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A beginners guide to road racing

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You can add more bikes later
racing 10 Jun 2024 By Travis Reill

When many people hear the word "cycling," they think of what could be considered its purist form—road cycling. The sport has millions hooked, and it isn't hard to see why. From eye-watering speeds to tackling some of the most grueling climbs and covering tremendous distances, road cycling asks the proverbial question: Can you hack it?

For many who can, their next step is to turn themselves into racing machines by logging hundreds of miles in the saddle on a weekly basis… and go racing. Road racing is a phenomenal way to test your limits in the sport you love and surround yourself with like-minded athletes. For most who go this route, it becomes a significant part of their lives, and a select few manage to turn it into a career.

cycling race winner

How it all started

Have you ever wondered why some of the largest and most well-known road races—Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a España—take place in Europe? This is because road racing originated in Europe as early as the mid-1800s and is still popular today. Road racing quickly became a spectator favorite in the Summer Olympic Games in the late 1800s and continues to be one of the major events we tune into every four years. Many professional road athletes plan their seasons around training for and participating in the Olympic games, hoping they are among the few lucky ones selected to represent their country.

Germany hosted the first World Championships in 1921 under the supervision of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which formed two decades prior. The UCI still oversees cycle racing at the world's highest level, including other cycling disciplines such as cross-country mountain biking, enduro, and downhill.

For nearly 150 years, the tradition of road racing has carried on to today, not only with the Tour de France watch parties that happen around the world but also with the local road races you may find yourself curious about. But if you are worried that you may be biting off a bit more than you can chew, don't let a multi-stage race like the Tour discourage you. There are many road racing formats, and you will likely find one that best suits you.

Or tackle them all.

vintage cyclist

Types of road racing

Within the discipline of road cycling, there are several different types of racing. From solo events to team-focused races, road racing truly has something for everyone.

Road Races

Arguably, the most common and traditional form of road bike racing is road races. Road races typically take place on public roads and can vary greatly in distance, terrain, and difficulty, which makes them so popular. The race course can be point-to-point, or racers can do multiple laps on a circuit, depending on how the course is set up. Road races can range from one-day events to multi-stage races lasting several days or weeks.

cycling road racers

Road races are team-oriented events with a mass start at the beginning, with well over 100 racers participating. Team sizes can vary, but it is common for teams to have 8-10 riders. During the race, teams work together to gain an advantage and pass other teams moving forward. Typically, teams will designate a team leader, which can be based on several factors, such as the individual's fitness level, terrain, or the competition they are facing. Teammates work to keep the team leader riding strong with the goal of him having enough "gas in the tank" for the final sprint. They will even give their bike to the team leader if they have a mechanical issue or their bike is damaged in a crash.

Criteriums

Criteriums, also known as "crits," are not recognized internationally as an official cycle racing discipline but are the most popular form of road cycle racing here in the States. Crits are short, fast-paced races held on closed circuits, often in urban areas, creating an environment perfect for spectators. A typical crit race course is 0.5 to 3 miles long, features multiple tight turns and a few straightaways – tackling such a course requires sharp bike handling skills, and the ability to repeatedly produce massive power to accelerate out of corners and respond to "attacks." These races last anywhere from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours and cover between 25-60 miles, with racers averaging up to 30 mph speeds.

criterium racing

To add to the excitement of the race, "primes" are introduced – these events are signified by the ringing of the bell at the start/finish line as the peloton blasts past, and whoever completes the next lap the fastest, wins a particular prize, which is often cash or a merchandise prize from a sponsor. Unlike the intermediate sprint points in road races, which are far and between, primes happen every few laps, continuously stirring the peloton into a frenzy. The end of the race is announced by the officials ringing the bell and displaying a card with the number of laps to go. This heats up the race even more, with teams fighting for position and setting up for the final sprint to the finish.

