As road racing season starts up in the spring, a lot people who have always been curious about racing decide it is time to give it a go.
This is an article I wrote back when I was at Ohio University. It has been reprinted numerous times, and even translated into German. And now it’s reprinted here for your viewing pleasure. If you decide to give it a go, good luck.
The Day Before
Drink plenty of fluids in the 24 hours before competing. Dehydration will hurt your performance. So if you have a long drive to the race, plan on several restroom stops.
Pack everything the night before so you can rest easy.
Get a good night’s sleep. You are going to be nervous, but do your best to get to bed early. Don’t be up till midnight fussing with your bike.
Be prepared for all weather. If you are driving several hours, the weather can be a lot different than it was when you left home. Refer to internet weather sites such as http://www.weather.com or http://www.wunderground.com to check the conditions at your destination.
Refer to the race travel checklist (see below).
Bring a towel and comfortable, dry clothes to change into after the race.
Pack snacks and drinks for before and after the race. It’s a good idea to bring a gallon of drinking water. Some venues have particularly nasty tasting water. Anything that upsets your stomach can make for a very unpleasant race.
Resist the urge to do last-minute work on your bike unless repairs are absolutely necessary. Don’t take off the chain to clean it, put on new gear cables, or make similar tweaks. Check your bike several days in advance and do repairs with enough time for a thorough test ride. Include hard efforts in every gear.
Plan to arrive 1½ to 2 hours before the start (build in a bit of time for getting lost).
Eat a good breakfast. If you have trouble eating when you’re nervous, keep some snacks (fig bars or an energy bar) next to your bed and nibble if you wake up in the night.
Don’t experiment with your diet. Eat only foods you are used to eating. Save the new energy bar you got at registration for another day.
Keep snacking up to race time (bananas, bagels, energy bars, etc). Again, stick with food you are familiar with. Don’t try some wonder bar that your friend swears by. If it doesn’t sit well in your stomach you will be suffering in the race.
Hydration is hugely important to race performance, so be sure to drink plenty of fluid. Keep sipping from a bottle of water or sports drink while you are waiting to race.
Wear your helmet any time you are on your bike at a race. Some officials get very picky about this and will make you start at the back of the field or even disqualify you. Even if you are just riding over to registration or the restroom, put your helmet on.
As soon as you arrive, register and pick up your number. Lines can get long as race time nears. Check in early to avoid the extra stress.
If you have time before a criterium, ride or walk the course. Look for hazards (potholes, sewer grates, uneven pavement). Never go on a criterium course when another race is in progress. However, there will frequently be 5-10 minutes between races when you can get in a few laps.
Get dressed. There are rarely changing facilities at bicycle races, so bring a towel to cover yourself while getting changed.
When you pin your number on, remember that it will be read by a finish-line camera. Position it where the camera can see it. Use 6-8 pins. Put one on each corner and others in the middle of the sides so the number doesn’t flap or catch the wind.
Have a full water bottle ready to go so you can grab it before the race.
Begin your warmup about 45 minutes before the announced start time.
Criteriums go from the gun, so your warmup should include a couple hard efforts of 15-20 seconds to raise your heart rate and open your legs.
The warmup for a road race can be less intense – unless there is a climb early in the course.
For some in-town races, it can be difficult to find a place to warm up. Rollers or a trainer may be more convenient and effective.
For a road race, warm up by riding back up the course from the finish line. Make note of landmarks at about 3 miles, 2 miles and 1 mile to go. Then you’ll know where to start positioning yourself for the finish.
Find another landmark 200 meters from the finish. This is your “final commit point.” If the sprint hasn’t fully wound up from this point, it is time to go on your own.
If there is another race in progress, don’t ride your bike across the finish line. This annoys officials and can get you DQ’d from your race.
Finish your warmup 15 minutes before the scheduled start. Drop off any extra clothes (jacket, leg warmers, etc.) at your car, get the fresh bottle of water, and go to the restroom if you need to.
Get to the start area 8-10 minutes early. Stretch to stay loose.
Remember to keep sipping. Once the race starts, you will likely find it difficult to drink.
