So you want to race road bikes? Below is a beginners step by step guide to navigating the sometimes complicated world of bike racing
Every spring and summer many of us have the same internal conversation with ourselves, “I’d love to get into bike racing, but I don’t know where to start.” You’re a casual bike rider, maybe did a few races in another part of the country and want to get back into the scene, or have been a mountain biker your whole life and want to try something new. So where do you start answering the list of potential questions in this mysterious racing world?
Answers to the most common questions in road bike racing
What type of race should I start with?
Criteriums, Circuit Races, Road Races, Hill Climbs, Time-Trials – what’s is all mean? Criteriums are like the Indy Car world of cycling. It’s a fast loop course under 2 miles in length and usually filled with lots of corners and crashes (not the place to dip your toe in). Circuit races (Loop course between 2-6 miles in length) that have dirt sections (ie. Koppenberg or Buff Gold) should also be avoided at first. 100% paved road races like Morgul Bismark and OZ Road Race are great places to start. These courses are point to point or loops over 6 miles in length and feature a safe environment for your first experience. Shorter hill climbs (eg. Guanella Hill Climb), because of the lower speeds going vertical, are also a highly recommended entry into the sport. You’ll quickly find that each type of race is a unique branch of the sport. In time you’ll discover what suites your style of riding best.
What’s a USAC License and do I need it? USAC is short for USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body that makes all the rules and insures the events. The short answer is that for your first ever race you can buy a one-day license for $10. This one—day purchase is essentially your insurance for the event. As long as you continue to race in the beginner category (more on that later) you can keep buying a one-day license. At some point though you’re going to go “I love racing” and that’s when you’ll want to buy an annual standard license for $50 (Category 5). If you get faster and want to upgrade into a non-beginner category (Category 4 and higher) that’s when you’ll need to pull the $100 trigger on the premium license.
What’s a BRAC Membership and do I need it? BRAC is the local governing body. Think of USA Cycling as the federal government, while BRAC would be your local state government that reports to the white house. When you buy a one-day USAC license for $10 there’s no need to buy a BRAC membership and there’s no extra fees. It’s the state government’s way of saying “welcome to bike racing”. Once you buy that annual USA Cycling license for $70 that’s when you’ll need to make a choice regarding your BRAC Membership. The state government (BRAC) has rules and fees to play by as well. If you only race 4 times a year then you can simply pay the $5 one-day BRAC membership fee. If you race more than 4x and want to receive the local newsletter, plus be ranked in the Colorado Cup Rankings (ie. series long point competition) then it’s recommended to spend $25 on a membership.
What’s this complicated coding system of numbers and letters like SM5 or MM40+ mean to me? Reading Latin or the Russian alphabet is easier to decipher than the USA Cycling category system. They should give you a Rosetta stone when you buy a license. Here’s what you need to know as a beginner. For men trying out your first race you’ll start in SM5 if you’re under 40 years old, or MM40+cat5 if you’re 40 and over. If there’s no MM40+cat5 then SM5 is your default beginner’s category. For women your default beginner’s category is SW4. We know there’s some age categories like MW40+, but we only recommend starting in the MW50+ if you’re over 50 years old, or MW60+ if you’re over 60 years old. When in doubt don’t worry about the age categories and just start in the SM5 group for men and SW4 group for women.
Do I need to join a club/team: No: there is no pressure in your first year to join a club. Get to know the scene and you’ll quickly start mingling with a group of guys or girls who will invite you on training rides. Before you know it you’ll be on a club by default. Cycling teams are like the Greek system, there’s some really welcoming and fun groups and some super entitled and douche teams out there. There’s a home for everyone. Don’t make the mistake by trying to join one too quickly.
Do I need to buy a bike that’s worth more than my car? If you think equipment makes the rider than by all means, but we’ve seen plenty of riders start on a $500-$1,000 craigslist purchase and have a blast. Please purchase a new helmet and just be comfortable on your bike, but DON’T be intimidated by all the flashy carbon rolling around. Junior parents this applies to you as well. We’ve seen numerous juniors on inexpensive equipment compete at the national level.
The first step: Take a looks at the calendar on our home page and pick out an event that looks like fun. As we stated before we’d recommend a circuit or road race, not the black circle of death known as criteriums. If you have questions don’t be afraid to reach out to the race director of that event. Racing, even with this guide, is a confusing world at first, and each race director is more than happy to help you navigate it. Then just sign up and jump in! You have nothing to lose, and we promise those nerves at the starting line are a good thing.
Advice for parents of juniors looking to start racing on the road by Ainslie Maceachran
Keep it fun. Over the years I’ve seen lots of promising young talent come and go from the sport because their parents were a little TOO involved. Let your child dictate the level of involvement they’d like to have.
Participate in your local grass roots cycling. In Ft Collins, we have a local organization that puts on mid-week, fun, low key events where kids race for free. They range from a criterium to time trials to short track mountain bike racing. These are not only fun but they help your child to meet like minded peers. They also, quite often, help locate resources such as equipment, rides to events, coaching etc.
Don’t buy new. It IS nice to have the latest equipment but, because your child is growing rapidly and their interest could change, talk to your local bike shop about used equipment. Get them something that will do the job but you don’t have to take a 2nd mortgage on your house to afford. It should however be a quality piece of equipment. Avoid department store bikes at all turns.
Get involved. Try to volunteer where you can. Become a mentor or coach. Help organize events. Your interest in their sport will demonstrate to them that you support their efforts.