Time Trials

Time trials represent the most primal form of road racing -- each racer is against the clock, attempting to set the fastest time. Riders start a minute or so apart and aim to complete the course in the shortest time possible, thus winning the race.

Like road races, time trials often take place on public roads and can vary in length, from short prologues to longer distances. A time trial can be a point-to-point race or encompass several laps on a circuit, depending on what the organizers have to work with. However, unlike road races, time trials don't have the benefits of the team aspect. Racers can't draft teammates or work together to gain an advantage over teams, thus aptly giving this type of racing the moniker of "honest race." Instead, racers have to find other ways to ride faster and more efficiently, usually in the form of the lightest and most advanced carbon fiber bikes, aerodynamic helmets and suits, and aerobars

time trial bike

At the amateur level, the Merckx-style time trial is quite popular. It's a time trial event inspired by the riding style of Eddy Merckx, a Belgian professional cyclist. It requires that you race a road bike and forbids any equipment that could produce any aerodynamic advantage, including aero bars, aero helmets, shoe covers, or aero wheels. These time trials are often part of larger cycling events, most often crits where you can race a crit and an hour later race a time trial.

Team Time Trials

A team time trial (TTT) is very similar to the individual time trials discussed above, but with one key difference — a team, not an individual, is racing against the clock. In a team time trial, the overall time the team places is determined by the last rider of the team to cross the finish line. The teams stick together and employ many road racing techniques, such as the rotating paceline, to gain aerodynamic advantage. In a team time trial race, the dance of drafting is most beautifully put on display, as teammates will take turns being the lead riders, allowing their fellow teammates to tuck in behind and recover. Once the lead rider is fatigued, they will fall to the back of the pack, and another teammate will take his turn leading the group. As the team traverses the course, it often has to contend with varying side winds, triggering the team to reconfigure itself in staggered formations, with wheels often overlapping, to maintain the aerodynamic advantage.

Team Time Trials

Stage Races

Stage races may be the most well-known form of road racing, with the Tour de France being a prime example. Stage races take place over several days or even weeks, with each day of the race being considered a "stage." The Tour de France, for example, is a 21-day race that takes place every July. Not only can stage races last a grueling number of days, but they can also incorporate a variety of challenging terrain and disciplines, including flatter stages, mountain stages, time trials, and sometimes team time trials.

Each stage of the race is timed, and each stage will have a stage winner—the racer that crosses that stage's finish line first. But just because a racer takes first place on one stage doesn't guarantee an overall win. The overall winner of the entire race is the racer that, after adding up their time from each stage, has the overall lowest time. Because of the overall time commitment and the level of preparedness required, stage races are not as widespread as criteriums and single-day road races, so if you want to try your hand at one, you will most likely have to travel. The most popular amateur stage races in the US are Valley of the Sun (AZ), Tucson Bicycle Classic (AZ), Chico Stage Race (CA), Tour of the Gila (NM), and Tour de Bloom (WA).

Hill Climbs

One of the most tiresome disciplines in road racing is hill climbs, where individual racers compete to be the fastest up a grueling climb. Climbing a medium-sized hill on a bike is challenging due to the cardiovascular strain and lactate buildup; tackling a 10-plus mile (16+ km) climb at a steep grade requires the utmost endurance and mental toughness, which can only be achieved through years of training.

Climbing a huge mountain requires racers to find the optimal pace that would allow them to keep the pedals spinning without burning out. The Cycle to the Summit in Colorado Springs, CO is one of the most popular hill climb races in the States. This 12.5-mile (20.1 km) long climb gains over 4,800 feet (1,463 m) in elevation, with an average grade of 7% – an incredibly daunting task for even the most seasoned pros. However, there is another factor that makes a race like Cycling to the Summit even more challenging—elevation. Pikes Peak reaches over 14,000 feet (4,267 m) above sea level, and for every foot a racer ascends, the air gets thinner, and it gets progressively harder to keep pushing; the oxygen level at the summit of Pikes Peak is 40% less than at sea level.

hill climbing

The Assault on Mt. Mitchell is another notable hill-climbing race that is a century (100 mile/160 km) event. The race begins in downtown Spartanburg, SC, and follows the Blue Ridge Parkway for 102.7 miles (165.2 km) to the summit of Mt. Mitchell, resulting in a staggering 11,100 ft (3,383 m) elevation gain. Multiple aid stations are on the course to support racers throughout a long day in the saddle.

