How to Size Up the Competition

06.17.2005 | 3:14 pm

Part I: The Rider

When does riding become racing? Two simple rules:

  • When there are two riders: It is possible for two cyclists to ride together without it turning into a race — but only if it has already been established that one of the two cyclists is the alpha rider.
  • When there are three or more riders: If there are three or more cyclists, there will be racing — whether it be a race to the summit, a race to the next signpost, or a race of fatigue. The race may not be aknowledged, but it is there.

Of course, before you embark upon any race, you want to understand your competition. Today, I will begin to explain how you can assess your chances against your cycling foes.

The Cyclist

  • Clothes Fit: The type and tightness of the jersey and shorts give you a good indication of the relative confidence of your opponent:
    • Loose fitting: If the shorts and/or jersey are loose-fitting, the cyclist has something — ie, fat — to hide. He knows he’s not at the top of his game. Plan to destroy this cyclist on the climbs.
    • Form fitting: You don’t need me to tell you what this means. This is a person who has earned his physique. All you can hope for is that he earned it in the gym, not on the bike.
    • Used to be form-fitting, but now looks uncomfortably tight: Oh, that’s me. Don’t worry, I’m no threat to you.
  • Sponsor branding: This is complex. Bike clothes with sponsor branding can mean different things on different people.
    • Full team kit on a guy with hairy legs: This person read a Men’s Health article about the benefits of cycling a couple years ago and watched the Tour de Lance last year, whereupon he decided to “get into” cycling. He has money to spend, but no biking skills whatsoever. Toy with him, then ride away.
    • Full team kit on a guy with shaved legs: Could mean trouble. He’s clearly a fanboy, and cares enough about cycling that he probably rides plenty. Going to have to go to secondary clues: leg definition, evidence of a spare tire, suntan pattern, bike clues. 
    • Jersey advertising a non-bike-sponsoring consumer product: This is a person who buys his jerseys at a bike store, as opposed to getting them as souvenirs for races he’s done. This person does not take biking seriously enough. A few intermediate sprints should demoralize him nicely. That said, I desperately want the Reeses Peanut Butter Cup jersey advertised in the current Performance Bike Catalog. Have I mentioned that Saturday is my birthday? Size Large, please.
    • Race / Event branding: This is helpful only if you know the circumstances under which the jersey can be obtained. If it’s a jersey you have to buy, it means your opponent wishes he were fast, but isn’t. If the jersey can only be obtained by finishing — or worse, winning — a race, you may have a serious race on your hands. 
    • No branding whatsoever: Inscrutable. This is clearly a guy who either wants to fade into the background because he sucks (70% chance), or likes to go stealth so that you feel that much worse when he cleans your clock (30% chance). Look for secondary clues.
  • Legs: Evaluate his tan, his hairiness, and his quads and calves.
    • Tan = trouble. But check where the tan starts and ends. If he’s tan right up to the bike shorts line but not beyond, and his quads are the tannest part of his body, you’ve got a real cyclist on your hands. If his forehead has a strange tanning pattern on it that suddenly makes sense when he puts on his helmet and glasses, this spells trouble with a capital T.
    • Shaved legs = serious cyclist. Why do shaved legs matter? Because they mean he’s made a commitment to cycling. They also mean he’s vain, because the purpose of shaved legs is to increase the visibility of your leg muscle definition.
    • Leg definition and size: Finally, check the size and cut of his quads and calves. If he’s just cut, you can probably take him on the flats. If he’s just big, you can get him on the climbs. If he’s both, just try to draft.

Part II: The Bike

Anyone who’s ever gathered at a start line knows that there’s an awful lot of sly bike inspections going on. But gauging the quality of the cyclist based on what he’s riding isn’t limited to start lines. You can do it practically anytime — looking at bikes on car racks and looking at bikes people are riding as you pass / are passed are two common times. Today, let’s take a look at how you can quickly size up the competition, just by looking at what they ride.

