When I first wanted to dabble in racing, I was given exactly zero advice. In fact, the only thing I was told was, “Hey, you should race.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming my teammates at the time. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. At the same time, not much was volunteered. It’s just how it is.
That doesn’t work for me, though. I’m a planner. The more I think and know and analyze going into a situation, the more comfortable I feel. But what I found was that those who are racing tend to speak in racing terminology, to others who have already raced.
So, for those tour riders who have been speeding up and enjoy competition (and a lack of elbow room), I’m going to go over some of the things that I know now that I did not know before I started racing. Think of it like an IFAQ – Infrequently Asked Questions – for getting into racing.
In this post:
- Categories & Licensing
- Finding the Course
- Pre-Riding a Course
- Dress for Success
- Selecting a Race Division
- Miscellaneous Rules and Such
- Stepping Up to the Line
First, the Cats. If you ride around racers, you’ll have probably heard these by now: Cat 4, Cat 4/5, Masters, Juniors, etc. “Cat” refers to the level of your racing category. Different disciplines have different levels. For example, mountain bike racing starts at Cat 3 and goes up. Women’s Road Racing licenses start at Cat 4, and Men’s start at Cat 5. You’ll also often hear “P1/2”, which means professionals, and/or Cat 1 and 2 racers.
There are also age divisions, including Youths (6-9), Juniors (10-18), U23 (19-22), Elite or Senior (23-29), and Masters (30+). For how all of these go together, see “Selecting a Race Division” below.
As a Cat 5 racer (Cat 4 for you women), you can stay that way indefinitely. There’s nothing that says you need to move up from a Cat 5, though if you continuously dominate the entry-level field, your local USAC rep may force you to upgrade. After completing 10 mass start races or more, you can upgrade to a Cat 4. There’s a bunch of other rules, but suffice it to say that the more experienced you are and the stronger you get, the more you’ll move up. Here’s more info on categories and upgrades.
In order to race, you have to either have an Annual License, or a one-day license. A one-day license will cost you $15. This license is valid for any race you do at that event, so if you want to do two crits on the same day, you can enter both. An Annual License costs $70 (as of 2016). If you do five or more races, then it’ll be cheaper to buy the Annual License. Also, having the Annual License is a little more convenient than having to buy the one-day for each event (especially for multi-day events). And there’s nothing forcing you to ride more races even if you get the Annual License.
Seriously, I know, this sounds stupid right? When you’re going to do a tour ride, nine times out of ten, that tour ride has been done repeatedly for years or decades, and everyone knows the route. But races are… weird. Many races don’t have dedicated websites to promote them. Sometimes they’re just Facebook pages, or blog posts, or just PDF flyers downloaded from USA Cycling. Seriously. A PDF. And that PDF with a low-quality image insert might be all you get of the course, with maybe some vague description.
Fortunately these days, we have things like Ride With GPS, Strava Routes and Activities, and more, where people have already logged the course. Now, it might change a bit from year to year (or entirely, *cough*Eucha*cough*), but usually it’s enough to give you an idea of what you’re getting into.
For road races, there’s nothing that can put your mind at ease more than pre-riding a course. Heck, that’s for any racing, not just road. So if the course is within a reasonable driving distance, then take a weekend, get a few friends together – whether racing or not – and use the course in place of your normal weekend ride. If it’s on the shorter side (say, 20-25 miles) run it twice.
Experienced racers love going out to pre-ride the course, but I found the experienced racers tended to forget to invite me, the noob. So don’t wait on them for the invite – go out there yourself, or invite them to your ride of the course. Ask someone who’s done the race for tips about the course, things to know. And then as you ride the course, see if those things they told you match up to what you know, and where those features are. If you learn a hill is coming up, and that there’s a bridge half a mile before the hill, you can use that bridge as a marker to back up a bit and conserve some juice for the climb.