Gran Fondos

A Gran Fondo race might be a great place to start if you are jumping into road racing. Gran Fondo roughly translates to "big ride" in Italian and incorporates aspects of road racing but on a more recreational level. Gran Fondos are timed, but they are typically more focused on personal achievement and enjoyment than other race events' fiercely competitive nature. However, just because a Gran Fondo is more geared for recreational riders, it doesn't mean that the race won't be challenging. Participants can expect to race on a marked course over long distances, often with challenging climbs and incredibly scenic views.

Levi's Gran Fondo is a very popular race in Santa Rosa, CA. Founded by Levi Leipheimer, a retired professional cyclist, it offers multiple routes catering to riders of varying skills, ranging from short and moderate courses to the 120-mile (192 km) "gran" route featuring 10,345 ft (3,153 m) of elevation gain.

Gran Fondo New York (GFNY) is another popular race in New York and New Jersey hills. It features scenic rural roads, rolling hills, and steep climbs, with a total elevation gain of 8,500 ft (2,590 m) over a 100-mile (160 km) distance.

Competition Categories

Some races, such as Gran Fondos, feature mass starts where all participants are grouped together and start the race at the same time. It is up to the individual to "seed" or position himself into the right spot in the peloton to avoid getting stuck behind slower racers or becoming the slow guy everyone is passing. The race is scored by overall position but also segmented into individual groups by gender and age bracket.

In other road races, riders select the category they wish to participate in, which is usually determined by gender, skill level, or sometimes age. Often, categories are based on more than one of these factors, and a racer could sign up for something like Male (gender), 40-44 (age), or CAT 1 (skill).

The CATs, or categories, start at "Novice" (sometimes incorrectly referred to as CAT 5) and progress in skill level, with CAT 4 being the next step up from Novice and CAT 1 being for the most skilled, or "elite," riders. This CAT designation is shared between male and female racers, although categories can be combined for things such as start times if there aren't many racers in a particular category, it is not uncommon to see CAT 5 and CAT 4 racing together. This can also be true for age categories, as race coordinators will use their discretion and may have different categories participating simultaneously. There may be more or fewer age categories depending on the race size and how many racers represent individual age categories. A large race with many participants may have an age category for every five years: 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, while smaller races may have wider age designation, such as a "50 and above" category.

As you gain more experience as a rider, you'll accumulate points in a specific category and can request an upgrade to the next one in accordance with USA Cycling guidelines. While this upgrade is voluntary, and theoretically, you could race as a Novice your entire career, a quick way to get ostracized from road racing is to intentionally win in a lower category race despite having a higher level of skills, also known as "sandbagging."

Get the right equipment

If road racing is in your future, you will absolutely need a road bike. While there are cycling disciplines where you don't need a specific type of bike to have fun, such as gravel racing, when control and speed are of the utmost importance, a road bike has no substitutes. Riders are expected to accelerate to and sustain high speeds for extended periods, which is possible due to the bike's geometry and gearing, which prioritizes aerodynamics and power delivery in exchange for comfort.

A common question is if a gravel or cyclocross bike will be okay to use in a road race. While these bikes will undoubtedly be more efficient than a mountain bike, the road bike has a few advantages, and the tires are a big one. Gravel and cyclocross bikes are equipped with larger tires, and larger almost always equals slower — more contact with the ground translates to more friction. Road bikes use skinnier tires designed to minimize friction and take corners at higher speeds. While it's possible to swap out gravel wheels for road ones, you'll still have the problem of imperfect gearing for the task.

