Bike Racing: FAQs to get you started

What types of road races are there?

A criterium or “crit,” such as the Giro di San Francisco, is the most common form of mass-start, road racing in the United States. The criterium takes place on a closed course one mile or less in length. The loop is repeated, and the race tends to last 30-90 minutes, depending on the skill level of the riders. These races usually have a faster overall speed than the road races.

A stage race can last a few days or up to a few weeks. Each day, the racers ride a different course; the races that make up a stage race may include road races, criteriums, and time trials. The courses may be long or short, flat or hilly, or a combination. The athlete with the greatest overall ability to sprint, climb and persevere will fare the best in a stage race. The Tour de France and other European Grand Tours such as the Tour d’Italia or The Tour of Spain are stage races.

The circuit is a mass start and a one day event. It usually consists of a 5-25 mile repeating loop. The T-Mobile San Francisco Grand Prix is a circuit race with a total distance of 108.1 miles (men) 51.6 miles (women).

The time trial is a race in which the individual or team races against the clock. These are not mass-start races. Racers often ride aerodynamic bikes, add equipment to their kits, and don aerodynamic clothes to make themselves faster. The course length varies from 10 miles at the local level to 40 kilometers (just under 25 miles) at the state or national level, with average speeds near 30 miles per hour for the elite men. Time trials tend to benefit endurance riders.

How do I get started?

Road racing is open to all levels of ability. If you’re going to race on the road, you need a road bike. Mountain or hybrid bikes are too heavy. Before getting a road bike, make sure you get a bike fit done at a shop that serves racers; if the shop you go to tells you to just stand over the bike, pick another shop. While a bike fit may cost you as much as $60, it is absolutely worth it. You are almost sure to not enjoy racing if your bicycle does not fit you. Plus, it will save you from having to replace ill-fitting equipment later. Make sure to get a relatively light helmet that fits by asking for assistance at the bike shop.

Once you have a road bike and helmet that fit well, start training. Plan to train at least 100 miles a week; most beginner to intermediate racers train 150-250 miles a week.

Well-planned out hours in the saddle are what you need to develop endurance and hone skills and techniques needed to be both a competitive and safe racer. Contrary to the title of Lance Armstrong’s first book, sometimes it is about the bike. Though it is optimal to train outside, balance skills can be enhanced on indoor rollers. Spinning classes can nicely supplement riding hours spent outdoors. A healthy diet as well as cross-training will help with training and injury prevention.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Team on Climate Ride!

Climate Ride California is a 5-day, 300-mile, fully-supported bicycle ride from Fortuna (near Eureka) to San Francisco from Sept. 21-25 under towering redwoods, through the famed Russian River Wine Country, and along the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route – one of the most scenic coastlines in the world. The largest environmental cycling event, Climate Ride raises funds and awareness of bicycles as a solution to the climate crisis, all while participants enjoy a world-class, epic cycling adventure. This climate conference on wheels also features dynamic nightly speakers who focus on bicycle advocacy, the climate crisis, and a clean energy future. This year, the SF Bicycle Coalition will be joining in the fun and we’re looking for new members of Team SFBC! A portion of the funds raised by our team will benefit the Coalition. Find out more info about Team SFBC, or visit Climate Ride.

Where can I train?

Where can’t you train is the question. Even your daily commute to work can help you train. In San Francisco, Golden Gate Park and the Presidio are fantastic options. The Peninsula, North Bay and East Bay offer some alternatives to riding in town. Many club websites have recommended routes that include detailed information on mileage and elevation.

Should I train with a group?

Group rides will help you learn different skills than you pick up on your own, such as how to follow a rider closely and safely, how to expend less energy, how to accelerate with explosive speed, and how to turn a corner with speed.

Find a local cycling club that has a racing orientation. Usually, you can join a club for a few training rides without paying dues and use this time to see if you and the club are a good match. Different clubs offer different benefits, including training camps, guidance on fitness, and discounts on gear and coaches; it is also important to find a group of people you like since you will train together. Ideally, the club you choose will have a beginner group, so there are other people at your level.

Do the races have limited participation (field limits)?

For safety reasons, races open only to category 5 men or category 4 women have field limits of 50 riders. Races for other categories have higher field limits (generally 100 riders). Given the field limits, pre-register for races you really want to do.

What are racing categories?

Categories exist to assist you to race with others at your level. Beginners will be assigned to a novice category (cat): cat 5 for men and cat 4 for women; based on number of races and/or performance, racers upgrade by descending in category from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1. The categories are further defined by one of three age groups: Juniors (riders 18 and under), Elite (19-29), and Masters (30+).

Will I be racing against professional riders?

You don’t have to. If you are male, beginners race with beginner (category 5) racers. If you are female, most events have a beginner (category 4) race. Sometimes all the categories are lumped together; these races are often quite challenging for new racers.

What should I bring to a race?
No helmet, No race!
  • A helmet is required to race
  • Unless you are riding for a club and have one of their jerseys, wear one of your own. A jersey that covers your shoulders is required to race
  • Padded shorts
  • Cycling shoes that clip into your pedals
  • Gloves to protect your hands
  • Sunglasses to protect your eyes
  • Two water bottles for your bike for a road race, and one water bottle if it is a crit. Make sure that one of your bottles has a mixture of water and some electrolytes (mixes are available at your bike shop)
  • Some food and water (with protein and carbohydrates) for after your race
  • A friend to cheer for you and pass you a water bottle (if it is a road race that allows people outside the race to pass out water bottles)
  • A checkbook or cash for entry fees, licenses, and more food after your race

Racing do’s and don’t’s

During a race, only draft off (ride directly behind) riders who start in your group and are in your category. Know the number range assigned to your group and if in doubt, don’t draft.

If you get a flat in a crit, you can usually take a lap. This means that you have one lap to come to the designated pit, work on your bike and get back into the race the next time the group you were riding with comes by the pit. You don’t get a free lap if you are within 1 km of the end of the race.

Officials may pull you out of a crit if the pack laps you (drops you from their group, comes around again, and passes you). Unless you are instructed to pull out of the race, stay in and try to get back onto the back of the pack. The more time you can race with a group, the more experience you will gain.

After your race, make sure you eat some protein and carbohydrates,  and drink some water immediately after your race.

Make sure the judges have your number. It is sometimes challenging for officials to note your number if several people are coming by at once. Once results are posted, you have 15 minutes to protest their validity with the officials.

Have fun!

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