Choosing a Club or a Team

Should I join a club or at team? The question is posed often enough by beginning and intermediate bicycle racers that it deserves in-depth review. I started racing bicycles in 1984, riding about six years with a club before moving on in succession to a not very serious amateur team, a few serious amateur teams, and finally spending the past six years (five of them as captain) on a UCI Division III Trade team. In addition, I have worked formally as a USAC-certified coach for the past two years and informally for five more. Both clubs and teams are integral in the development process of every racing cyclist and knowing which to choose, why, and when, can be a difficult process. I will clarify some the differences here and try to provide a guideline of as to how to select between the two.

First, it's important to distinguish between a club and a team and note the differences. A club is defined as a group of people organized for a common purpose, especially a group that meets regularly. The common purpose of a cycling club is to learn cycling, or more specifically in the case of a bicycle racing club, to learn bicycle racing, and share the experience with others in a social setting. When I first started racing, there were few written resources on which to draw about bicycle racing, even less about beginning bicycle racing. For instance, there was no World Wide Web as we know it today, much less a search engine such as Yahoo or Google. I can attribute most of my cycling development to the "elders" of the Dayton Cycling Club, a touring as well as racing club with over 1000 members at the time. The older more experienced riders in the club took the time to teach me a multitude of lessons: bike fit, training, cornering, how to get a racing license, good training routes, how to ride a fixed gear, how to glue a tire, when/where the training races took place; the list goes on. I will be forever grateful to those riders. They also had the initiative to organize meetings and training rides, and promoted a great series of midweek training races that used about 15 different courses. The Dayton Cycling Club was where I learned to race, skills that I still put into practice every time I ride and race a bicycle.

On the other hand a team is defined as a group organized to work together; a cooperative unit. Most beginning and intermediate cyclists have attempted some sort of team sport by the time they take up cycling, and bicycle racing teams are fairly similar. In its most simplistic form, a bicycle racing team is organized to work together as a unit in order to win races. By now, almost every aspiring bicycle racer has watched at least part of the Tour de France and noticed the incredible amount of teamwork that the US Postal Service team performs in support of Lance Armstrong's victories. Riders on Armstrong's team each have a specific role which they carry out according to the tactical plan devised by the director of the team before each stage. Some of the riders are used to set the pace of the peloton on the flatter roads, others in the mountains, and still others who have the sole job of looking out for Lance during the approaches to the big bunch sprints or other potentially dangerous moments. The USPS team is a cooperative unit without individual riders looking for personal glory--instead every rider (including Lance), rides every race according to the tactical plan.

The difference between the two? A beginning bicycle racer basically learns how to race with a club, a beginning bicycle racer actually races with others as a cooperative unit with a team, usually in an extremely competitive environment. There are advantages and disadvantages to both a club and a team._
A club can be a very nurturing environment in which a beginning cyclist can learn the necessary skills in order to compete effectively in lower level competitive bicycles races. One can learn the basic skills of how to ride in a paceline or peloton, how to launch an attack, how to approach a steep climb, how to pedal around corners, as well as basic tactical skills. The process to learn these skills in a club is generally conducted in a low-key atmosphere with little or no pressure for results based on the outcome of races. However, this low-key approach is also the primary disadvantage of a club for racers who want to progress to the next level, or who for those are competitively driven by nature and consequently fixated on race results. Additionally, many modern clubs no longer provide these services to their members, and often meet only for competitive group rides and hammer sessions.

A team is a very different organization where individual glory is downplayed in favor of working toward the common goal of winning races. Racing on a team mandates cooperation, a skill level that is fairly advanced, and fairly closely-matched fitness levels of the individual riders. Cooperation is difficult for many racers to embrace, especially given the competitive individual environments in which many of us live and work, but it is essential to the proper function of a team. Team riders have to be ready to sacrifice themselves to chase down dangerous breakaways, lead -out sprints, or set a hard pace at the front of the peloton, thus sacrificing their own personal results. Team racing also requires advanced skills which come into play, many times in criteriums, and especially in the execution of a sprint lead-out. A rider who is the last lead-out man for a sprinter must be able to come around the final corner at a high but safe speed in order to position that sprinter where he needs to be to win. Fairly closely matched fitness levels is the most overlooked component of racing with a team. You will hear many professional riders mention that they have ridden harder in support of a team leader than it took to win races. Simply put, teamwork is hard work, and in a team with proportionally weaker riders, the weaker riders are usually unable to provide any sort of assistance to the team as a whole, and that will ultimately breed resentment within the team. Racing on a team is good for those who enjoy working with others as a unit, are comfortable with a highly competitive atmosphere, and not bothered by the pressure to do so.

What do I think about whether a racer should join a club or a team? For starters, most juniors should be part of a club rather than a team. Racers under the age of eighteen have their entire lives to be competitive, and it's important for them to have time to learn how to race, have a bit of fun, and not worry to much about "doing the right thing" in a race. Category 3, 4, and 5 racers should also be encouraged to join a club rather than a team. A club will encourage these riders to safely learn the skills to become an effective bicycle racer, acquire essential race experience without pressure, and enjoy friendly camaraderie along the way. Category 2 and up should think about joining a team if they enjoy the competitive, pressure-filled atmosphere which is part and parcel of a bicycle racing team. A bicycle racing team is also a way to move to next level, but few teams have the patience to teach a relative novice all the subtleties of racing, those are best learned at the club level. Of course, there are many large, successful clubs that are able to combine the best aspects, and run a more elite, results-driven team within their club, giving all their ambitious club members something to strive for.

Most of the clients that I coach have been happy with their choice to join a club when they were beginning cyclists. Likewise, one of my most important roles as a coach to up-and-coming riders is helping them decide when to make the switch from a club to a team. Clubs and teams are both organizations which bring together bicycle racers together and provide positive outcomes. It's important for racers at all levels to consciously decide which is best for them in any part of their racing career: the learning atmosphere of a club or the result-driven atmosphere of a team.