How To Get Started in Bike Racing
Former elite racer and collegiate-level cycling coach Mikael Hanson walks you through everything you need to know to get involved in bike racing!
The demographics of bike racing have changed dramatically from when I first started cycling a handful of decades ago. As a pudgy teenager, I was not into the traditional sports like baseball, football, or soccer and sort of stumbled into cycling after watching the movie Breaking Away—just you and your bike, riding solo on the back roads of Indiana while singing Italian songs. What’s not to like about that? Bang, I went out and bought a bike and thought that was it, ‘I’M A BIKE RACER!’
Perhaps I forgot about the part of the movie where Dave Stoller actually trains, as my first race was a disaster. That race took place in near-freezing conditions around Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin. After only a couple of very frigid laps, I found myself off the back and dropped from the field. Embarrassed and tearful, my dad put his arm around me and tried his best to console me after I announced I was through with bike racing! He suggested we approach this bike-racing thing differently.
“Let’s find a bicycling club and learn how to do this the proper way,” he suggested. With that, we both joined Madison’s premier bike club in the 1980s, the Two Tyred Wheelmen. My dad would eventually become treasurer of the club, and as for myself, well, I raced at National Championships a few years later. Good call, Dad!
Back then, the atmosphere around junior racing (under the age of 18) was vastly different. Nearly every cycling event had not only a junior race but also separate fields for even younger categories.
Also, it was not uncommon for the numbers in a junior field to be 50, 75, even 100 strong at events like Wisconsin’s Super Week or the Quad Cities race on Memorial Day Weekend. Think about it—there was no internet, which meant no Fortnight, no Roblox, no Minecraft, and not even a Playstation (but I had a wicked Atari!). Kids actually played outside non-stop and cycling was flourishing!
Where to Start
Like me, you may find yourself interested in bike racing, but have you decided which specific type of racing? After watching Dave Stroller battle the Italians across the open countryside of rural Indiana, I decided road racing was the type of cycling event I wanted to do! Other bike-racing disciplines include BMX, mountain biking, track racing, and cyclocross.
This article will focus on how to start bike racing on the road, where one can often find avenues to the other disciplines. Over the course of my racing years, I’ve tried my hand at other disciplines like mountain, track, and even cyclocross (CX), but road racing was where my heart rested.
The types of races you can expect to do on the road include:
A time trial is a pure race against the clock and is often called “The Race of Truth.” Racers complete individually, starting one at a time to see who can record the fastest time over the designated course. No teamwork or drafting another rider is allowed. It is just you and your bike versus the elements and the course.
In larger races and on the collegiate circuit, you will also find a team time trial where two to nine riders (nine being the number of riders allowed at stage races like the Tour de France) from the same team ride as one unit for time, which is typically taken on the third rider to cross the finish line.
Possibly the most exciting of all races to watch, criteriums take place on a small, closed-street circuit, with short laps (one mile or less) and LOTS of cornering. These races can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, involve speeds exceeding 30 mph, and require a higher degree of bike-handling skills to be able to navigate multiple corners in a large group at speed (I’ve done events lasting over 100 laps). Criteriums are very popular in the U.S. as they attract large crowds of spectators, whereas a long, point-to-point road race offers only limited viewing of the racers.
This mass-start event often sends riders out onto incredibly scenic roads. Like what you find in larger stage races like the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, road races are often point-to-point and can range in distance from one to 15 miles for the younger riders to nearly 200 miles for the professionals (the Milan-San Remo one-day classic in Italy is nearly 300km, or 185 miles, long!).
You can’t be a bike racer without looking the part! To safely participate in bike racing you need quite a bit of gear. The basics one needs are essentially the same as anyone getting into cycling as a hobby: 1. Bicycle helmet 2. Cycling-appropriate clothing (I highly recommend padded cycling shorts and cycling jersey to start) 3. Cycling shoes (can be clipless or flat) 4. Tool kit (for simple repairs) 5. Sunglasses 6. Racing license (if you plan to race)
I started racing with a used French touring bike that I bought for $300 and found in the classifieds section of my local newspaper (long before eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace). A year later (after I was certain this sport was for me), I upgraded to a pure Italian racing machine that was hanging in the window at my local bike shop. I saved all summer long and was still a few hundred dollars short for the $999 asking price, but thankfully my dad had me covered! The smile on my face could be seen for miles when I walked out of the shop with a Ferrari red bike in tow!
Find a Club
My dad had the right approach back in the ’80s in response to my desire to start bike racing: find an organization that can help. Back then bike racing popularity was on the rise with riders like Greg Lemond winning the Tour de France in 1986, 1989, and 1990 as well as the World Championships in 1983 and 1989, and Alexi Grewal, the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in road racing (which he did in 1984).
Cycling was hot, and on any given weekend in the Midwest, one could catch a bike race within a two-hour drive from home. So that’s what we did—we attended a few local races to see what clubs and teams were present, then reached out to those clubs to see who was near us and who could help an aspiring newbie bike racer, such as myself!
