Erica Carney was one of the most successful and respected racers in the American pro peloton, with her win at the 2017 US pro criterium championship highlighting a truly remarkable career. But like every champion, Erica started as a beginner, progressing gradually with a commitment to learning and growth. We asked Erica what knowledge made the difference and what advice she wishes someone had given her along the way.

For more of Erica’s insights, check out Ask A Cycling Coach Ep. 306

1. Clean and Maintain Your Equipment

It might seem obvious that racing is a test of fitness, but the function of your bike is equally important. By regularly cleaning and maintaining your equipment, you keep it ready for your hard work and gain knowledge of what to do when things go wrong.

“Whether you’re just training or going to a gran fondo or race, you want your bike working and in good condition,” Erica explains. “Every racer can benefit from a basic knowledge of how their bike works. Knowing how to put your pedals on and off, swap a derailleur hanger, stuff like that. You want to know your machine!”

Regular cleaning and maintenance will help you identify problems and needed repairs, and if something needs to be fixed that you can’t do on your own, reach out to your local bike shop. 

“As pro racers, we had team mechanics, but most of us still had affiliations with our local bike shop. It’s a great way to support the industry, and it’s incredibly useful to have a good relationship with a local mechanic you can trust.” 

2. Ignore Most Mid-Race Advice 

Sometimes, other riders will tell you to chase or attack mid-race. As a beginner, you might feel obligated to follow every command given by more experienced racers. But if they aren’t your teammates, there’s a good chance these riders are only looking out for themselves.

“If you’re doing something dangerous and people get mad, that’s one thing, and you should listen and take it to heart. But if someone is telling you to chase, or attack, or do something tactical, it’s probably not to your benefit. They’re probably trying to bully you into something that helps them more than it helps you,” says Erica.

“I’ve been on both sides of this- I’ve done foolish things that other riders told me to do, and I’ve also yelled at other riders to get them to chase so I didn’t have to. It’s intimidating, but you’re not actually obligated to do any work. Take these commands with a grain of salt!”

3. Practice Technical Skills and Get Comfortable with Contact

Bike races are much more than just fitness contests. Cornering, descending, and safely rubbing shoulders with other riders at high speeds are crucial skills that can make or break your results. Luckily, it’s easy to improve your technique with practice.

“It doesn’t matter how fast you can go through a corner, you can always do it better,” Erica explains. “A lot of people are bad descenders, or freak out when they contact another rider in the pack. It’s super important to work on these things constantly.”

For practice, Erica recommends some simple drills. To get comfortable with contact, she likes to ride alongside friends in a grass field to practice leaning into each other in a safe setting. For cornering, set up some cones in a parking lot and work on your technique, gradually building speed. 

“Luckily, skills are easier to develop than fitness. Go out and train your weaknesses!”

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4. Follow Your Own Path

We all have role models, and you might assume their path is the right one for you, too. But Erica attributes a lot of her success to taking the path less traveled.

“I left several teams in my pro career because the atmosphere was not right for me. In the end, you need to look out for yourself and prioritize the things that you need to be successful. If a situation is not working for you, it’s ok to step away and do your own thing,” Erica says. From the events you enter to the team you race and train with, you’ll benefit from an atmosphere that lets you comfortably grow and improve.

“Find an environment that’s positive for you, and conducive to your success as a bike racer and a person in the world.”

5. Never Stop Learning

Erica has years of experience, but she still views every race as an opportunity to learn and improve.

“Never get to the point where you’re unwilling to learn,” she says. “One thing that helped me in my career was that I never let myself feel like I knew it all. There’s always a lesson to learn and something to do differently or better next time. Maybe it’s nutrition, position on the bike, or strategy. Study the weather, the road conditions, and the course. Be a student of the sport!”

When things don’t go your way, identify what you did do right and focus on your success. Conversely, even in your victories, admit the things you could have improved. 

“Whether you win or lose, reflect and unpack every race. It’s all towards the long-term goal of doing better next time, and the time after that.”

6. Don’t Limit Yourself

Too many cyclists assume their body type or riding style limits what they can achieve, or restricts them to one type of racing. In reality, we’re all versatile and capable of learning, and trying new things is one of the funnest parts of bike racing.

“No one would ever have looked at me and considered me a climber, yet one year I won a QOM at a major stage race, and it was incredibly fun,” Erica recalls. “Don’t limit yourself or put yourself into a box. Eat the food you want and take care of yourself both physically and mentally, and you’ll be able to do so many things with your body. I surprised myself and gradually went from being a field sprinter to a breakaway rider, and that’s how I eventually won a national championship. Give yourself the ability to try new things!”