split-second delay to try to overcome or to provide a scenario for which the opponent has not made a plan.
One of the fascinating elements of racing on the velodrome occurs within the matched sprint. In the matched sprint, only two cyclists are on the velodrome at one time and it’s a “best of three” races scenario to advance to the next round of sprints. There is a rotation in terms of positioning (who leads, at least the first part of the race, and who is higher upon the bank than the other - being higher up the inclined track means increased potential energy and that often translates into increased speed). What becomes confusing to spectators about matched sprints is that only the final 200 meters of the 3 lap (600-750 meters) race is timed. Moreover, the first part of the race requires that cyclists maintain speeds of at least a walking pace. Walking pace and sprinting are generally not thought to go hand-in-hand…except they often are within a matched sprint. Moreover, during the matched sprint, after the first lap of requiring at least a walking pace, the sprinters can actually stop their bikes (performing a track stand on the angled velodrome) and hopefully, have the rider in the back miss the track stand, or not maintain it, and have to go to the front. The front is generally considered the weaker position for winning the sprint because it is much harder to make surprise moves and the rider must pay attention to what is happening behind them with the other racer and in front of them to avoid crashing and to know where one is on the velodrome. So, in a sprint, the race may actually go from a few miles per hour to 0 miles per hour and moments later be at over 40 miles per hour. In other words, it's a race of walking a razor’s edge (it’s taxing on the legs to maintain and easy to fall over when in a track stand, both of which could cost the race) with tremendous bursts of speed, and a mental and physical game of “cat-and-mouse” during which each cyclist is looking for a weakness or a momentary loss of concentration on which to capitalize to win the race.
Track sprinting and learning the art of the sprint reminds me in many ways of learning to fly. It’s unacceptable to simply react. If a pilot only reacts to something happening to the glider/plane, it is unlikely that there is time to recover before something catastrophic occurs. Rather, pilots must have a plan for eventualities that may or may not occur. For example, pilots have a plan for a bird strike that shuts down an engine (either for takeoff or whilst flying), even though a bird strike may never occur on a particular pilot’s plane. Simply reacting is insufficient. A predetermined plan is followed to attempt to alleviate to situation. Sprinting is over in just a few seconds and margins are typically hundredths or thousands of a second and often require video and/or photo surveillance to confirm a winner. In sprinting, one small delay caused by trying to “react” generally results in a loss. However, responding to an opponent’s move according to a plan often leads to loss of opportunity for the opponent.
All of these elements, the cerebral elements of studying a velodrome and devising plans, the adrenaline pumping throughout the body, the physicality of racing and keeping a bike balanced on ever changing angles in absolute maximal energy expenditure while being inches (or at times touching another rider) and undergoing high g-forces makes the art of the sprint difficult to master and tremendously challenging fun to learn.
While we didn’t discuss “stem cells” in this blog, I am using this particular blog as a pivot point. The next few blogs will be a mini-series focused on exercise and stem cells and the exercise mini-series will tie back to the first mini-series (Obesity and Stem Cells) as we discuss whether or not the negative impacts of obesity can be reversed.