In any beginners’ race, but particularly at a criterium, there is a very large advantage to having a starting position on the front line. Everyone is nervous at the start, and people do strange things. The fewer riders in front of you, the lower the risk of someone doing something that will take you out of contention.
The chief official will give final instructions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
The starting command is usually “Riders ready!” and then a gunshot. The front riders will probably start rolling on the “riders ready” command. Don’t get left behind.
There is no penalty for a false start.
If you can ride with your pedal upside down and your foot not clipped in, do it at the start. Get up to speed first, then worry about clipping in. (Pedaling while unclipped is a good skill to practice before your first race.)
In a criterium, try to be second or third into the first corner. If you get a good start, it is easy to drift back when you want to. If you get a bad start, it takes more work to fight your way forward.
The start will seem insanely fast. Don’t panic. The pace will almost always relax after the first 5 or 6 laps.
During the first few laps, riders who can’t handle the pace will be getting dropped off the back. It’s important to stay up front and fill gaps, not be behind people who are letting gaps open.
During the Race
Drink whenever you have an opportunity.
Try to stay on a wheel, in the draft as much as possible. Many new riders will hang out just to the side of the pack, not really in a draft. Don’t be that person.
Do your best to stay between 5th and 10th position.
Avoid pulling the pack around. If you feel good, relax and save it for the finish. Remember, lots of people feel good at the start. It’s having fresh legs at crunch time that wins races. Keep your pulls to 10-15 seconds, then move off.
If you find yourself on the front of the pack and no one will come around, gradually slow down. Sooner or later, if you go slowly enough, someone will get tired of the pace, ride by and pick up speed.
Don’t get too hung up on team tactics in your first few races. In order to be a good team player, you must first know how to finish a race on your own. But if you have a teammate in a break with fewer than 5 people, do not help other riders bridge up to them. Give your teamate a chance to stay away and she or he will do the same for you in another race.
If you have a flat tire or are involved in a crash in a criterium, there is a “Free Lap Rule.” You can check in with an official and re-enter the pack 1 lap later at the back of the same group you were in.
Always stay in the race, even if you get dropped from the main group. But if you are about to be lapped in a criterium, an official may ask you to withdraw – normally for the safety of other riders. If this happens, you must leave the course.
There may be lap prizes called primes (pronounced “preems”) during a criterium. An official will ring a bell and the winner of the next lap will get cash or merchandise. Stay near the front on prime laps, even if you are not contesting the sprint, because the surge of speed will frequently split the field.
When the lap cards show 1 to go, a bell will ring. The race ends the next time you cross the finish line.
As you finish, try to note the jerseys of the people around you. Depending on the quality of the image on the finish-line camera, the official may ask for your help in determining your position.
If you think you placed, check back with the official directly after the race to see if they need help determining the order. Don’t expect results right away. It usually takes 10 minutes or more to sort out numbers captured by the camera.
In criteriums, all riders finish on the same lap. Riders who are one or more laps behind don’t continue after the winner crosses the line.
Stay all the way off the road around the start/finish area. In road races it can get quite dicey for riders to sprint through a crowd milling in the road.
Spin for a few minutes to warm down. Don’t stop and get off your bike immediately after the race.
It’s important to eat or drink about 200 carbohydrate calories within 30 minutes of finishing. This will aid muscle recovery.
Change into clean clothes as soon as possible. Don’t sit around in sweaty shorts. That’s a great way to get an infection where you really don’t want one.
After you’ve checked in with the officials, don’t bug them for results. They will be posted as soon as possible.
Check the results. There is a 15-minute protest period before they are final.
If you disagree with your placing, politely explain why to the officials. They will often review the finish-line video with you so you can see where you crossed the line in relations to riders around you.
If your result met your goals, congratulations! Enjoy it, and think about setting a higher goal next time.
If you are disappointed, you’ve probably just learned that there is a whole lot more to bike racing than fitness. Experience and pack-riding skills play a huge role.
It’s important to train with other people to learn pack techniques. But the only way to get racing experience is to race.
If you like the sport, look for a local training race series to develop your skills. Check with bike clubs and bike shops. Most riders find it takes 2-3 years of racing regularly before they hit their stride, and several more years before they truly reach their potential.