So you want to race eh? It can be hard to figure out everything needed for your first bike race, so I’ve written a quick guide. There can be a lot involved so I’ll try to briefly cover each point.
Riding in a group: Some cyclists are more social than others. Some will almost exclusively ride with a group, and others like to ride alone most often (like myself). If you are going to race, you’ll need to be experienced riding in a group. Although a race is competitive and many group rides are not, the rules of the road (hand signals, etiquette) are similar.
Watch cycling: Think of it this way: Would you line up at an amateur rugby match? (I’m guess you’re American and have only seen a few clips of rugby and not an entire game and have no clue about what is going on). I would think not. You wouldn’t know what to do and would risk getting hurt. It is the same for a bike race. Although the lower categories don’t usually have much in the way of team tactics, racers of any level will gain from watching more cycling. Whenever you see someone riding in the wind, think about what their motivation is. In pro cycling, a rider is never on the front of the peloton unless there is a benefit for themselves or their team.
Fitness: The simple answer is that the only way you’ll know if you’re fast enough to race is to try it! I’ve made some educated guesses on some hard numbers if you’re curious: Many riders track their progress with average speed which has many pitfalls (hills, stoplights, wind), but I would guess if you’re riding 2-3 hours at 17-18 mph average on a flat-ish loop course, you’re probably ready for an entry level race. For climbing you should be able to climb at 900 VAM (meters of ascent per hour) on a 20 minute climb with a steady grade >5%.
Finding a race:
Type of Race: This is a frequent topic of discussion for first timers. The primary type of road races are criteriums, road races, and time trials.
- Road Race: Road races tend to be longer (2-3 hours for beginners) and more expensive (~$45). You won’t be able to watch other categories race. Some argue road races are safer because there are fewer corners, but I think it is equally likely that people are going to get tangled going in a straight line, especially in a longer race when people get tired, and are eating and drinking more.
- Time Trial: Time trials sound good because there is no risk of crashing and no riding in a group. The problem is that finishing times are greatly influenced by equipment. Many beginners don’t have specialized equipment, but it is impossible gauge yourself against others if you don’t know what equipment they were using.
- Criterium: The right criterium is probably the best choice. Look for a ‘less selective’ course. This means flatter, wider, and with easier corners. The pack is less likely to split up quickly and you’ll have more time to learn.
Finding a race: In most parts of the country, races are held by , and their website has a ‘find a race’ section under the road tab. Keep in mind there are often races sanctioned by regional governing bodies or otherwise. A bike shop or locally focused cycling website should steer you in the right direction.
The ideal race: An ideal first race would be a small, low key event. Many areas have a weekday ‘training series’. These are often small, cheap, and held on less technical courses. If you can’t find a training criterium, pick one with wide corners, good pavement, and minimal elevation change. A beginner criterium will last 30-40 minutes.
What Category do I race?: As a beginner you’ll be a Cat 5. Most often this is combined with the Cat 4 race. Racers are not scored separately, the categories are combined so the field is large enough to have a good race. If you are old or young enough (<18 or >35 or >45) for a beginner age group race, I would recommend it since you are more likely to be with like-minded individuals in your race.
Taper: If you’ve been riding more than five hours per week, you should decrease your training in the week before the race. You won’t be able to gain any fitness in the week prior, and you want to be rested. Some advocate riding for about an hour the day before with a few short race intensity efforts (openers). I don’t do this, but some find it helpful, and it is also a good time to make sure you’re bike is working properly.
Arrive early: Pre-register if possible, and arrive at least an hour before your race. Plan to watch some racing either before or after your race (before is better). Ride or walk around the entire course and watch what the racers are doing. (stay off the course).
Licensing: Racers have licenses which show their category and cover insurance. You can buy an annual license for $60 or simply buy a one day license for $10.
Pre-ride: The course will open for inspection after the preceding race finishes. Make sure to go and ride a few laps paying attention to road hazards.
Fuel: Everyone has their own pre-race ritual that they modify over time. A good start would be to eat an easy to digest meal (breakfast food usually) three hours before the race start. Then sip a sports drink until 30 minutes before the start. Consider a caffeinated gel at the start line. A bottle of sports drink is also a good bet for the race.
Crashing: This is basically the worst thing that can happen. Crashes happen frequently in all categories of racing, but for different reasons. Often inattention, poor etiquette, and poor handling are the causes in beginner races. Staying on the side of the peloton will give you more options if there is trouble, although you may take more wind. Staying near the front will keep you ahead of trouble, but it takes experience to stay there.
Getting dropped: If you’re not fast enough, you’ll lose contact with the group. Even the beginner categories are full of experienced racers who sometimes have been racing for a year or more. It is difficult to get into bike racing and you’re first time out will likely be a tough one. Like I said earlier, choosing a less selective course will improve your chances.
Also, riding at the back can be harder than the front. The accordion effect of the group causes increased acceleration as the back of the group has to catch up after slowing down for corners. The back is also where riders get dropped. If you’re behind someone who loses contact, you’ll have to pass them to catch back on. Also, avoid over-braking in the corners. You should not be losing ground on the wheel in front of you as you exit a corner, as you will need to use more energy to get back up to speed.
Keep an eye on the front of the peloton, not just the wheel in front of you. Sometimes the pack stretches out and gaps form. Many guys panic and sprint 100% to close the gap to the wheels in front of them, but the front of the pack is slowing down and not going anywhere. The guys sprinting unnecessarily will get worn out and dropped.