Most modern road bikes will come with two chainrings in the front, commonly a 53 and 39-tooth, and an 11-28-tooth cassette in the rear. Despite the relatively small cassette, the two front chainrings give road bikes an incredible gear range and the ability to go blazingly fast on flatter terrain or slow down and produce enough torque to climb a steep hill. During a typical race, a rider may have to accelerate from 28 mph to 45 mph to respond to an "attack" and quickly slow down to 25 mph to take a corner to sprint out of it again. To repeat such an effort hundreds of times during a race, the "steps" in gearing must be quite small to ensure the rider can maintain a comfortable and sustainable cadence in every gear at every speed.

good road bicycle

Luckily, you do not need a featherweight high-end all-carbon bike to participate and even do well in most races. In fact, there's a belief amongst seasoned racers that a perfect race bike must be fast, nimble, and replaceable. As such, many racers prefer budget aluminum bikes equipped with mid-tier drivetrains, such as Cannondale CAAD, Specialized Allez, and Trek Domane AL. While not exactly cheap, they cost a fraction of their "superbike" counterparts while delivering 90% of the value at an average price of $2,500 for a ready-to-race machine.

In addition to the bike itself, you'll need a helmet, glasses, shoes, gloves, and a kit. A quality helmet will feel snug but not painfully tight and have adjustments on both the tightening mechanism and the straps to achieve a perfect fit. Consider getting a helmet with MIPS or similar technology to protect your head against rotational forces – it may cost a bit more, but your head will thank you. Cycling-specific glasses are highly recommended since they are designed to withstand forces, like flying road debris, that regular sunglasses are not. The arms of the glasses need to comfortably pass over the helmet straps and not contact the helmet in the back. Shoes must fit you well, create no "not spots," and can be tightened without cutting off circulation to the foot. A pair of cycling gloves will prevent sweaty hands that could slip and protect the palms in case of a crash. A bike kit, made out of tough yet breathable lycra, should be well-fitting with no tight spots inhibiting the range of motion or seams that could cause chafing.

Start training

As you may imagine, bike racing, even on the amateur level, requires exceptional overall fitness, including a high level of endurance and strength and an ability to generate explosive power on demand, over and over again. You will also need excellent bike handling skills, sharp enough to pace at 30 mph (48 km/h) inches away from your opponents or teammates. All of the above are gained through time in the saddle.

Your first road race will likely demonstrate how difficult and exhausting they are. It might be the hardest thing you've ever attempted, and this feeling will multiply exponentially if you do not adequately prepare for the race. Beware that there's a significant difference between bike fitness and race shape. While bike fitness is about maintaining a good overall level of health and endurance, race shape is about optimizing all aspects of performance to be at one's best. Countless fit cyclists have walked away from their first race experience humbled. One may argue that it's the way of passage, the moment that makes you realize that you need to train harder and smarter.

Depending on your initial fitness level, getting into race shape may take significant effort and discipline. You will need to develop endurance to sustain prolonged physical efforts, strength, and power necessary for climbing, sprinting, and powerful accelerations, as well as flexibility and core strength, to maintain an aerodynamic position and reduce the risk of injury. You'll also have to amass several technical skills, including mastery in controlling the bike in various conditions, including high-speed descents, tight corners, and group riding. Finally, to be truly successful at racing, you'll have to understand race strategies such as pacing, positioning, and knowing how to read the race -- when to conserve energy and when to attack.

Develop bike handling skills

If you're a novice rider at the beginning of your path toward becoming a racer, developing bike handling skills should be your top priority. Being able to navigate various traffic situations such as avoiding obstacles, negotiating tight spaces, performing emergency braking and reacting quickly to unexpected events on the road can greatly contribute to your safety and the safety of those around you.

