On The Starting Line: Your First Road Bike Race

The Rocky Mountain Raceways Criterium is a great place to start
The Rocky Mountain Raceways Criterium is a great place to start
racing in Utah. The races are held on Saturdays in March and Tuesdays
from April to September. The C and D fields are perfect for newer and new
racers. See the calendar of events for details. Photo by Dave Iltis

By John Higgins

Road bike racing can be intimidating, which may explain why a surprisingly low percentage of cyclists actually go in races. But it can also be fun, challenging and exciting, which is why more cyclists might want to give it a go. You don’t have to be in your cycling prime to start racing. You could be 13, 34, or 56. Racing is not confined to twenty somethings with legs of steel. I started in my late 40’s.

As with any sport, to get involved and participate it helps to understand how it all works, and initially that can be a bigger challenge than the actual racing. To start racing it helps to be familiar with the local racing association, types of races, race promoters, licensing, categories, points, registering, plate pinning, neutral feeds, hand ups, wheel cars, and more! None of this has anything to do with riding a bike, but it is all part of racing a bike. Of course the simple option is to show up, sign up and race, and figure it out as you go along. However being prepared has advantages, like reducing your stress level!

So what constitutes a race? Many cyclists ride in cycling events such as century rides. An event is noncompetitive and untimed. You probably take notice of how long it takes you, but there are no recorded and published times, places, points or results. A race will have results: time, place, points, and maybe even prizes if you are lucky! A race is competitive. You against the clock, the course, other riders and your own capability and potential.

Event Listings, Organizations, Associations

You can find a list of races in the event calendar in Cycling Utah (print and online at cyclingutah.com) and in the Rocky Mountain Tour and Race Guide.

The official national cycling sporting organization that oversees domestic bike racing is USA Cycling. This organization issues racing licenses, provides race permits to race promoters, records and reports results, and organizes national championship events, amongst other activities.

Local cycling associations represent USA Cycling and advertise, coordinate and officiate at local events. These are the best source of information for what is happening in your area, for example, Utah Cycling Association (www.utahcycling.com); Southwest Idaho Cycling Association (www.idahobikeracing.org); The Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado; Southern California / Nevada Cycling Association ; Northern California / Nevada Cycling Association

A race promoter is the individual /organization that decides to offer a race, advertises the race and manages the event on the ground. These hardworking, under-appreciated folk will often use a third party online service to handle event registration, where you sign up and pay your entrance fee.

Types of Races

The standard individual road bike race is just that – a race along a road from the start to the finish. To simplify logistics, these are usually the same place, so the race may be an out and back course, a single large loop, or a small loop repeated several times. However there are some notable one way exceptions like the Lotoja (Logan to Jackson) and the High Uintas (Kamas to Evanston) road races. There may be some police control at intersections, but the road is open to regular traffic and the race rules will stipulate not crossing the center line, and in some cases even restricting riding to the shoulder for some sections. The length and duration of the ride will depend on the race category and particular event. A local road bike race series is commonly on Saturdays through spring and summer.

Other road bike race variations include: the Criterium, which is a shorter, sprint event held on a closed (to traffic) course for a set period of time, and requires strong pack riding skills; the Time Trial, which is you against the clock over a set distance; and the Hillclimb, which is you against gravity, the clock and other riders. Criteriums and Time Trials are often used as training opportunities and you may find a series of midweek after work events locally. A Stage Race features several of these separate types of bike races bundled together over a weekend or a few weeks, like the Tour de France.

Building Confidence to Race

It took me a few years to build up the confidence to enter a road race, even though I considered myself a capable cyclist. I didn’t set out with the objective of racing, but it became the next step of the following progression:

Solo riding: building fitness and personal bike handling skills without any other cyclists to collide with.

Buddy riding: going for a ride with a friend. Getting used to riding side by side, in front of and immediately behind another rider.

Small group rides: with a group of friends or a club ride. This develops group riding skills like drafting, rotating pacelines, bridging gaps and sucking down food and water without wobbling into someone else.

Event Rides: charity rides / mass participation rides, often with distance options of 30, 50 or 100 miles, and aid stations well stocked with food and drink. Lots of riders with widely varying skills, experience and speeds all sharing the road. Learn to expect the unexpected!

Timed Event Rides like a Gran Fondo: these are mass start events for which you do not need a license, and are not sanctioned USA Cycling events. Expect higher speeds and more focus than a charity ride. A great way to get a feel for racing in a more casual event. Hill climbs are also a good race to begin with as speeds are slower and more consistent, the group spreads out quickly, and strategy takes a back seat to climbing ability.

