So, you want to race bicycles? Cool. Welcome to our ranks. Every spring and summer many of us have the same internal conversation with ourselves, “I’d love to get into bike racing, but I don’t know where to start.” Maybe you’re a casual bike rider and have always wondered if you would enjoy racing. Maybe you did a few races in another part of the country or a few years ago, and now you want to get back into the scene. So where do you start answering the list of potential questions in this mysterious racing world? Below you will find answers to the most common questions from people about to embark on this exciting journey.
What type of race should I start with?
Criteriums, Road Races, Hill Climbs, Time-Trials, Omniums, Stage Races, Track races, and cyclocross – what’s does it all mean? Criteriums are like the Indy Car world of cycling. It’s a fast loop course usually between a half mile and 2 miles in length and usually filled with lots of corners, and sometimes crashes. This may not be your best bet for your first race. Road races are either point to point or around a bigger circuit (at least 3 miles per lap, but usually longer.) They may be flat, rolling, or have lots of hills. In the spring, Colorado has several road races that also include a significant portion of dirt roads (Boulder-Roubaix, CU Buffs Circuit Race, Koppenberg). Other road races are 100% paved (Morgul Superior, Airforce Academy, Clásico Río Grande, Steamboat Springs, Peak 2 Peak Road Race). If you like the sound of that, then the paved ones probably are good place to start. Hill Climbs are road races that are largely, if not entirely uphill, and we have some great ones in the state (Guanella Pass, Lookout Mountain, Mt. Evans, Pikes Peak). Time Trials are a race against the clock. You start out by yourself, with a rider starting every 30 seconds. You essentially are racing yourself, but once the results are tallied, you find out how you did, compared to everyone else. Time trials are a great place to start, and certainly the safest of the options. We have many time trials during the year, and in the spring, there is a series at Cherry Creek Reservoir that many riders use as their first race. Omniums are a series of races with an overall prize list at the end. You may have a TT on Saturday, and a criterium on Sunday, and the winner is the person who does the best overall. Stage races are a series of events based on overall time, like the famous Tour de France. Cyclocross is a fall/winter sport that involves riding a loop course on trails, grass, mud, and which forces a rider to dismount and carry his or her bicycle once in a while. It is the most rapidly growing discipline of cycling in the USA, and it has a unique culture all its own. In Colorado, we have many riders who only do cyclocross. Track races are events held on banked velodromes. We are fortunate to have two such velodromes in Colorado. One is in Colorado Springs, and one is in Erie. You’ll quickly find that each type of race is a unique branch of the sport. In time you’ll discover what suites your style of riding best.
What’s a USAC License and do I need it? USAC is short for USA Cycling, the sport’s national governing body that makes all the rules and insures the events. USA Cycling is responsible for the overall management of all disciplines of competitive cycling, and they are affiliated with the US Olympic Committee and the International Cycling Union. The short answer is that for your first ever race, you can buy a one-day license for $10. This one-day purchase is essentially your insurance for the event. As long as you continue to race in the beginner category (more on that later) you can keep buying a one-day license. At some point though you’re going to say “I love racing”, and you will start to identify yourself as a bike racer. That is when you’ll want to buy an annual license for $70. If you get faster and want to upgrade into a non-beginner category, then that is also when you’ll need to pull the $70 trigger. You can purchase a USA Cycling license here.
What’s a BRAC Membership and do I need it? BRAC is the local governing body. USA Cycling has big picture things to think about, like preparing for the Olympics, and they cannot manage cycling in 50 states. They delegate the operations of local cycling to their “local associations.” In Colorado and southern Wyoming, the local association is called BRAC (Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado). BRAC has been here managing local cycling since 1976. When you buy a one-day USAC license for $10 there’s no need to buy a BRAC membership and there are no extra fees. It’s BRAC’s way of saying “welcome to bike racing”. Once you buy that annual USA Cycling license for $70 that’s when you’ll need to make a choice regarding your BRAC Membership. BRAC has an annual membership for $30, or a one-day membership for $5, which the race director and BRAC split. If you only race 5 times a year then you can simply pay the $5 one-day BRAC membership fee. If you race more than 5x, and/or want to receive the local newsletter, and want you and your team to be ranked in the Colorado Cup Rankings (a series long point competition) then it’s recommended to spend $30 on a membership. You can purchase an annual BRAC membership here.