Bike handling skills give riders greater control over their bicycles, allowing them to maintain stability at high speeds, maneuver smoothly around corners, and handle different road conditions effectively. As cyclists improve their handling skills, they become more confident on the road, which can enhance their overall riding experience. Confidence leads to better decision-making and a more enjoyable time on the bike. These skills directly impact a rider's performance in competitive racing or recreational cycling. Maintaining optimal positioning, executing precise maneuvers, and reacting swiftly to changes in the terrain and road surfaces give cyclists an edge over the competition.

Unlike power and endurance, the most critical bike handling skills take a relatively short time to develop: all you need is an empty parking lot and a little time. Be sure to wear your safety gear, such as the helmet and gloves as there's a good chance you might take a spill.

The most critical skills:

Riding in a straight line - maintaining a straight line on the road is crucial for avoiding collisions with vehicles, pedestrians, and other cyclists. It helps to maintain a predictable and consistent path, allowing other riders to anticipate your movements. When riding in a group, keeping a straight line is essential for riding safely and efficiently in close proximity to other cyclists. It reduces the risk of collisions and helps the group maintain a cohesive and organized formation.

Riding slow - requires a high level of control and balance, often needed in urban environments and congested areas, such as encounters with slow-moving traffic, pedestrians and other obstacles. When negotiating technical terrain, such as steep inclines and tight switchbacks, it is often necessary to slow down "to a crawl" to pick the best line. In mass start events and large group rides, the first few seconds or even minutes are notoriously slow while the huge peloton is ramping up to speed; putting a foot down could trigger a traffic jam or result in a mass crash.

Cornering at speed - a fundamental skill for road cyclists that requires a fine combination of bike positioning, body position, speed control, and line choice to execute a wide-to-tight-to-wide trajectory that allows the rider to carry more speed and even accelerate through a turn.

Riding no-handed — while not an essential skill, it greatly enhances your overall control and confidence on the bike. This skill translates directly into being able to reach for the water bottle and place it back while riding in a peloton, pull a snack out of the back of your jersey back pocket, or change out of a rain jacket while riding.

Looking behind you - regular shoulder checks help you maintain situational awareness while cycling, even in busy or congested traffic conditions. Looking behind you allows you to monitor approaching vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, or other potential hazards. Before changing lanes or making a turn, it's crucial to check your blind spots behind you to ensure that you're not cutting off other road users or entering a space already occupied by another vehicle or cyclist.

Popping a curb - curbs, potholes, and other road hazards are common obstacles that cyclists encounter. Being able to pop a curb allows cyclists to smoothly navigate these obstacles without slowing down or stopping, maintaining their momentum and speed. It is safer than swerving into traffic or abruptly braking to avoid an obstacle. It saves time and energy compared to dismounting and walking the bike over the obstacle. It allows cyclists to continue riding without interruption, especially in urban environments where curbs are frequent.

Emergency braking - in emergency situations, such as when a vehicle unexpectedly stops or pulls out in front of you, the ability to brake quickly and effectively can prevent accidents and reduce the severity of injuries. In group rides, it is essential for the safety of yourself and others. It allows you to react quickly to sudden changes in speed or direction within the group and avoid causing chain-reaction collisions. Finally, being able to shed speed quickly allows you to ride faster since you can maintain high speeds for longer periods and need less time and distance for braking.

Participate in group rides

If you're just getting started with road riding, joining a local group ride is by far the best thing you can do, right after you develop basic bike handling skills on your own. Group rides are typically divided by ability levels to ensure that riders of similar skills, fitness, and experience can ride together safely and at a comfortable pace. To simplify things, they are usually ranked from hardest to easiest, with A being the hardest and C/D being the easiest. It's recommended you start with the easier C/D ride and work your way up to A. Here are some general stats to help you place yourself into the correct group and manage the expectations of the effort needed to complete the ride.