Races: timed events in which you participate in your relevant category. Much more fun than Strava-fying yourself around your local favorite loop. You will pin a race plate on your jersey, be advised of the relevant race rules, roll of the start line in your category, and then commence a whole new learning curve of etiquette, strategy and endurance, while hoping to get to the finish line without being totally humbled.

Six Things to Need and Know

Motivation: you gotta want to do it! You might commit to a whole race series, go in a few as cross training for your “other sport”, or just pick one that appeals as a personal challenge. Motivation can be difficult to muster on your own, so either having a friend who races, or joining a cycling club with a race focus can be a big help, proving encouragement and answers.

Cycle Fitness: racing is not for every cyclist. It does demand a relatively high level of cycle fitness, which can come from spin classes, mountain biking or bike commuting, as well as personal and group training rides.

Group Riding Skills: cycling can be dangerous, and one of the biggest hazards are other cyclists, including yourself. You need practice and skill riding in close proximity with other cyclists to reduce the risk of causing or being caught up in a painful tumble. Be predictable and don’t make sudden moves. Anticipate changes in speed and modify your speed gradually, not abruptly. Don’t haul on the brakes or you will cause a ripple effect pile up akin to a freeway accident in a blizzard. Don’t overlap your front wheel alongside another rider’s rear wheel, or you will go down faster than a cold beer on a hot day, and take a lot of people with you. Position yourself fully behind or fully alongside other riders unless overtaking.

Know the Rules: All sports have rules to play by. You can download the rule book from the USA Cycling website. There are rules for how the race shall be organized and run, as well as for riders. The two big rules for riders are to obey all regular traffic regulations, and don’t cross the road center line. i.e you cannot use an oncoming lane to pass other riders.

Strategy: the essential road bike racing strategy is to conserve energy where you can to use it where it will make a difference. Easier said than done. You can read volumes on strategy, but it takes a lot of race time to be able to read an evolving situation and respond intuitively. Never underestimate the power of the peloton (main group of riders) to outride one or two solo riders. Team strategy plays a big role in the upper echelons of the sport, but as a beginner racer you’re basically riding for yourself either as an independent rider or in club colors if you are in a club. You don’t have to be on a cycling team to race.

License / Categories: If the race has a USA Cycling permit, you will need a racing license (either an annual license for $70, or a one day license for $15.) Some local races do not seek a permit, and so there is no license requirement. A non-permitted event may be categorized into gender and age groups only. A permitted event will be organized into ability and age-based license categories. If you are a beginner racer you will automatically be assigned to Category 5 regardless of your experience and expertise. Once you have completed 10 sanctioned road races you can request an upgrade to Category 4 and after that further upgrades depend on how well you perform.

Get Ready!

Most races require pre-registration, which can close a week or two before the event. Plan ahead! Some races will offer on the day registration. Check the event website / flyer for details.

Preview a course map beforehand so you know the route, the distance and elevation profile. Estimate how long it will take and how much drink and food you will need. You will need to be self-contained for shorter races, whereas longer events will offer aid stations. Plan your refueling needs.

Thoroughly check your bikes mechanical condition. Prepare your race kit (a checklist is helpful) and have it packed the night before. Know where to drive to the start, where it is, and how long that should take.


Arrive at least an hour before the start time to check in, get your number plate, get on your gear, find out where the start line is, and do some riding to warm up. You will need to show your race license when you check in. Ask at the registration desk how the number plate should be oriented on your jersey. Be in the starting area 10 minutes before your start time to line up with your category and hear the prerace briefing. Don’t be psyched out by the insanely fit looking people around you.

Roll out, relax, and take your cues from other riders around you. It is unlikely anyone is going to sprint off from the get go. Everyone wants to warm up a bit more. Chat with a few people. Breathe slow and deep. You’re racing!

For more in-depth information on getting started racing, see www.utahcycling.com/faq

Race Prep and Pack Checklist

• Directions to race venue

• Course route and elevation profile

• List of category start times

• USA Cycling License (for permitted events)

• Bike (cleaned, lubed, aired)

• Tire Pump, patch kit or spare wheelset

• Filled water bottles, drink mix, snacks

• Helmet, shoes, socks, gloves, glasses

• Cycle shorts/bibs and jersey

• Chamois cream, lip balm, sunscreen

• Wet/cool weather gear (rain/wind shell or vest, shoe covers, warmer gloves, arm warmers, leg warmers

• Bike computer / HR strap

• Post Race recovery drink / food


• Stationery trainer and riser block

• Mechanics stand, tool kit

• Foldable chair

• Cooler, water


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