Sometime in the recent past you unknowingly made the step from ‘doing a triathlon’ to ‘being a triathlete’. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this happened – maybe it was when you entered your second race, bought your first copy of 220, or cried off a night out because you were going swimming at 7am the next morning. Or maybe it’s when you bought your first piece of tri-specific kit.
Whatever it was, you’ve crossed the point of no return and your new obsession will quickly grow. Soon you’ll start doing weird things like kick-drills in the public pool, cycling to Parkruns, and wearing tight knee-length socks to the shops. You’ll also start entering more races and, as you balance your kit crate on your handlebars and wobble your way into transition to rack your bike at the start, you’ll begin noticing lots of people all wearing the same kit while comparing sleek bikes, fatal-sounding injuries and recent performances in some massively intimidating race.
As you race you’ll notice that some of them are slower than you, some of them are faster than you despite looking like they should be slower, and some of them are much, much faster than you. But who are these strange super-beings with their matching skinsuits and their in-jokes, all shouting encouragement at each other as they race?
These, of course, are club athletes whose tri obsession has moved past the stage where they started keeping their training plans on an Excel spreadsheet, and they decided to join like-minded people to do the same races and take part in the same cutthroat Sunday morning bike rides. But should you talk to them? Will they just laugh at you with your non-elasticated laces? Or will they immediately try and recruit you, so that before you know it you’re taking part in a Freemason-style initiation ceremony involving a rolled-up tracksuit leg and being knighted with a track pump?
As triathlon’s leading mediocre performer, I’m cautious about passing on advice to people. Here, though, are my top-10 reasons why joining a tri club might be the best thing you did since you realised you don’t have to bother with those little washers that come with inner tubes.
01 You will meet complete nutters
A couple of years ago I was standing on the back of a boat bobbing about in the English Channel. It was 2am, pitch black, the sea was 13°C and I was about to jump into it wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos. The reason I was there was because I was part of a Channel swim relay team organised by my tri club, and I chose this moment before meeting my watery doom to reflect on how I’d ended up in this situation, realising that it was because I’d been talked into it by one of the many lunatics I got to meet through joining said club.
If you join a tri team, before you know it you’ll have entered some mental challenge or other having been persuaded to do so by someone who thinks it’s normal behaviour to cycle 30 miles to run a marathon before cycling home again. Either that or you’ll have signed up to do the club’s annual overseas Ironman race with 20 others (which will have dwindled to 10 by race day).
When you join a club, you’ll end up doing things you’d never even contemplate doing on your own, and as further evidence I offer the fact that before I joined Coventry Triathletes in 2003 I’d done just one race (an Olympic distance that took me over three hours to finish), yet a short time after joining the club I was taking part in the Superman Triathlon Vlaanderen, one of the hardest half-iron races in the hardnut land of Belgium, which I had been talked into doing by the pair of psychopaths who were organising that year’s ‘club outing’.
02 You’ll get more free advice than you could ever want
Earlier this year I saw a chap wandering round a transition before the start of a sprint tri with his race number hanging off the back of his skinsuit. The reason for this is that he’d pinned it to his top before putting it on, thus ripping two of the pins out as he stretched it over his body, and his number was flapping away on his back like a flag – a flag that screamed ‘NOVICE’. Had this poor chap been part of a club then some sage with many years’ experience and knees that make clicking sounds when he runs would have told him to 1. Get a race belt, and 2. Pin the number on AFTER you’ve put it on.
The moment you join a tri club you’ll have free advice fired at you faster than Sam Allardyce can lose a job. Some of this advice will be very useful (e.g. always carry a cut-off section of tyre on a long ride to wedge inside your wheel rim if you split a tyre), some of it worthless (usually to do with swim gadgets) and some of it bizarre, such as the bloke who told me he could mend punctures by stuffing his inner tube with grass. You always have to watch out for the odd fool (me) who takes advantage of your newbie’s gullibility by giving advice like carrying a sachet of powdered water in case you run out of drink.
But generally, tri club athletes will fall over themselves to pass on advice to you, mostly because it makes them look experienced. Anyway the poor chap with the flapping number had no club colleague to point his error out to him, so he had to rely on a stranger like me to tell him – which obviously I didn’t because I’m a git.