Beginner / Novice Rides (Group C/D)
Pace: Slow to moderate (10-14 mph or 16-22 km/h)
Distance: Shorter rides, typically 10-20 miles (16-32 km)
Focus: Emphasis on learning basic riding skills, group riding etiquette, and building endurance
Rider Profile: New cyclists or those returning to cycling after a long break

Intermediate / Casual Rides (Group B)
Pace: Moderate (14-18 mph or 22-29 km/h)
Distance: Moderate distances, around 20-40 miles (32-64 km)
Focus: Improving fitness, technique, and group riding skills, some introduction to drafting and pacing
Rider Profile: Cyclists with some experience and a basic level of fitness looking to improve and take on longer rides

Advanced / Fast Rides (Group A)
Pace: Fast (18-22 mph or 29-35 km/h)
Distance: Longer distances, typically 40-60 miles (64-97 km) or more
Focus: High-intensity training, advanced group riding tactics, including drafting, rotating pace lines, and sprinting
Rider Profile: Experienced cyclists with good fitness levels, comfortable riding in a group at high speeds

Expert / Competitive Rides
Pace: Very fast (22+ mph or 35+ km/h)
Distance: Long rides, often 60+ miles (97+ km)
Focus: Race-specific training, simulating race conditions, advanced tactics, and high-intensity intervals
Rider Profile: Competitive cyclists and racers aiming for peak performance

A particular ride may also be categorized as a "no-drop" or "drop." The group stays together on no-drop rides, ensuring no one is left behind. If someone does drop out, there are designated regrouping spots where the group waits for everyone to catch up. Most A and expert rides are drop rides, and those who cannot keep up are left behind. When looking for a ride to join, your best bet would be to ask at your local bike shop, as many organize their own rides. Most areas where cycling is popular have community-organized rides, which often occur on weekdays in the wee hours of the morning and finish early enough to get you home before breakfast. Weekend community rides usually take place at later morning hours and attract a large number of riders. Other places to look for rides are social media as well as apps such as Strava and Chasing Watts.

cyclist in a group ride

Join a cycling club or team

Once you develop the necessary group riding skills and progress to the A group, it might be time for you to throw your name into the hat at a local race. Depending on the strength of the competition and your own preparedness, you may do well or feel unprepared. Regardless of the outcome, if you plan on progressing in the racing circuit, it's highly recommended you join a local cycling club or a race team. Being a member of a cycling club or a team offers numerous benefits that can significantly improve your training and overall race performance.

The most significant advantage of joining a club or a team is the training with experienced coaches who can provide structured training plans tailored to your fitness level and goals. Coaches also help monitor your progress and adjust your training to keep you on the right path to peak performance on race day.

As a member, you can attend regular training sessions, which are member-only group rides often led by coaches or other seasoned riders. These sessions often include practicing individual and team race strategies and tactics, including drafting, attacking, and sprinting. As a team, you'll develop the following techniques:

  • The lead-out train, where teammates take turns at the front to increase speed and position their sprinter for the final dash to the line
  • Chasing down breakaways - the team works together to reel in breakaway riders to ensure the race finishes in a sprint.
  • Protecting the leader - the team shields the leader from the wind and trouble caused by other team riders to ensure he's well-positioned at critical moments in the race.
  • Blocking - if a leader is in a breakaway, the teammates can get to the front of the peloton and purposefully slow it down by "blocking" other riders trying to get to the front and chase the breakaway.
  • Domestiques - team members sacrifice their own chances to support the team leader by setting the pace and providing draft.

As a member of a club or a team, you'll get a chance to train with and observe highly skilled cyclists and improve your riding technique, bike handling skills, and tactical knowledge, which can give you a significant edge in competition. Finally, сlubs often have partnerships with bike shops and equipment suppliers, providing members with discounts on gear and services. They also hold regular bike maintenance workshops, nutrition seminars, and other clinics.

