Many cyclists discover the fun of riding in a peloton and get the itch to pin on a number and race. If you don’t happen to have that itch, don’t worry; it’s not for everyone. If want to pursue the fitness you’ve gained to its ultimate culmination, however, racing will put your body to the test.
Options for the New Racer
There are a number of different kinds of races within road cycling. No matter what your particular strength or willingness to take risk, there’s an event to help you express your competitive side.
Races can generally be broken into two groups: individual events (such as time trials) and mass-start events (such as criteriums and road races). Entry level riders will usually compete in a group of no more than 50 riders. As you rise through the categories, the fields grow in size to sometimes more than 100 riders.
Kinds of Races
1. Time Trials are the lowest-risk form of racing. Known as the “race of truth,” a time trial is an individual-start event where each rider races a set course without taking pace (drafting) off of other riders. Courses tend to use one road on an out-and-back basis, or a circuit where the start and finish are close together, if not on the same line. Common lengths for time trials are 10, 12, and 25 miles. Any traditional road bike may be used, but a dedicated time trial bike will offer a notable advantage.
2. Criteriums are the most common form of racing because the courses are the shortest and therefore easiest to get a city or other government agency to approve; they are at least 800 meters (0.5 miles) in length per lap, but no longer than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). A criterium is a mass-start event and will have many riders competing in the same pack; riders dropped from this group and deemed out of contention for the win will usually be pulled from the course before the completion of the race. Courses must be a closed loop over which many laps may be raced. A criterium (crit) is often composed of a flat, 1-mile course with four 90-degree turns. Paces tend to be high with little slowing. Crits are commonly timed events; entry-level racers may complete 30 minutes plus three additional laps. At the conclusion of 30 minutes, lap cards will count down the final three laps to allow riders to jockey for position before the finish. Because of the high pace and close proximity of riders, crits are the riskiest of all races. Any traditional road bike may be used.
3. Road Races may be conducted either over a circuit of at least 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) for several laps or a point-to-point course. Like criteriums, these are mass-start events with a large pack. Road races for entry-level racers are commonly between 16 and 25 miles, though longer races are possible. Because of the longer distances involved, road races are more likely to feature hills and see a field of new riders broken up. While not without risk, road races generally involve less risk than criteriums. Any traditional road bike may be used.
4. Stage Races are multiday races made up of some combination of road races, criteriums, and time trials. A rider must complete each stage to move onto the next stage. Placings are given for each stage as well as overall classification. Scoring may be decided on points awarded for placings or on cumulative time; the rider with either the highest number of points or lowest cumulative time wins the event. For entry-level riders, stage races will be three to four stages over two to three days. Any traditional road bike may be used.
5. Track Races take place on a velodrome, and while not every community has a velodrome, many major metropolitan areas have one. There are more than a dozen different kinds of track races, ranging from mass-start events to time trials, and they include a variety of lengths, as well. As with crits, the high pace and close proximity of riders brings with it a fairly high degree of risk. A fixed-gear, brakeless track bike must be used.
6. Cyclocross Races mix pavement with off-road terrain. Simply put, cyclocross is the steeplechase of bike racing. A cyclocross race is a mass-start event and requires riders to dismount periodically and pick their bicycles up and carry them over barriers. Due to the lower speeds involved and the low density of riders, cyclocross racing enjoys fairly low risk. Though a road bike may be used, because of the particular course demands, a cyclocross bike is essential for success.
Aside from racers, bike races need officials, rules, permits, and insurance. Bike races held on public roads need race permits from the local government. To get a permit, a race must be shown to be sanctioned by a governing body and be insured against injuries and other mishaps.
United States Cycling Federation
USA Cycling’s United States Cycling Federation (USCF) is the largest governing body that oversees amateur road, track, and cyclocross racing in the United States. USA Cycling is sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale and the United States Olympic Committee, making it the official governing body for bicycle racing. It offers many athlete-development programs and sanctions the vast majority of all races in the United States. The USCF also administrates collegiate racing through the National Collegiate Cycling Association (NCCC), which is one of the most rapidly growing forms of racing in the country.
Grassroots Bicycle Associations
Several grassroots cycling associations exist in regions to give race promoters an alternative to the USCF. American Bicycle Racing is one such organization; there are several regional associations, including California Bicycle Racing (CBR) and Oregon Bicycle Racing Association (OBRA).
Licensing, Classes, and Categories
To race, you will need to purchase a license. It is possible to purchase a one-day license when you register for an event, but if you plan to race with some regularity, it quickly becomes more cost-effective to purchase a one-year license.
Racing is divided according to gender and age class, so that a 16-year-old girl isn’t forced to race against a 30-year-old man. Broadly speaking the age classes are:
• Junior (18 and under)
• Under-23 (19–22)
• Senior (23–29)
• Master (30 and up)
Many events will feature multiple classes of masters’ racing, broken in 10-year increments: 35–44, 45–54, and 55+.
There are five racing categories for men, with Category 5 being entry-level and Category 1 being elite-level amateur. In women’s racing there are four categories. While other races can have 100 or more racers competing for the win, Category 5 events for men and Category 4 events for women cap the fields at a maximum of 50 riders because they are meant to be an introduction to racing. To upgrade to Category 4, riders must complete 10 sanctioned races. Further upgrades are gained by points earned through placings at sanctioned races.