Teams are like families. Some are big, some are small. Some are pretty and happy, some are dysfunctional and in need of therapy.
No team is without its squabbles or black sheep, but all exist for the same purposes: to have fun riding together, to achieve common success—
a win for one being a win for all —
and to help riders achieve their individual goals.
Yet the role of the team can be one of the more puzzling aspects of our sport, especially for non-cyclists. We’ve all been to dinner parties where we’ve had to explain why there are teams in an individual-based sport. But while it’s easy to see how the professional domestiques and lieutenants slave away for their leaders, teams serve a much different function for new racers. In fact, I would argue that for beginning cyclists, tactics is one of the least important benefits of being on a team.
Why should a new bike racer join a team? It isn’t for everyone, but here’s how I would assess the benefits, both tangible and not, for new racers.
Networking: Fair or not, cyclists (and roadies in particular) have a reputation for being elitists. We do tend to be an insular, intimidating bunch, or at least we appear to be so from the outside. But for a new racer who still doesn’t shave his legs or count the grams of his bottle cage, joining a team is a great way to break through that barrier.
Once you join a team, you suddenly have a group to ride with, new friends to drink with and friendly faces to look for at races. You have a way to organize carpools and share travel costs. You have people with whom to exchange that all-important head nod on the path.
And shazam: You’re on the inside.
Aid and comfort: Many teams hire certified coaches to put on clinics and workshops. In addition, you’ll find no shortage of experienced experts on any given team. (I’m not the only know-it-all who enjoys giving free advice.) This makes training rides a great chance to ask any questions you have, and after each race you can huddle with your teammates to debrief over what just happened. Each one will have a different perspective, and many will have noticed things you did right or wrong.
Discounts: Most teams offer industry deals on everything from tubes and tires to bikes and wheels. In fact, buy a year’s worth of tires and a new helmet
stuff you probably would have bought anyhow —
and you’ll find you’ve more than made up for your team dues.
Note, however, that pro deals should not be your primary reason for joining a team. It’s hard, thankless work to solicit and manage a team’s sponsorships, and your participation is expected in return. Nothing frustrates a team like the people who only show their heads at gear distribution, or whose only contribution is to ask when the next order is.
Tactics: When you’re unattached (without a team), it’s you against the world. When you’re on a team, you have allies. One versus fifty becomes five versus fifty. Your sum becomes greater than the individual parts.
Team tactics take myriad shapes: leadouts for sprinters, blocking for attackers, chasing down opponents. Good team tactics take years to hone, however, and in the beginning categories, the principal aspect of teamwork is to simply “do no harm.” The most common case is when a rider has taken the initiative to attack or get in a break. If his teammates are paying attention, they will not contribute to the chase. Sitting back at a time like that takes some patience and selflessness, and you should be cool with that. But master “do no harm” and you’ll go far with your team.
One teammate making a sacrifice for another is one of the most beautiful occasions of our sport, but this is often confusing for someone thinking about joining a team. Some people wonder whether they’ll be compelled to take on a domestique role when they’re new. Absolutely not. In your first few years, your focus should be on learning and improving. Aside from not chasing down your own teammates, no team should be telling you how to race. Until you sign a pro contract, nobody should be ordering you to lead someone out or chase down a break.
That said, if you have a good relationship with your team, you’ll end up wanting to sacrifice yourself for your stronger teammates if you find yourself in a position to do so. You’ll do this knowing that eventually you’ll be the strong one, and it will be everyone else’s turn to sacrifice for you. (You’ll also do this knowing that the winner buys lunch.)
And what are the trade-offs of joining a team?
Dues: They can run up to $100 and usually don’t include a uniform or any race fees. But for active members who take advantage of what a given team can offer, dues should work out to be a bargain.
Uniforms: Once you put down for a few jerseys, some shorts and a handful of accessories, your uniform order can hit hundreds of dollars. But most teams sell their uniforms at cost, and the larger teams can get better deals from vendors. At $50, a team jersey isn’t much more expensive than what you’d pay for a quality jersey anyhow.
The work: Teams don’t run themselves. Sponsors need to be nurtured, races have to be organized, uniforms need to be ordered, programs need to be funded, rides and clinics need to be planned ... and on and on. When you’re unattached, all you have to worry about is training and getting yourself to races. As a member of a team, you’ll at the very least be expected to volunteer throughout the year at your team’s functions, be they clinics or races, and eventually you’ll be paid the compliment of being asked to help lead the team.
Bad actors: One person’s actions reflect upon the entire squad. That works out great when you have teammates winning races or helping stranded riders fix flats. It’s less ideal when people wearing the same jersey as you are littering during races, riding irresponsibly or just being rude. When you join a team, you may eventually have to call out people on their behavior. (You may also have to accept people calling you out on your own.)
Tactics: Sometimes teamwork has a tactical cost. If your team makes up a large portion of a given race, the rest of the field will notice and will be quick to shut down any of your team’s moves. Thus it can sometimes be easier for an unattached rider to escape from a peloton’s clutches.
That intangible fit: When your bike doesn’t fit, it’s a trivial thing to adjust the seat or change your stem. But what if you join a team
and they turn out to be a bunch of jerks? Or Freds? Or just people you can’t seem to connect with? It happens. Which is why it’s a good idea to get acquainted with potential teammates and a team’s vibe before you join. Otherwise one could be in a very long year.
Obviously I’m a big advocate of joining a team, and I’m thrilled there are so many good ones to join around Chicago.
When I got into road racing, I could barely change a tire and didn’t know a cog from a sprocket from a hole in my head. I joined a team before I’d done a single race or even had a racing bike—
and it worked out great. I made dozens of friends and thanks to their help, I went up a category each of my first two years.
Mileage varies, and I don’t discourage riding unattached until you decide the sport is definitely for you. But while you do so, talk up people you ride with and draw out their experiences, and use the CBR team directory as a starting point for find the team that’s best for you. Some teams are invitation-only, but most will be thrilled to have you.