Know what to expect

It is essential to know what you are getting yourself into so you don't get yourself disqualified, don't get hurt, and don't hurt others. Depending on the race you're entering, pre-riding the course may or may not be possible. While pre-riding the course of a Gran Fondo might be ambitious, you can drive the course for most Gran Fondos since they usually run on lesser trafficked public roads, just like most other road races. Criteriums can take place on both public roads, where a few blocks of a city get blocked off from traffic, or large empty parking lots near stadiums or malls. Most organizers open the course for pre-riding and warmup at least an hour before the event, so all you have to do is show up early.

Knowing the rules of the race you are considering entering is imperative. Remember, there are many different genres of road bike racing, and not all the rules transfer from race to race. While most races publish the list of rules in the athlete guide, which is often available online, others have mandatory racer meetings where all the rules are described and discussed in great detail. At many crits, the race organizer goes through the rules right before the race. Even if the racer meeting isn't mandatory, attending it can be tremendously valuable since critical elements, such as course changes or hazards, are called out.

Set goals and track progress

Karl Pearson, a famous mathematician, once said: "That which is measured improves." It can not ring truer when getting ready for a bike race or getting into race shape. A scientific, systematic approach to your progression as a road cyclist and a racer is the best way to ensure your success. Set realistic goals to work toward, such as finishing your first race rather than being on the podium. Set training goals, such as riding a certain number of miles every week or reducing your time on a particular climb. Track your progress as you work to accomplish these goals, as it will provide tangible evidence that you are progressing as a rider. If progression tapers off, it's a sign to reevaluate your training – you might need to increase volume to break through a plateau or back off and dedicate more time to recovery.

Start with local races

When starting anything new, it's best to start small. The same is true for road racing. Local races will allow you to get your feet wet in a more familiar environment with a much more relaxed atmosphere. While local races have a competitive edge, they are a bit more casual, with neighbors racing against neighbors and everyone having a laugh afterward. The less competitive nature of these races is a great way to learn how the racing world works, and the environment is much more welcoming to newcomers. Putting time in at local race series will help you learn from your mistakes in a more forgiving environment and allow you to grow as a racer and advance in categories.

local bicycle race

Your first race

Even at a local level, there could be a lot going on at your first race. Between the excitement, the nerves, and the anticipation leading up to the event, it can be easy to show up, get completely overwhelmed, and perform poorly. Here are some things to remember—a checklist of sorts—as you head into your first road race.

Review the Rules

Make sure you are aware of all the race rules. If you are unclear on anything, don't hesitate to seek clarification with a race official at the packet pickup. It can be easy to hyperfocus on something like securing the race number to the bike or jersey and miss other critical details, such as the racer check-in time and finding yourself disqualified.

Review the Course

If you haven't had the time to pre-ride the course, spend the time studying the map. Checking out the maps will give you a sense of the course you are about to race, and if it is a local race, you may realize that you're familiar with the roads you will be racing on. Connecting to familiar roads can give you an edge because you will know the locations of climbs, corners, descents, imperfect surfaces, or other road hazards and be able to prepare for them.

If you're racing on a new course, try your luck finding videos of the previous year's race on YouTube. For particularly popular races, you may find a virtual course ride-through that will give you a good idea of what to look forward to on the race day.

Finally, don't hesitate to chat with other racers who have competed in years past to find out where those challenges are on the course. Familiarizing yourself with the race course will also help ease the butterflies in your stomach.

Arrive Early

A great way to ensure you won't miss the check-in cutoff time is to arrive early. The last thing you want on the morning of your first race is to be driving nearby streets trying to find a parking spot. From there, everything you need to do to prepare for the race will feel rushed, and, ultimately, you will diminish your experience. You might end up waiting 30 minutes in a porta-potty line.

Instead, give yourself plenty of time before the race. It is important to remember that many of these races are reasonably large, so everything you need to do beforehand might take longer than you expected. Plan on arriving 90 minutes to two hours early. This will give you more than enough time to find parking, check-in and get your race packet, review the rules and ask questions, warm up, eat, pee, check your bike, etc.

