So you want to race: What to expect at your first bike race

This post is somewhat inspired by another rather long and tedious thread under the racing topic. If you’re dipping your toe into racing for the first time, I’d recommend taking the time to read this.

So you’ve decided that you want to race. Awesome! I’m legitimately stoked for you, and I want you to have a good time, so let’s discuss how you can prepare, and what you should expect from the event.
Note: This is focused on racing in the U.S.

Before we get started, some background on me: I’ve been racing for over a decade now, and have made my way through the ranks in the U.S. to Cat 2. I’m currently working towards my 1 upgrade and trying to compete on the national level. I like to think that between my experiences in racing, coaching, and just being in the sport for this long, that I have a pretty decent idea of the ins and outs.

How to prepare

I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about training here, because the truth is that it more than likely won’t matter. You should have some semblance of familiarity with high intensity efforts and riding in a group, the latter being the more important of the two. If you’re completing TR plans, you’re probably on the right track, but fitness isn’t really what’s going to be the biggest issue in your first race.

  1. Your bike and equipment: Make sure it’s in good working order! Give everything a once over; are your tires good? Brake pads? Does it shift cleanly? Are there any items with wear that should be replaced? The same can be said for your other equipment, your helmet, shoes/cleats, glasses, etc… Having equipment in good working order is important for your performance, as well as your peace of mind, and safety of yourself and others in the race. Please look it over!

  2. Know what you signed up for! If you signed up for a crit, as a beginner, it’s probably going to be relatively short, more than likely under 40 minutes. A road race is going to be longer, but distance wise, will still be relatively short compared to the other races of the day. This will help you know what you need to bring to be prepared for the event. You can also look over the course profile, see if there are any significant features to be aware of, and if needed, you can load the route onto your computer.

  3. Speaking of being prepared, I always recommend having everything ready to go and taken care of the day before the race. This allows you to take your time and work through a checklist to make sure you have everything you need for your race. Here’s the rough list that I go off of when packing my race bag:

    Depending on your event, you’ll have to decide how much water and food to bring, I also recommend considering how much time you’re spending at the event, because that will change how much you should bring.

    After I’ve finished packing everything up, I will usually load my bag and bike into my car so that it’s completely ready and all I have to do is get in and head to the event. No worries about, “am I missing this,” or last minute panics about not having a certain item.

  4. Be aware of the time your event starts, and plan accordingly. If your race starts at 11 am, you’re going to want to be there at the very least about an hour prior. This will allow you to check in, get your number, get dressed, and warm up for your event. In the pre-covid era, I always arrived about 1.5 - 2 hours early, because the social aspect of racing was a huge part for me. Knowing yourself and how long you need to be ready to race is a big factor.

    The easiest way (for me) to calculate when to leave for a race is to work backwards from your event’s start time. If the race is at 11 am, I know I need an hour to prepare, and if it takes me about an hour to get there, then I should be leaving my house no later than 9 am; even earlier if I need to make any stops or pick anyone up.

Ok! The day has arrived! You were packed up yesterday, you’ve arrived on time, now what?

What to expect at the event

  1. Depending on the size of the event, you may have pre-registered online. If you did, awesome, registration is super easy. Sometimes registration is a folding table in the middle of a parking lot, sometimes it’s inside a building and is a well-oiled machine. Either way, check in and get your number by showing your race license and confirming your name.

    If you didn’t pre-register, you’ll have to fill out some day-of paperwork, then pay (cash almost always, sometimes checks). Since you’re day-of registering, there may be a higher price than if you had pre-reg’d. Once that’s taken care of you’ll get your number and be good to go.

    Make sure that once you’ve got your number, you know which side it needs to be placed on. The officials will also tell you that you shouldn’t fold, cut, or crumple your number, under threat of DQ or relegation. I will tell you that I have crumpled every number I have ever gotten and have never been penalized for it. Chastised, yes, but never any punishment (I do it because it’s something the guy that introduced me to racing did for me, I don’t actually know if it helps).

  2. The size of the event will also determine the fanfare that comes along with it. If this is an industrial park crit, expect to see a couple of team tents, maybe. If it’s a bigger event, like Tulsa Tough, Intelligentsia, etc… You’ll have vendors, sponsors, announcers, and the like throughout the event area. Those events are the outliers through, the most common event is really barebones, has volunteers running most things, and is set up and torn down rather quickly and without any big hullabaloo.

  3. Now that you’ve pinned on your number and gotten dressed, it’s time for you to warm up, so do whatever suits you for warming up, but make sure that you’re finished with about 5-10 minutes before your race begins. The earlier you can arrive at the start line for your race, the better (within reason). You want to be near the front of the group when you start, because the further back you are, the harder the race start is going to be.

