Bike Racing 101: How To Get Started
Bike racing can be an absolute blast and with the constant influx of new racers joining the sport every year, there’s no shortage of competition and races to participate in. However, that first race can be pretty intimidating, especially if you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.
I remember lining up for my first race when I was 10. It happened to be the state cyclocross championships and since I was the only kid racing, they started me at the back of the women’s open field. I was a nervous and scrawny asthmatic kid standing there straddling my mountain bike, which was almost too big for me, and likely wearing a rather dumbfounded look. If it wasn’t for one of the ladies in the women’s race who shot me a few words of encouragement on the start line and every time she lapped me out on the course, I probably would’ve never finished. I think I even stopped a few times to ask my dad for my inhaler.
Needless to say, I remember that day well, the woman cheering me on went on to win the state title and I was pretty sure I had no interest in pursuing a career in cycling. Who would’ve guessed that 10 years later I would be living in France as a full time bike racer? The moral of the story is to never let those first few races intimidate you so much that you throw in the towel too early. We’ve all been there at some point. You don’t want to miss out on a fun, exhilarating, and healthy sport full of great camaraderie. So, what can you do to be prepared for your first race?
Register With your National Sanctioning Body
Bike racing everywhere has a governing body that will issue racing licenses. In the U.S., we have USA Cycling as our national governing body. On top of that, there are some states that also have their own governing body underneath USA Cycling, for example, Colorado has BRAC (Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado). So, in Colorado you will need to buy a USAC racing license and you’ll also likely want to get a BRAC license as well to receive discounts on race entries. However, in most states you’ll likely only need a USA Cycling license. One day licenses are also available at the races for beginner categories only. If you’re not sure you want to commit to an annual license, you can always purchase a one-day license when registering for your race.
Pick Your Race
In road racing, there are quite a few different types of races you can do. If you’re new to the sport, you probably want to shoot for a single day event like a time trial, road race, or criterium. A time trial, also known as a TT, is a race against the clock and can be done individually or as a team. These are great races if you’re not comfortable riding around other folks in a group setting since an individual time trial does not allow for drafting and everyone starts on their own in 30 second to 1 minute intervals. It’s a true test of fitness and pacing.
A road race is typically going to be the longest of the single day races and is considered a mass start race since everyone in a given category starts together. Road races are typically 30 to 60 miles and consist of one, two or three loops. Since drafting is allowed, there are considerably more tactics involved in a road race than a TT.
A criterium is another mass start event, but it involves doing repeated laps over a short course, usually a mile or less, for a pre-determined amount of time or distance. Criteriums also allow drafting and also tend to be pretty fast since they are shorter races.
Some areas also have a fair amount of hill climbs as well which are also mass start races, but they tend to break apart and turn into a TT type effort for most racers. You can likely find a calendar of all the races in your area by looking for your local race organization online and navigate their site to find the race calendar.
Making sure your equipment is up to the rigors of racing is a very important aspect of racing and often one of the more overlooked areas for new racers. The last thing you want is to have a mechanical during a race due to something that could’ve been easily spotted and fixed. In criteriums, you’ll get a free lap if you get a flat tire, but usually not within the last 3 to 5 laps of the race. However, you won’t get a free lap if you have a mechanical that resulted from something that could’ve been caught before the race. So, if you have a local shop you trust, it’s a good idea to have them do a once-over on your bike before your race. As you pack up all your gear for the race, check everything from your helmet to the cleats on your shoes to ensure nothing is cracked or on the verge of breaking. If you’re not sure what to bring with you to your race, check out my article on building a race day checklist to get an idea of what equipment you should plan to bring with you. However, a few basic things you want to have on race day are a helmet, shoes, your riding clothes, full bottles, racing license, and a pump. Make sure your tires are pumped up to your preferred pressure before the race as that can make a big difference in being able to corner properly and avoiding the possibility of a pinch flat.
Once you’ve figured out which type of race you want start out with and have your equipment all sorted out, it’s time to start thinking about the race itself. Each type of race discussed earlier will be significantly different in regards to how you prepare for it and approach it tactically.