03 It will boost your confidence
Despite the gritty, urban image I portray in my column, I’m not always the most confident triathlete in the world, and somehow I manage to convince people I have all the majesty of the Death Star when, in truth, I have the credibility of Jar Jar Binks. This is never truer than when I’m coming down some mountain on my bike where I descend with all the skill of a cement mixer going down a gravel slope, and I’d bet my second best pair of underpants on the fact that you’re already better at coming down hills than I was when I joined a tri club.
But even though I’m still the downhill equivalent of being growled at by the small dog tied up outside the local Co-op, I’m a lot better than I was thanks to joining a club, riding with other cyclists and following in their tyre tracks.
My vast improvement in descending came about purely thanks to gaining confidence that comes from riding in a group with others as opposed to riding on your own, mostly because if you don’t keep up they’ll probably bugger off and leave you, and you’ll end up trying to wind your way back down identical country lanes, a bad idea round my way where the locals would bung you in a wicker man as soon as they look at you.
04 You’ll eat food you’ve never eaten before
Before I joined a tri club what I knew about nutrition you could write on a spinning gas nebula. Now, though, I’m virtually an expert thanks to people in my club giving me constant advice on why the thing I’m about to eat is nutritionally catastrophic. Or how I’d be much better off eating a rice cake or something that tastes like a wad of cotton soaked in war-surplus kerosene.
Thanks to joining a tri club, I’m now fully aware that absolutely everything I like to eat is bad for me and that having a cow’s worth of milk in my cup of tea doesn’t aid recovery in the same way as something isotonic. People in tri clubs will act as a constant dietary advisor to you, even on club curry nights where they’ll make you feel like you aren’t taking the sport seriously if you have anything other than chicken tikka and plain rice.
I’ve also found myself eating paste-based meals of peanut butter and muesli having been recommended to do so by some thin, Spartan club member who makes Kim Jong-Un look like Liberace, and drinking beetroot juice whose energy-giving properties were all spent on my efforts to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth with a spoon.
You’ll also find plenty of advice on alcohol, which is broadly along the lines of ‘One glass of red wine good: five pints of Tenants Extra bad’, and should you ever over-indulge in the latter you’ll find your club mates full of sympathy and understanding and in no way ready to put the hammer down early on your club bike ride.
05 You will acquire gadgets through gadget envy
Prior to joining a tri cub I wasn’t noted for my interest in gadgets. Now, though, I own a bike computer that knows where I am faster than the CIA does, and which grasses me up to my coach if my cadence or watts aren’t up to the level he’s set for me. I also have a chunky watch that uses satellites to tell me how far I’ve run and how disappointingly slowly I’ve done it. I own these because since joining a tri club I have an almost weekly demonstration of the latest ‘shiny thing that must be owned’ that’ll solve all my racing needs (apart from making me go faster).
When you join a tri club prepare to shell out on some daringly-priced piece of technology that’ll be paraded to you once the gadget addicts realise you’re someone new to show off to. There’ll be at least one person in your new club who always has the very latest technology, and how they afford the constant upgrades will remain a mystery considering that you, like me, are probably still raiding bike show display stands for free drinks bottles.
06 You will master the art of bragging
The first training session I ever want to after joining my tri club was a pool swim and I remember being massively intimidated in the changing room beforehand by the race t-shirts on show and the conversations that were taking place about their various race results that weekend.
I had been a victim of the subtle art of bragging, and you’ll find tri clubs full of people who have reached black belt standard when it comes to letting you know what they’ve been up to. Whether through the medium of chest-brag, hat-brag, bag-brag, Facebook update or good old fashioned ‘I raced today and I did a (insert lengthy account here)’ you should learn from these masters, for they are the true artists of triathlon.
In every race there’s only one winner and the rest of us are left trying to make it sound like we won as well. Tri clubs are where you’ll learn the tricks of the trade to make you sound like the champion you aren’t. Lifetime PBs, race PBs, season’s PBs, course PBs, age-group PBs, first-in-club finishes, better-than-expecteds… the ways you can improve your results are almost endless and, again, tri clubs are where you’ll learn how to do it without sounding like you’re doing it, even though everyone knows you’re doing it. There’s no training manual for this vital skill. Just join a tri club, and watch, learn and admire their work.