Today that quest is much easier. The governing body for bicycle racing in the U.S. is USA Cycling, which provides a wealth of online resources to help you on your journey to becoming a bike racer! The USA Cycling website includes information on training, buying a bike, local events, and even a resource on finding a local club by state.
What To Look For in a Cycling Club
When looking for a cycling club to join, there are several characteristics you should consider:
- Is the club local to you (both in terms of training and meetings)?
- Does it accept new riders?
- Are there riders your own age and experience level on the team/club?
- Is the club oriented toward your goals (e.g., racing, non-competitive touring, etc.)?
- Does the club promote its own bike races (giving you more racing opportunities)?
- Is coaching or instruction offered to new riders?
- Are discounts offered on cycling-related gear?
- What is the cost (if any) to join the club?
In New York City, where I live now, we have the Century Road Club Association (CRCA), which is the main bike-racing umbrella for all things NYC bike racing. CRCA handles putting on the races and even race clinics for new riders and is composed of dozens of sub-teams, all with a different focus and roster makeup.
Some of the teams are made up of elite riders and are invite-only. There are also women’s teams, teams that focus more on the social aspect of cycling, and development teams that are set up to instruct newer riders on the finer points of bike racing. I coach one such team, the CRCA Development Foundation cycling team, which is an under-23 team focused on helping junior and college-aged riders get into bike racing. This team offers regular coached rides, online coaching support, as well as discounts on certain gear, and even helps with entry fees to races.
Riders under the age of 18 will need to start racing as a junior and should look for clubs and events for juniors.
If you’re 18 or over, new to cycling, and in college (under-grad or graduate), then you could gain some experience in the collegiate ranks.
Collegiate racing is not an NCAA sport but part of USA Cycling, which means it is available to all riders, new and experienced alike.
Collegiate cycling has a total of 11 conferences around the country with five distinct cycling seasons (road, mountain, track, cyclocross, and BMX), each with its own conference championships and national championships. To be eligible for collegiate cycling, you need to be a full-time undergraduate or graduate student.
If your school does not have a cycling team, USA Cycling makes it easy and even waives the club fee for the first year. Many schools will require a minimum number of interested students to start a club, and that number varies among schools (there are cycling clubs with only one rider, but most schools require 10 or more to qualify for some sort of school support).
More info on starting a college cycling club/team can be found here.
If you’re over 18 and not in college, then you will have to start off as a “novice” rider (formerly referred to as Category 5) at your first local bike race. Just like looking for a club that caters to junior or collegiate (under-23) riders, you will want to seek out a cycling club that welcomes novice bike racers.
Amateur racing is broken into categories based on ability and experience. On the road, new riders start in Category 5 (amateur categories progress from Novice to Category 4, Category 3, Category 2, and Category 1).
Upgrading from Novice/Category 5 to 4 previously required finishing 10 mass-start races, but USA Cycling now allows riders to upgrade to Category 4 “at-will,” given the sheer numbers of new racers entering the sport.
Upgrades through the rest of the categories require the accumulation of points from your race results which factor in elements like the number of participants, duration of the race, and race type. The points system is rather complicated and outside the scope of this article, but if you would like to learn more about it, my friends at The To Be Determined Journal have done a very comprehensive look at the new upgrade rules.
Buy a Racing License
You’ve joined a club and started training, so next up is buying a racing license! USA Cycling sanctions most races in the U.S. and requires racers to become members to participate. Non-competitive events, like Gran Fondo or charity rides, are not under the guise of USA Cycling and therefore don’t require a license. A racing license can be bought at USA Cycling Memberships and is good for one calendar year. Prices range from free for junior riders to over $200 for an international racing license.
Your checklist is nearly complete: bike, gear, club, license, and some training. Now it’s time to pick your race. My advice is to start with something close to home and on a course that suits your abilities. Think you have pretty good sprinting abilities? Then find a flat and fast criterium. Perhaps you excel at climbing, then a road race with some nice climbs would be the perfect starting point. One of the main keys to success on race day, whether it be your first race or 100th, is to know the course!
Previewing the course firsthand will help you determine proper gearing (is your smallest gear enough to get up those climbs?) while sizing up the actual course. Note the location of any hills and their duration, potholes, turns, and the setup of the finish line. How far is it from the last corner? Is it on an uphill or downhill? What is the condition of the pavement?
Race Day Necessities
Come race day, here is a list of what you will need (I highly advise packing the day before):
- Bike (don’t laugh, I’ve seen people forget theirs!)
- Helmet (this happens more than you think)
- Cycling shoes (plus something to wear after the race)
- Air pump (don’t rely on someone else to have one)
- Cycling club jersey and shorts
- Water bottles (several)
- Water/energy drink/race food
- Lubricant and tools (especially Allen wrenches, zip ties, and electrical tape)
- Race packet/number
- First-aid kit / Vaseline / sunscreen / talcum powder (to help chafing)
You’ve successfully made it to the start line of your first bike race! Now the rest is up to you and remember, keep the rubber side down!
If you have any other questions about gear, how to get involved in racing, or just want to chat bikes - don't hesitate to reach out to a Cycling Expert here at Curated. We would be happy to walk you through the process!