Road Racing 101

[ 0 ] September 11, 2014 |

Racing a bike is the closest thing that many of us will get to being a race car driver or even a jet pilot. You might think this is a strange comparison but when you are in the thick of it, flying around a course at speeds you never thought you could do on a bike, inches from the racer next to you, you will understand. It is an amazing rush, a ballet of speed, agility, and daring. Even racing a time trial, with your aero helmet strapped to your head, sunglasses hiding your determined stare, skin suit stretched over your trained muscular body, sitting on top of a bike that in some cases uses similar technology as F1 race cars, you feel like a fighter pilot ready to go into battle. All alone out on the course, pushing your body to it’s limit, listening to the noise as the wind flies over your helmet. You can hear your heart beat; like the roar of the jet’s engine, you are the power plant. Or what if you race the track? Flying around an oval at break neck speeds, no brakes, one gear, the purest form of racing. Track racing was once what NASCAR is today, even here in the USA. The first super start athlete was a black man named Major Taylor from here in the United States. A track with his name resides in Indiana.

If you are thinking of racing bikes, then welcome to the club. It is not the easiest of sports, but it is an extremely rewarding one. It is individualistic and at the same time, a team sport. There is something for everyone, the strong, the smart, the daring. There is more than one way to win a race and the bike racing culture embraces that. Bike racing began as a blue-collar man’s sport where you got on your bike and you set out on your own to prove yourself in a tough world. There are many trials along the way, but the most dedicated are rewarded with glory. You don’t need the lightest wheels or the strongest frame; you only need your lungs, your legs, and your heart to help you across the line first.

So what do you need to know?
Well first you need a bike, something durable that can take a beating. You can swoon over all the glittering parts and paint, but if you are going to be a racer be ready to throw it all away at every race you line up in. Your bike is your tool. A carpenter does not care what his hammer looks like, only that it does the job it was designed to do efficiently and repeatedly.

• A nice aluminum frame will many times do the trick. Aluminum can be almost as light as carbon, is less expensive, and can take a good beating and keep on going.

• Don’t spring for the top of the line components right away, many times the stuff just below the top level is just as good and quite less expensive. Remember every time you line up to race, you are risking all your equipment, if you can’t replace it quick and cheap is it really worth it?

• A good set of wheels is the first upgrade you might want to make. Light stiff wheels will make the biggest difference in your speed and quickness. In my opinion go with clincher wheels, from my experience tubulars are not worth the time and money you will sink into them. A high-end clincher tire is faster and you will be able to fix a flat in minutes with an $11 inner tube rather than replacing your $120 tubular tire you just bought.

• Having separate training wheels is also a good thing to have. You can get very strong, sturdy, durable, training wheel sets for under $150. The ones I ride have over 40,000 miles on them. They don’t need to be light or flashy, they are just for training.

• Buy the best clothing you can afford, you will be spending a lot of time on your bike and if you are not comfortable you will hate it. Bibs with a great chamois are a must, do not by shorts, only triathletes wear shorts and you don’t want to be associated with that crowd. Your jerseys should fit tight and not flutter. You are not buying something that will look good while you are standing up, it needs to look good while you are bent over riding. A cycling jersey does not fit like a normal shirt, it should be fairly short and tight. Make sure you get clothing for all types of weather. Real cyclists ride no matter the weather, so like the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared”.

• Don’t go cheap on the shoes; again you will be spending thousands of miles in them and they need to fit perfectly. You will need to try on different brands, not all brands fit the same, and just because one rider swears by one brand does not mean you will love it too. And by god, DO NOT buy your shoes online!!! You need to try them on, not ask around how one shoe size compares to another, that is just stupid.

You now have your bike and some kit to ride in, now what? You are pretty much a couple grand into the sport, so now go ride, a lot. Learn how your bike feels and how it works. It does not matter how fast you ride or how far, really the amount of time you spend on the bike is what is important. The average speed of your rides is no indication as to whether or not you are ready to race. As a racer the average speed of a lot of my rides in under 15 mph, the races I do average 25-30mph. You just need some fitness and know how to handle your bike to be able to race. Don’t always ride the same speed, sometimes go slow, and sometimes go fast. Sometimes sprint up the climbs, sometimes steadily climb up while seated. Races are unpredictable and the most important part is being able to handle the surges. Races are not the same speed; one minute you are doing 20mph and the next 32mph. If you always ride the same speed you will not be able to handle the surges and you will pop out the back.