07 You get to wear club kit
One of the biggest benefits of joining a tri club is you get to wear the club kit, which makes you look faintly professional. They’re also a great way of identifying who you most need to beat, and if you want to see what determination looks like then take a look at the face of a tri club athlete who’s chasing a team mate just in front.
Occasionally a club kit will be deemed by members to be as modern as Eric Bristow’s opinions and in need of an update. What will follow is a year-long argument over kit design, kit supplier, kit items, size of order, price, design again, supplier again after the first one lets you down, and order size again as people change their minds.
At least one person will resign from the club in protest at the new design and the whole process will have the charm of a rotting trainer that’s been on the A45 outside Rugby for six months. In the rain. You’ll eventually get your new kit about 18 months after you ordered it, and if you’re lucky it’ll even be in your size. So even if you join a tri club, don’t chuck away that old skinsuit just yet.
08 Club get-togethers
Possibly the highlight of any tri club year are the various get-togethers where members young and injured gather for racing, drinking and plotting. The assorted high points you can expect include team races like the Club Relays, your own club’s annual club championship, and club trips away to do a long-distance race. Socials include the always enjoyable club awards dinner where the fast get rewarded with trophies, the old get rewarded with pictures of them racing 20 years ago in Speedos, and the thin get drunk on two glasses of house wine.
And if that isn’t enough for you, there’s always the AGM where scheming members can be seen whispering behind the sandwiches like dissidents in Soviet Russia, where the club plotter’s attempted coup fails again and shows them to have all the cunning and judgement of a potato. And where the majority of attendees sit there with the expression of someone who has been made to go on some kind of awareness course and would rather be beaten with a pillowcase full of rulebooks than be elected to the committee, spending a year receiving correspondence written with a permanently enabled Caps Lock key and deleting more e-mails than Hilary Clinton.
Despite this snippy description, AGMs can be good fun, although as a new club member you must beware because you’re ripe for election as you don’t know any better, you’re eager to please, and because older members are sly and will say things about ‘new blood’ and ‘fresh ideas’.
09 Competitiveness forever
Anyone watching this year’s National Road Running Relays at Sutton Park may have wondered why relations between Coventry Godiva Harriers and Solihull & Smallheath AC were so strained that two of their runners appeared to be involved in a duel to the death, running the course flat-out shoulder to shoulder before matching each other stride for stride in a vomit-inducing sprint for the line for the minor placings.
There’s no rivalry between Godiva and Solihull of course, it’s just that despite being in different clubs, Mr Martyn Brunt and Mr Steve Howes are old friends from the same tri club, and they were observing the golden rule that no matter who else is in a race, it’s beating your tri team mates that matters most.
When you join a tri club you will instantly acquire a bunch of new rivals whom you will battle for evermore with an intensity that would dwarf an EU referendum. Whether it’s in triathlons, Parkruns or reps in swim training, everything you ever do will be a race against someone who is supposedly on the same side as you. If any sports team could bottle the commitment that triathletes show when racing against people from their own club they would be unstoppable, because, believe me, if it’s a choice between defeat to a clubmate or a victory that causes you to throw up, you’ll take the puke any day. And so will they.
10 You’ll make friends
Not long ago I went on a weekend trip to France for my birthday. The short break involved cycling up Mont Ventoux and I was joined in this escapade by 10 others from my tri club. As we swore our way up at the pace of your average butterfly it occurred to me that 10 years ago I didn’t know any of these people. Yet here they were to help me celebrate my birthday by attacking me on the lower slopes of the climb, trying to drop me at Chalet Reynard and then posing for photos with me at the summit where I was so haggard that I looked like someone had attempted to grow hair on an old egg.
These weren’t just people from my tri club, these were my friends, and I can honestly say I’ve never made friends like the ones I have through tri, built as they are on the shared experience of being average at something absurdly difficult. I count myself very fortunate, although they did all descend the mountain ahead of me and then ate the last of the ice cream in Bedoin before I got there. Tossers.
So there we are, my top 10 reasons to join your local tri club. And if you still aren’t sure consider this: if you’re going to stand around for 15 minutes at the start of a training run waving your Garmin at the sky trying to get a satellite signal, you may as well do it in the company of others…