  • Reflectors: This is the absolutely most obvious way you can be sure someone’s not serious about cycling. If he’s left the reflectors on his bike, he’s clearly not considering the extraordinarily deleterious (wow, I just used “deleterious” in a sentence!) effects on his speed the weight and poor aerodynamics of the reflectors will have. (
  • Drivetrain: The drivetrain is a good indicator of the person’s riding style:
    • Shimano = all about the efficiency and reliability. 80% chance that the rider also drives a Japanese car. High likelihood that the rider will be a good tactician and a a smart rider.
    • Campagnolo means the rider cares all about the history of cycling and the passion of cycling and will fly into a fit if you do not profess an undying love for Eddy Merckx. This person corners with passion. He climbs with passion. He descends with passion. He attacks with passion. And when you beat him, he will throw a raging fit.
    • SRAM: This person isn’t interestedd in beating you. He’s interested in doing his own thing, man. If you suggest working together, he’ll look at you like you’re from Mars.
    • Singlespeed means that he no longer cares about winning, or at least wishes to project the image that he no longer cares. He’s jaded, like James Dean on a bike. OR it’s possible that he is bringing enough game to the ride that he’s confident he can beat you even without the benefit of technology.
  • Wheels: Everyone talks about wheels as if they’re the biggest factor in how fast you go. Let me tell you a secret: your wheels aren’t going to make you any faster or slower. They’re not going to change the quality of your ride. So, if you see that your competition is riding with very expensive wheels, don’t worry about him being faster than you. Instead, just make a mental note that this person is gullible and that you’ll probably be successful at selling him NuSkin products later.
  • Frame: A brand-new frame says more about your opponent’s income than about his ability on a bike. It could mean he’s new to biking. It could mean he just nailed a sponsor. It could mean he wore his previous bike out. However, a well-worn bike says a lot about the rider. If it’s well-used and well-maintained, count on a tough race. If the frame is a couple years old but still looks new, your competition is more likely riding a New Years’ resolution — one that didn’t work out — from a couple years ago. If he’s riding a frame that’s several years old and still in good shape, you know you’re racing a lifer. If the rider looks strong, be ready for some serious competition.
  • Pedals: Better to have them than not. Okay, I can see I’m running out of steam here.


  1. Comment by Darren | 08.2.2008 | 2:24 pm

    When you say “full team kit” you seem to mean a pro team kit. What about us geeks in amateur team kits? Little to no chance we purchased them for style/fandom reasons like the pro kit (we refer to ours as ’smurf’ blue…see website link, above).

  2. Comment by milbup | 09.20.2008 | 2:16 pm


  3. Comment by Tsuru | 07.28.2009 | 10:08 am

    Fantastic, just discovered this post through a friend…. I’ll only add that you missed one type of race, one rider vs. one rider (this is VERY different from two riders)…. let’s me explain.

    Here’s the scene, a lone rider is on a ride, feeling good or not, doesn’t matter, then sees up in the distance another lone rider. Unbeknownst to the rider ahead, the race is on. It’s a “bunch sprint” of one to some arbitrary point! But the winning moment is actually when the first rider, when about to pass, completely out of breath, in pain, but still chugging along, summons up just a little extra helping of oxygen to announce, “on your left” with a small grin holding it all together as he passes, waiting until the next bend or turn to try to hold back vomiting and passing out.

    Cavendish ain’t got nuffin’ on that finish.


  4. Comment by bcmull | 11.15.2009 | 6:05 am

    What does it say if you are wearing a Team Fatty jersey?

  5. Pingback by Oh, For the Love of Bike… « Planet Jenn | 03.27.2010 | 7:11 am

    [...] know they were racing, but I won fair and square regardless. I’m a devout adherent to the The Fat Cyclist’s theory that when there are more than two riders, there will be racing. And they passed me on a [...]

  6. Comment by Velotex | 07.12.2011 | 3:25 am

    Very insightfull article. I always tend to size up my competitors, but never in the ways that you just did. It seems likely that your methods are much more trustworthy than mine. I usually laugh at the guys with shaven legs, but I never knew that it was done to show-off their leg muscle definition – now I’m going to laugh even harder! LOL!


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