Don't Overeat!

Do not "carbo-load." That is an over-exaggerated race-day diet that usually results in racers eating ungodly amounts of food and feeling extremely sick. Instead, eat a typical meal as you would the night before. What you eat and when you eat are very important on race day. Plan on a "big meal" 2-4 hours before your race starts, emphasizing carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein and fat. And, if you are hungry right before the race begins, consider something small that will give you quick energy, such as a bar, sports drink, or a gel.

Warm Up

Obviously, you will want to warm up before you hear the start gun, which is one of the reasons it is so important to arrive early to the race. The type of warmup you do will depend on the kind of race you are participating in. You will want a long, extensive, structured warmup for shorter, more intense races where you will be expected to produce a lot of power from the beginning. If you signed up for a time trial, you will likely see racers spending most of their time on a structured warmup routine, which sometimes takes place on a stationary trainer. For endurance events, such as Gran Fondos and races lasting more than 5 hours, a few laps around the block might be all that's needed, because the beginning of the race itself will act as a warmup.

cyclist warming up

Manage Your Risks

When road racing, you will likely be riding in a large pack of riders, also known as the peloton. This can be pretty nerve-racking, even if you've done it before countless times – instead of teammates you'll be surrounded by fierce competitors, continuously jockeying for position. There is an expected way in which the peloton works, and if you feel like your skills are not up to par or the race is unfolding too aggressively for your comfort, don't hesitate to drop back or pull out of the race entirely. It will be safer for you and the other racers if you wait, gain more experience, and come back with more skills and adjusted expectations.

Keep learning and improving

Don't be too hard on yourself if you struggle; view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Even at a local level, bicycle racing can be highly competitive and jam-packed with seemingly unapproachable type-A personalities. The best way to level the field is to put your ego aside, let yourself be a beginner, and start seeking advice. For example, if you're constantly getting pushed out of the peloton, you may ask your coach or other seasoned riders to practice holding your position in the group. If you feel uneasy with high-speed descents, it might be your body position compromising your stability or a lack of confidence with high-speed braking or cornering – all of these can be practiced. In the long run, staying humble and inviting change will make you a better road racer.

Have fun

Road racing is considered Type 2 fun by most - it's fun to get ready for, miserable when it's happening, and fun again in retrospect. It's a challenging yet rewarding sport that can provide a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie but can become stressful and consuming if taken to the extreme. Regardless of the outcome of your last race or training progress, it always helps to remind yourself that this is a hobby and is supposed to be fun, so if it becomes too much you can always take a break and recalibrate.

Consider insurance

If you choose bicycle racing as your hobby, you must be honest about the risks. The hard truth is the most risk you take on with your bike, or maybe even in your life, is when you race. Racing coverage from a specialty bicycle insurer like Velosurance is an absolute no-brainer because there's no other type of insurance to cover the bike in a race.

cyclist crashed

With bicycle insurance, racing coverage isn't automatic – competitive usage must be selected at the time of purchase or added later when the racing season starts. Your premium will go up a bit, but it will afford you the coverage in the highest-risk category that you can't get anywhere else.

Besides racing coverage, a policy from Velosurance also offers optional medical payments coverage that helps fill the "gap" between what you have to pay before your health insurance starts covering 100%. It is often used to complement existing health insurance policies and can be particularly beneficial for those with high-deductible health plans or limited coverage options. If you have no medical insurance at all, this coverage would act as your primary health insurance up to the amount you selected when purchasing the bike insurance policy.

A bicycle racing insurance policy can be quoted and purchased online in five minutes or less. Our value proposition is based on over a decade of bicycle insurance experience and thousands of covered claims. Have questions? Give us a call, email, or chat with us via our website and see why we are "America's best bicycle insurance."

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