For criteriums, it’s a little harder. These usually take place in downtown, trafficked areas. You can go out and pre-ride the course, but obviously it’s not closed to traffic. So though you can get an idea of what the course is like in general – where there are climbs, descents, maybe a technical turn or two – you won’t get a real feel for the course in a race situation. So for crits, I strongly recommend arriving early – before the first race – and using the course as warm-up. Even if you’re not riding for a couple of hours. Ride it a bunch of times, not just once. Think along the following lines:
- First few times, look for anything dangerous: cracks in the ground, standing water, potholes, manhole covers, uneven payment, bumps in the asphalt. Good races will call these out with spray paint.
- Take a few different lines through the turns to get a feel for what’s optimal. Sometimes the optimal path needs to be adjusted because of a bump/rise in the ground that can be dangerous at speed.
- Once you’ve had a good look at the course and made mental notes on both the dangers and the various paths, open up the engine a little to try to course at speed.
Some racers try to warm up between races, because the officials often open the course between each race. But sometimes scheduling doesn’t allow that. So to be on the safe side, get there early. Also, don’t try to get in a lap before your race. That’s a great way to start at the back of the pack if they end up starting to line up while you’re on a lap.
There are a few rules for clothing worn at races (rules from the USAC rule book indicated):
- You always have to wear your helmet if you’re riding your bike, even if you’re just warming up (Rule 1J1).
- You may not wear the jersey of an opposing team (Rule 1J5e).
- You may not wear a sleeveless jersey (Rule 1J5) except in individual time trials (Rule 1J5a).
- Shoe covers are allowed (Rule 1J5b).
- No radios, telephones, communication devices, or audio playback devices (Rule 1J6).
Um… that’s about it. You can read the details here. Most of the rules are obvious, and the “no sleeveless jerseys” is a bit odd since we all know our clothing affords us about as much protection in a crash as a wet napkin. Still, tri- and duathletes are the ones that usually get in trouble for this, because lots of tri-suits or tri-jerseys don’t have sleeves.
As mentioned above, there are multiple racing categories, and multiple racing age groups. Those can be combined, or they can be split-up, at the race’s discretion. Most races are straight-forward, and you’ll see a “Men’s Cat 5” or “Women’s Cat 4”. However, you can get all sorts of mixes, and all sorts of ways of writing things:
- Cat 4/5, 35+: both Cat 4s and 5s race together, and you have to be 35 or older to race in this race.
- Masters 45+: anyone who is 45 or older can race – from Cat 5s to Pros.
- Cat 4 Merckx: Cat 4s only, with non-Aero equipment.
When you’re first starting out, you’ll want to race “Cat 5” only races where possible, and within your age group (less likely, but look for them, you never know). Most times there is no age group associated to a division. For women, it’s harder to find “Cat 4” only races due to the lack of participation. More often you’ll find a “Womens” race, or at best, a “Womens Cat 3/4”.
When categories are combined, they usually race as one big group, and their results are ranked together. However, some races will race categories together but still score them separately. The flyer for a race will usually say how they’re scoring the divisions.
When a division is just age-based, such as “M35-45” that means you will be racing against anyone – Cat 5-1 that’s in that age range. Seriously, don’t do this. Not unless you enjoy suffering or riding by yourself. A lot.
The word “Merckx” refers to non-aerodynamic equipment to be used in a time trial. Usually this means the exclusion of aero-helmets, shoe covers, deep-dish wheels, TT/aero bars, and sometimes skin suits. What is and isn’t allowed will vary from race to race, so always check.
Double-Yellow, Yellow-Line, or Center Line Rule: usually for time trials and road races, this indicates that you are not allowed to cross the center line of the road. Where the race goes onto roads that do not have a yellow/center line and this rule is in effect, you should assume a center line exists and stay to the right side of the road. If you end up on the other side of the road accidentally, try to move back as quickly and safely as possible, and do not increase your position.
NOTE: In some road races, the yellow-line rule will be suspended for the run-up to the finish line. Since road races are usually held on open roads, please use caution if you cross the center of the road, and only where the race official said you are allowed to.