  4. When the race starts, it will be harder than you’re anticipating. No, harder than what you’re thinking right now. I promise. If it’s a crit, it will very likely feel like you’re dying for the first lap. In a road race things might calm down after the first few miles, depending on the peloton and the course. Just keep pedaling and keep your front wheel out of trouble, if you can hang on the first few laps, chances are you’ll finish with the group.

  5. Your #1 goal for your first race should always be to finish without incident. If you finish with the group, awesome! If you feel good enough and are in a good enough position to contest the finish, even better! Just focus on keeping yourself in the group and in a safe position. That doesn’t mean that you’re hovering off the back of the group, but just that you’re riding in the group predictably and not making wild moves that will cause issues with other riders. Also: if you feel like you’re about to get dropped, just push for a little bit longer than you think you can, and chances are the group will slow down and you’ll be able to recover a bit.

  6. If you do get dropped, keep riding! In a crit, if they need to, the officials will pull you from the race if they deem it necessary. They try to give riders as much time racing as possible, but sometimes they need to pull dropped riders for safety. In a road race, you likely will be allowed to keep riding until you’ve finished your laps, but that’s up to you. Either way if you don’t finish with the group, unless the officials were doing a good job of keeping track of positions, you’ll be marked as DNF (did not finish). It’s not a big deal, you didn’t crash, you got to race, and you gained a bunch of experience that you can apply to your next race.

So you made it through your first race. You’re gasping for air in the patch of grass next to the finish line, your adrenaline is pumping, and you can’t wait for the next one. Or you’re wondering why the hell people do this, you were only “racing” for 10 minutes and you can’t figure out what went wrong.

What do you do moving forward?

  1. If you had a blast and you’re hooked, I’m excited to welcome you to the sport. Keep showing up and racing, you’ll get your teeth kicked in some more, but I promise, eventually things will start to make sense and you’ll start to actually feel like you know what’s going on.

    If you’re still wondering why you wasted your time, I’d encourage you to try another event. You’ve gotten the first one out of the way, you now know what to expect when the whistle blows and the wheels start moving. If you get through another one and decide it still isn’t for you, don’t feel bad! It could be a risk factor thing, it could be an unwillingness to put forth the time and commitment to training for races such as these, it could just be that you don’t vibe with it, that’s fine, but at least you gave it an honest effort and can look back at it knowing that you gave it a shot.

  2. If you’ve decided to keep racing, start to integrate yourself into the racing community! I know that higher category riders can seem intimidating sometimes, but I promise we love talking about racing and are more than likely happy to help newer racers get accustomed to the intricacies of the sport.

    See if you can find a team! Or if you’re on a team, start to get to know your teammates better! Ride with them as often as you can, go out to eat with them, hang out off the bike. The more comfortable you are with your teammates, the better and more comfortable you’ll feel when racing with them. It’s a magical thing when you and your teammate know what each other will do, or where you both are in a race without having to put much thought into it.

I hope this helps! I really really love this sport, and whenever someone wants to get into it or know more about it, I’m always more than happy to help them and give them knowledge and experience.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

51 Likes

Thanks for writing this up.

1 Like

For sure! Like I said, I love welcoming new racers to the sport and want to share my knowledge!

2 Likes

I feel I should share my first race experience because the above quoted statement is loaded with dissonance for me and I’m sure many other first time riders.

My first race was the Half Acre Skyway Classic, a beginner’s criterium in Chicago that I’m sure OP is quite familiar with. This race is designed for people who had not raced before or who had raced rather infrequently and were looking to get some upgrade points to reach Cat 4 quickly in the season (6 races over three days). I actually met one of OP’s Cat 5 team mates at this race and the two of us still ride all the time together and keep each other honest about our training years later!

Back to the race experience. I had been riding for around 3 years at the time and had just come off my first training plan. My FTP was 203 at around 145 lbs (~3 w/kg). I was riding an entry level carbon Trek Domane with 105. I was good for the first two laps or so. Kept myself safe and stuck to the wheels to save energy, but by lap three I started to lose the front group. I tried to push and keep up, but I simply could not. I did not have the power to stay with the group, no matter how sheltered I tried to make myself. I ended up falling back and riding with two other guys for the whole race. I attempted to bridge us all back to the group at one point, but they all lost my wheel and I was left in no man’s land.