Riding in a pack is a big skill that is required. The closer you are to the next guy the less work you will have to do and the more energy you will have for the finish. The only way to get comfortable with riding in a pack is to do it. So ride with your friends, go around corners side by side, learn how it feels to bump into each other. You can practice this in the grass in case you lose control, but as long as you stay calm and loose you will be fine. Tightening up is the worst thing you can do, stay calm and just try to ride it out. It may be difficult but you will have to learn to trust those around you and at the beginning that can be scary. Try to keep your head up and anticipate what you think the riders around you are going to do. Learning to ride in a straight line is also a must. A great way to practice this is to ride on the white line on the side of the road while you are out training. When you start racing you will hear riders yelling, “hold your line” quite often. This means keeping strait on straight-aways, and keeping a consistent ark through turns. Something you will be able to practice with your friends.

In many areas you may be able to find some practice races or clinic to attend that will help you ease into racing, but if you are not lucky enough to live near a place that does this, you will have to just jump into your first race. You will start off as a Cat 5 for men or a Cat 4 for women, sometimes called the Citizen class. Everyone racing in these categories are beginners. Once a rider has finished 10 races they are permitted to “Cat up” to the next level. This keeps the competition fair and allows all the beginners to learn at an easier pace. If you are old enough to race as a Masters racer, usually 35+, I would recommend against it. You might think these are easier races since those in the races are all your age, but there can often times be old professionals in these races as long as they meet the age requirement. Some of the toughest races I have done have been masters races.

Your objective in your first races is to learn how a race pans out. Often times there will be riders that want to break away from the main group and try to win off the front. There will be riders that will chase them down, and there will be more riders that break away. This is generally the game for most races. In the lower levels (5,4,3) breakaways are fairly rare. Riders are not quite strong enough, and most people don’t ride for teams that have the ability to help a rider win from a break away. (Remember this is a team sport) So these levels are often won by bunch sprints or very short breakaways (1-2 laps long, 1-2 miles). To win a race you must remember that you must be the fastest at the end of the race. Pulling the pack around a course for the entire race is doing nothing but helping out your competition. If you are on the front and you are not helping your teammate, you are in the wrong spot. Being near the front is smart but sitting out in the wind is not. It does not matter how great you feel or how little work you think you are doing, you are doing more than the guy behind you, so don’t do it. Do not expect anyone from another team to help you. This is not a group ride, you are not friends out on the course, you are there to race. So if you are trying to pull a break back, you better be doing it for your teammate. If you are alone and want to be in the break you better jump and bridge up to it, and if you want the break caught and you are on your own you just have to hope it gets pulled back by someone else, because you pulling back the break for yourself is just wearing you out for the finish. So remember these rules;

1. Stay out of the wind
2. Don’t pull the field unless your team needs you to
3. Stay out of the wind
4. The fastest rider at the end of the race wins.

Next you might want to join a team. Teams are often created by people of like minds; Quantum Mesa Cycles was created by a couple guys who wanted a team that raced like a team. There are other teams that are just masters guys, or guys that like to go on long training rides, or even guys who like Chuck Norris isms. Some teams are open to anyone who wants to join and pay the team dues, others are by invitation only, these are questions you will want to ask when looking around. No matter what, you will want to hang out with a team before you start to race with them to see if you like them and they like you. A little tip; don’t ask what a team is going to give to you, yes cycling has a history of sponsorships, but if you are new to racing you are not going to get any of it. Like any other sport you are going to do you are going to pay to play. The benefits of joining a team are the knowledge the team can share with you on training and racing. There is also the benefit of having teammates in races to help you or for you to help them. Many times a group of weaker riders can dominate a strong field just because they have a plan and can make it happen. There is a lot you can do in team tactics but I will get into that in another post.

So this should get you started on your road to racing a bike and having a great time. Keep the rubber down.

Nick Hand

Category: Cycling Tips

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