What’s this complicated coding system of numbers and letters like SM5 or MM40+ mean to me? Reading Latin or the Russian alphabet may be easier to decipher at first glance than the class and category system. We should give you a Rosetta stone when you buy a license. Here’s what you need to know as a beginner. Everyone has an age and a category:
- In cycling we use the term “racing age.” Your racing age for road and track events is simply the current year minus the year of your birth. What that means is that if at any point in 2018 you turn 42, then your racing age is 42 for all of 2018. You essentially start the year out being 42, even if your birthday is on December 31st. To make it more complicated, your racing age for cyclocross is actually one year older. When we get to September 1st, the same rider who had a racing age of 42 all season, is suddenly 43 for a cyclocross on September 1st. This is due to some unique international rules.
- Every rider also has a numerical category from 5 to 1. Category 5 is the beginner category. When you have ridden 10 massed-start events (not time trials) or done some events and taken some rider clinics, you can upgrade to category 4. From category 4, you have to score points in races based on finishing in the top ranks. When you have scored enough points, you move up to the next category.
- Every rider also has a class. A class is a broad group of riders based on age. Juniors are riders with a racing age of 18 and below. Seniors (or elites) are riders with racing ages from 19-39. Masters are riders 40 and older. Note that in other areas, masters may start at 35, or even at 30, but in Colorado, masters start at 40.
So, what age/class/category do I ride?
One nice thing about Colorado is that you have plenty of options for groups to ride in. In fact, you can almost always ride more than once at a given event. For men trying out your first race you’ll start in Beginner Men 5 if you’re under 40 years old. If you are 40 or over, then you will often have other options, such as Men 40+ 5. If a master category for cat 5 is not on the docket, you can always ride the Beginner men 5. In the older age groups, such as 60+, there are no category restrictions. So, if you are a 60-year old riding his first race, you can ride the Beginner Men 5, or the Men 60+. For women your default beginner’s category is also Beginner Women 5. If you are over 40, there is also a Women’s 40+, a Women’s 50+, and even a Women’s 60+. In some races, you will find categories combined, like Women 3-4. That means any woman with a category 3 or 4 are eligible to participate. Just look at the race flyer. It will tell you who is eligible to participate in every race on the day’s schedule. A race that says Men 3, is restricted to category 3, but there is no age restriction. A race that says Men 60+ is restricted to men who are 60 years or older, but any category can compete. A race that says Men 40+ 3, means you have to be forty years or older and have a category of 3.
Do I need to join a club/team?: No: there is no pressure in your first year to join a club or team. Get to know the scene and you’ll quickly start mingling with a group of guys or gals who will invite you on training rides. Before you know it, you’ll be on a club by default. However, being a member of a club does make the sport much more fun, and soon your club becomes your extended family. Cycling teams are like the Greek system, there’s some really welcoming and fun groups and some others that are quite restrictive. And, of course, every state has their own version of the Delta House. There’s a home for everyone. The BRAC Cup series for road and cyclocross also has a team component, so being a member of a team adds something to the event, as you are racing for your club’s benefit as well as your own. Review the team info on the BRAC website. When considering a team keep in mind where most of the riders live, and who sponsors their team. It is important to live near a few other riders if you’re not willing to drive or ride to their usual group ride meeting place. Something else to keep in mind is the ethos of the team. Do you agree with the team’s values? Do the team’s values matter much to you? Does the team support the kinds of things you want to support?
Do I need to buy a bike that’s worth more than my car? If you think equipment makes the rider, then by all means. For the super serious racer, having a garage full of bicycles is important to them, but we’ve seen plenty of riders start on a $500-$1,000 craigslist purchase and have a blast. Please purchase a new helmet and just be comfortable on your bike, but DON’T be intimidated by all the flashy carbon rolling around. Junior parents this applies to you as well. We’ve seen numerous juniors on inexpensive equipment compete at the national level. Speaking of helmets, please always wear your helmet if you are seated on your bike, even if just rolling around the parking lot.
What equipment do I need? You have a race in mind, so now it’s time to make sure your gear is sorted. Make sure to pay attention to the weather, and dress, hydrate, and protect yourself from the sun appropriately. As you gain race experience, you’ll learn more about the tools you want in your toolkit, your personal nutritional needs, and “nice to have’s.” The following are essentials for any race (or ride), but check the sections below for race-specific gear ideas.
- Helmet (must meet laboratory standards)
- Race Apparel (jersey, shorts/bibs with chamois, warmers, jacket or rain jacket, socks, gloves, hat)
- Change of clothes for after race
- Shoes (clipless or non-clipless)
- Eye protection / sunglasses
- USA Cycling license (or money for one-day license if race allows same-day registration). You can use your smart phone and the USA Cycling App to demonstrate licensed status (Hint, take a screen shot in case there is no WiFi or cell service at the race.)
- Proof of race entry (or money for entry fees if race allows same-day registration)
- Hydration and nutrition (before, during, and after race)
- Your tool kit, including spare part essentials such as tubes, and a pump
- Plastic bags for wet clothing, and towels to dry off with or change clothes under
- A positive attitude!