Time Trial & Hill Climbs
Time trials and hill climbs tend to be based more around self pacing and moderating your effort so that you don’t blow up too early but arrive at the finish line with little to nothing left to give. These types of races typically go hard right out of the gate, so it’s important to give yourself a good warm up as close to the start as possible. A favorite of mine is what we call pyramid intervals which start with a 1 minute interval at tempo (a 6-7 on a perceived effort scale of 1-10) with 1 minute easy recovery before starting the next interval which would then be 2 minutes at tempo with 2 minutes recovery. These can be done all the way up to 3 minutes then reverse them and start working your way back down towards a 1 minute tempo interval. Time trials don’t allow drafting unless you are riding a team time trial where you would be allowed to draft only your teammates. The TT is all about generating consistent power, remaining aero, and not blowing yourself up prematurely. A good rule of thumb in a TT is that you can always drain the tank, but you cannot refill it. Hill climbs are an animal in and of themselves. You can draft in a mass start hill climb, however you get less benefit from drafting since climbing speed is affected by how much power you can generate per kilogram. With that in mind, you may find yourself working just as hard as or even harder than the guy on the front even if you’re in the draft. So, these races often result in most riders having to stay within themselves and pace themselves up the climb and picking off those who blew up before the top.
Road races usually start with a little less tenacity since there is more distance between you and the finish line than in a criterium. The exception to that rule is if it is an exceedingly short road race or if you start on a decisive part of the course like the foot of a steep climb, a gravel section, or even a cross wind section. Road racing is all about positioning and drafting, you always want to keep your nose out of the wind and in the draft of the peloton (the group of riders you will be in) as much as possible. The trick is staying in the draft while being able to move up and down the peloton. Sinking too far back can result in you getting caught behind other riders opening gaps and dropping off the back, forcing you to chase hard and waste energy to get back in the draft of the peloton. If you’re too near the front, you may find yourself forced into pulling at the front or chasing down guys attacking off the front. The best racers will conserve energy wherever they can and when the time is right, they’ll make their move with more juice left in the tank than the riders constantly pulling and chasing down attacks.
If you decide to make a road race your first race, try to focus on remaining in the draft and getting comfortable riding in a group with constant surges. You can even practice this a few times in a local group ride prior to your first race so you don’t feel overwhelmed on race day. Being that road races are longer races and if your race is longer than an hour and a half, you’re going to need to be able to eat something that can be easily digested during your race to keep from depleting glycogen stores. If your race is less than an hour and a half, which is the case for most entry level road races, you should have sufficient glycogen stored to make it through the race just fine as long as you don’t go into the race in a state of caloric deficit. In other words, the week of your race is not the time to try to shed those pesky 5 pounds.
Crits as they are better known, are typically shorter timed events on a short course ranging from 1-2 miles in length. These races are typically pretty fast and can be technical. If you are choosing a criterium as your first race you may want to look for a race with a course that is on the less technical side. You would want to look for a course with wide roads and corners throughout the entire course with as few corners as possible. A perfect beginner’s course would probably have 4 corners and be on wide and smooth roads all the way around. These characteristics often allow the peloton to stay together and suck riders along that just want to hang in the pack and get a feel for things.
Since a crit course is relatively short, you will be cornering a lot, even if the course only has 4 corners. With that in mind, it’s important to be comfortable cornering at speed. If you can’t corner at speed, you’ll likely find yourself getting passed in corners until you find yourself at the back and maybe even off the back. A great way to practice cornering at speed is to find an empty parking lot you can practice in a few times a week. Practice taking the apex of the corner, keeping your outside foot down and weighted, and looking through the corner, directly where you want to go. In a race, you’ll have the added stress of being amongst other riders, so you can always coax some friends into doing cornering practice with you to get the full effect. Keep in mind that during the race, you are going to have to take the same line that the peloton takes through corners. Attempting to take a different line through a corner than the peloton may result in a crash since you’ll have multiple trajectories that will eventually collide with each other.
Generally crits are timed events, but as you near the end of a crit, the officials will determine how many laps you have left depending on how fast your group is completing laps. This is when you will see that you have 3 to 5 laps to go on the lap cards located near the finish line. This is the time that people will start jockeying for position at the front to try to be in position to sprint at the end. For your first race, you’ll likely be better suited to stay out of the fight for the sprint, but be observing how it all works so when you’re ready to jump into the mix, you know what to expect. Crits are extremely fun and can still be enjoyed if you have limited time to train since many of them don’t exceed an hour.
Bike racing is an extremely fun sport and can breed a healthy lifestyle as well. It can be the beginning of a new lifestyle that can result in making new friends in the form of teammates and enjoying the adrenaline rush of the fast paced game of chess bike racing has to offer. The first step is getting your feet wet in that first race and getting a feel for what bike racing is like. As with any new sport, don’t let the sensory overload of so much going on deter you from coming back for more. Over time, it will almost become second nature to read the race quickly and even predict what will happen in the race before it happens. With every race you do, your learning curve will increase exponentially and so will the fun factor. So, get started by scoping out your local race calendar, get your first race picked out, and have fun out there.