In the end, I averaged 201 watts for 30 minutes, so the race was bang on my threshold at the time. And guess what? I was elated! I had so much damn fun. I finished 19th out or 36, met some incredible people, and rode the high of my first race for the rest of the week. I say all of this for the riders who are looking to ride their first ever race because fitness definitely plays a part in racing and it was a big factor in my first race to stay with the front group. BUT it did not impact my overall enjoyment of the race.

@TheCyclissimo is right that you do not have to have great fitness to race. It’s more important to just get out there and feel what it is like to be in the pack, to hold wheels, to take corners at speed, etc. I share my experience to let you know that it is very likely you will be humbled by your first several race experiences. It is likely that fitness will feel like a limiter, and it very well may be your limiter. But that is 100% OK! It’s the first time you’re racing so you are unlikely to be a savant or racing god.

Instead, focus on enjoying the experience, riding that race high, and learning how you can improve the skills OP mentioned.

6 Likes

:pensive:

I never got to race these as I was a 3 when I found out about them. I’ve heard they’re a great training experience though!

Also weird that I’m pretty sure we’ve met IRL through me ordering at CH but never interacted on the bike.

To expand on your point of riders getting dropped because of their theshold/fitness level: It’s more than likely that any one rider has plenty of watts to stay with the group, it’s a matter of using that power when needed, and conserving energy at all other points. This is something that new racers are typically atrocious at.

Sticking on a wheel, not putting your nose out in the wind, floating through the field in the corners, etc… all of those are skills you’ll develop as you race more, but aren’t something that come intuitively when you’re hanging on for dear life and bleeding out of your ears on the back of the group.

1 Like

Yeah this is why it creates so much dissonance. Riders with strong fitness levels who can hang with their group rides may get blown out the back in their first race because it is such a different experience. That’s where that dissonance was found for me as well because it made my fitness feel like the primary limiter. It certainly plays a part, but there is just so much more to it than that. Just like everything else with bikes there are a lot of variables at play.

As for meeting, I think you’re probably right. I joined my buddy at one of the Intent rides a couple of years ago, but I got dropped from the front group real fast since we rode to the start from Barrington just under my FTP the whole way. I bonked hard on the way back home. I remember some of those roads being utterly terribly kept though. So many spot pothole repairs that it was more repair than road. Hopefully they’ve just repaved some segments now.

In any case, perhaps we’ll meet at Intelligentsia this year if you’re riding there. I’m eagerly awaiting the course list order so I can plan more effectively.

Thanks for the tips. I’m actually in the chicago area as well and will be racing fir the first time this season.
I signed up for the Muskegon crit this weekend and am planning on doing intelligentsia as well. I’ve been searching for crit and road races in between and throughout the season.
Any leads?

1 Like

Muskego is a great course…but it is more of a circuit race than a crit. Really only one turn, at the bottom of the descent (assuming they run it clockwise). Long, uphill drag to the finish line. Make sure you stay on wheels coming down the descent because deceptive gaps can open there which get worse coming though the turn at the bottom.

This is a common mistake with beginning racers…the reality is that once you are off the back, there is little chance you are bridging back up (unless the gap just opened and you can do a quick acceleration to get back on).

But if you have been off the back for a bit, the pack is gone and you’ll never catch back on. But new racers try all the time and only blow themselves up. You are better off settling into a hard, but sustainable, rythym that you can take to the finish.

I just took a longer pull because part of the main group had splintered and fallen off as well, so I was trying to bridge us to that group of folks to increase the size of our group. They were only about a quarter lap or half lap away, so when I got to the front, I started pulling at 210-220 and kept it steady for the lap and was closing distance, but none of them could stay with me.

I knew it wasn’t going to get me back into contention by any means, but I came to race and saw an opportunity worth exploring and went for it. That’s kinda the whole point and is also a lot of what makes racing fun. You’re failing forward in most cases, and I wouldn’t want to discourage exploration of tactics for someone just starting out racing. There’s no better teacher than failure.

2 Likes

I may be there this weekend, if you see me, stop by and say hi!

As far as looking for other races in the area, ToAD in Wisconsin seems like it’s a go, but things are still iffy for more local events, check on BikeReg and keep an ear to the ground for other events, they’ve slowly begun to pop up here and there.

1 Like

One that I’m really eager to see return are the LaBagh Woods practice crits. It’s the only weekly crit series I’m aware of in the area, and you can race twice each evening, and they are USAC sanctioned. I believe XXX Racing is the team that hosts those crits. I inquired if they would be returning but didn’t get an answer back.

Otherwise, like @TheCyclissimo said, just keep refreshing BikeReg because they’re starting to pop up again.