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 few laps of the race. You won’t get a free lap if you have a mechanical that resulted from something that could’ve been caught before the race. It’s a good idea to have your trusted local bike shop or mechanic do a once-over on your bike at least a week before your race. Be sure to check everything from your helmet to the cleats on your shoes to ensure nothing is cracked or on the verge of breaking. Many Colorado races will have a staff mechanic on call. Even if they don’t, you will always see team tents, and any team will be happy to help out a new rider. Just ask them.
What are the rules of bicycle racing? The rules for the sport are determined by the International Cycling Union (UCI) and USA Cycling (USAC). While not really a page turner, the USAC rulebook is your only authoritative source for the rules you will be competing under. It can be downloaded here, and there are general chapters as well as chapters for every cycling discipline. As with any sport, it is good to know the rules. Fortunately, it is really about 10 of the rules that you use 99% of the time, so no need to memorize all 225 pages. Of course, as is true in any sport, if you break a rule and get dinged by an official, saying, “but, I didn’t know that was a rule”, will not get you very far. A good official will be happy to then explain the nuances of the rules to you, but the penalty will stand.
Training and Coaching:
Becoming an accomplished competitive Category 1 or 2 cyclist can take years of training and racing. Only you know your ambitions, whether it is to advance to the pro ranks, win a State Championship, upgrade to category 3, or just beat that guy, Steve, who always gets the best of you. This is where belonging to a club can be a big benefit. If you want more formal coaching, you can find USAC certified coaches through the website or through your club. One of the "Rites of Passage" for most riders is participating in the local group or club training ride. Often, this will be the equivalent of jumping into the deep end, so don't be discouraged if you find yourself dropped and off the back when the pace speeds up. Everybody starts out that way. Stick with it, ask questions, and you'll get stronger and more relaxed with every group ride. Colorado has a number of excellent coaches, and we are always happy to hook you up.
The first step: Don’t wait until you feel you’re fully prepared. Nobody ever thinks they are fully prepared. If you have gotten this far, you are ready. It is time to jump in and do it. Take a look at the calendar on our home page and pick out an event that looks like fun. If you have questions don’t be afraid to reach out to the race director of that event. Their contact is also on the calendar, as well as a copy of the race flyer giving the race groups, times, and distances. Feel free to reach out to BRAC directly as well. Racing, even with this guide, is a confusing world at first, and each race director and BRAC is more than happy to help you navigate it. Then just sign up and jump in! You have nothing to lose, and we promise those nerves at the starting line are a good thing. Most importantly – have fun, because that is really what this is all about. He or she who has the most fun wins, by definition.
Registering for a race: The race flyer you read will have a link on it to online registrations. There are a handful of companies that provide that service, including USA Cycling itself. There is always a cutoff day and time for online registration. Some races only do online registration, so if you don’t register online, you can’t race. Others have a price change if you register day of. When you get to the race, look for the registration area. If you have pre-registered online, you will just show your license and pick up your number. If you have not, then you will have to fill out paperwork and pay your entry fee. Sometimes there are different lines for pre-registration or day-of registration. Probably the biggest thing to remember is to find out how and where to pin on your number. This changes every race based on which side of the road the officials and the photofinish camera will be on. Pinning your number on well is very important so that you get credit for your placing. Often you will see a mannequin at registration that shows exactly how and where to pin it on. In many races in Colorado, you also must pick up a timing chip, as chip timed events are plentiful here.
Rules Specific to Junior Racing:
If you are a rider with a racing age of 18 or below, you are a junior. There are a couple of differences with the rules.
Waivers: First, unlike seniors, you cannot just sign your own waiver. Your parent or legal guardian has to sign it. This is true even if you registered online using the USA Cycling registration platform. For adults, a click of a button is good enough to sign an online waiver, but juniors cannot take that route. You will always need to have your parents wet signature on the waiver. That becomes very difficult to get if you did not have them do it before you left for the race, assuming they are not going with you.
Junior Gear Restrictions:
For road and track events, juniors must ride on restricted gears. For the road, this translates to a chainring/cog combination of 52 x 14, or 45 x 12. The only test of this is the rollout test. Your bike cannot travel more than 26 feet in one revolution of the pedals. If you have higher gears than that, you can adjust your rear derailleur such that the cogs that are too small are unusable. This is called having “blocked gears”, and it is legal in non-championship events. The officials will roll your bike out before or after the race, or maybe both if you placed well. For track events, there are different gear restrictions for each two-year age group. A good idea is checking your gears the minute you get to the race to make sure your combination works. The gear rollout is usually near the start/finish line. Ask the officials. They are the ones wearing the light blue shirts with a patch that says, “USA Cycling Official” on it.