Time Trial Drafting: in an individual time trial, drafting is not allowed. If you need to pass someone, you must pass them smoothly and quickly, and not very closely. If you have caught up to someone but cannot pass them, make sure to avoid being behind them, and try to maintain at least several bike lengths between you and them. In a team time trial, you can draft off your teammates, but your team cannot draft off another team.
Neutral Roll-Out/Start: road races will sometimes say they have these, and will actually sometimes do it. Others will say they have a neutral roll-out, and yet everyone’s hammering from the get-go. A neutral roll-out is designed to get people onto the main part of the course safely, away from the congested start area, before allowing the racers to really pick up speed. A good one will have a vehicle hold the pace of the peloton back, and a bad one will just say “don’t start racing until you’ve passed X,” which of course everyone will follow. :p
Free Lap Rule: in criteriums, there will be a repair pit area. If you crash, or have a flat, or a mechanical, you take the most direct route you can to the pit, even if that means reversing your route. However, DO NOT ride backwards on the course! If you’re caught going backwards, you’ll be disqualified. You can dismount and run (Rule 3D2). Once you report to the pit and fix the problem, an official will tell you when you can get back into the race. If there’s only a few laps left, they may not let you enter the race. Legitimate reason to claim a free lap include:
- Being in a crash. That doesn’t mean being stuck behind a crash, and running off the road to avoid a crash doesn’t count. Refs are looking for evidence (think mud and blood).
- Equipment failure due to lack of maintenance doesn’t count, such as:
- loose handlebars
- thrown chains
- misadjusted derailleur
- tubular tires separating from rims
- Equipment failures/mishaps that do qualify include:
- flat tires
- broken components (cranks, frame, spokes, handlebars
Wheel Pit/Follow Vehicle: in criteriums, there will usually be a repair pit, and in road races there’s a follow vehicle. In either, you can place another set of wheels. The idea being that if you break a spoke or get a flat, you can quickly switch out the wheel and get rolling again. These backup wheels don’t have to be anything special, just make sure they have the same cog count as whatever bike you’re using (10 speed, 11 speed, 36 speed, etc.). If you’re racing with a team, check with your team captain to see if they will be putting a set of wheels in for anyone on the team to use.
So you’ve read all (or some, or none) of the above and decided to race. What should you expect? Each road race is a little different, but there’s some things that apply to all of them.
First, you’re in an entry-level race. That means you’re going to have plenty of people just as new and nervous as you. Some might be skilled bike handlers, and others might be sketchy. Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable, and don’t let the other racers pressure you into making a stupid mistake. At the same time, entry-level racer does not mean entry-level cyclist. You can get some really exceptional cyclists who have been riding for decades, and only now decided to race. Don’t judge the caliber of the field by the category.
Next, in my first race I saw people with Zipp 404s and thought, “Seriously, dude? Overkill much?” But what I didn’t think about is that he’d probably been riding for years, just never raced. That just happened to be the bike and wheels he had. On the other hand, I have friends with bike frames that are older than I am, and yet they can hammer with the best of racers. So don’t let the equipment fool you (high end or low).
For goals, don’t shoot for the moon. Seriously, in another post I cover how in a race of 50 people, only three will be on the podium. That means 94% of the field won’t make it. That’s just the math. I’m not saying kick back and don’t race hard, just remember that for your first race you’re out there to get a feel for racing, not to be the next Jens Voigt. Keep your goals reasonable. Maybe aim for the top 50% of the racers. Maybe the top-third. As you race more and get a better feel for it, adjust your goals accordingly.
For nutrition: PLEASE bring water. Forget about the weight – if you don’t have water, it won’t matter how light your bike is. It’s definitely better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. Criteriums are usually too short to worry about food during the race, but you better be topped up before. For road, you have to eat while on the bike. You’ll be out there for 1, 2, even 3 hours. Plan your food intake accordingly.
There’s tons of other advice, but this is more than enough to get you started. Racing is fun, exciting, and competitive. Remember to train well, be safe, and most importantly – have fun.