All of you experienced racers can stop here. This is strictly for the beginners.
This is also an article which applies more to road racing than to track, but I find that many young track riders also want to race on the road. Some come to the track before they have ever done a road race, so they need a little help knowing how to get started.
First season racing? Here are some thoughts. If you have friends who race they can tell you much more. I’m just trying to cover some of the things a true beginner might need to find out. Of course nothing here replaces a careful reading of the rule book. There is also nothing here about tactics, training, or how to win. This is just the basics of participating in a race. I intended this to be a short list, but there really is quite a bit to know, so the article grew. Don’t be discouraged - most of this will quickly become automatic for you.
- Choose your races. Read the race announcements to see what categories are offered. There are at least three things you may find.
- Junior Races matching your age group. If your age group (typically 10-12, 13-14, 15-16, or 17-18) has a separate race, that’s the best choice, especially for beginners in the younger groups. The race will be slower and the field is often smaller so you don’t have to deal with a big pack in your first race.
- Junior races combining all age groups (or a wide range). These races rarely have a well-defined pack. Smaller riders will quicky get lapped as the older riders blast around the course. This is okay if the field size isn’t too big, but if you are small and slow be ready to hold a steady line and pace when the big kids come around. Don’t dodge around to get our of their way. Just be smooth and predictable.
- Adult “elite” races. “Elite” is a term apparently chosen to demonstrate a lack of literacy at USA Cycling. Any adult who walks up with 10 dollars can be elite for a day. More to the point, these races are also open to juniors, and sometimes they are a good choice. I don’t normally recommend these races for brand new junior racers because of the large pack sizes. On the other hand, if you don’t have junior races in your area this may be your only choice. It’s also a good place to get extra racing experience if you have the energy to do both a junior race and an elite race in the same day. Are you ready? Find an adult racer (or better, a club full of them) who can ride with you on a non-racing day. They will be able to help you decide if you are ready for an adult pack. If you are a 15-16 or 17-18 racer, you may find that the Cat 4 and Cat 5 packs are actually slower than the juniors you would be racing against. In this case, it can actually be easier to “ride up” with the adults.
- Get a License. If you will be racing more than three times this year, it’s cheaper to get an annual license. Otherwise, you can usually buy a one-day license when you register. It’s up to $10 this year, so there’s even more reason to get an annual license. An annual license also makes registration easier since you don’t have to fill out a new one-day form every time, and there are some other benefits.
- Take a Parent. Local details may vary, but in general you will need to have a parent or guardian sign a release form for each race. If you are riding to the race with friends, get the release form signed in advance and take it with you.
- Be early. A 9 AM race does not mean that you arrive at 8:50 and hang around until everyone feels like starting at 9:20. Most well-run races start promptly, unless there is a real problem. Arrive in time to register (do it in advance if you can - many races have online registration now). Even if you pre-register, you probably still need to pick up your race number and pin it on. At some venues it will take extra minutes to find registration, the start line, and the porta-potties (where there can be long lines). Finally, you need time to warm up and get back to the start line.
- Be equipped. This doesn’t mean that you need expensive pro-quality gear. It does mean that everything should be adjusted and in good condition well before race day. Changes made the night before a race are a notorious source of problems. Don’t forget a pump and tire repair stuff, or spare wheels if there are some around your house. You don’t want to get there, register, and then miss your race due to a flat. For important races or those involving a lot of travelling, you should have more spare parts and tools. Ask a local racer or do some reading.
- But not too equipped. You will be expected to remove your pump and tool bag for criteriums, but not for some road races where you might have to fix your own flat. No aero bars are allowed, except in time trials. Don’t buy (and especially don’t borrow) fancy equipment you can’t afford to damage. Crashes do happen.
- Be ready for gear limits. Juniors are subject to gear limits. You cannot race with a gear higher than the rule allows. Note: the following examples are given for easy reference, but the actual rules are based on rolling distance per crank revolution, not on gear teeth. You should read the rule book and check the measurements yourself. With 700c wheels and typical tires, 52×14 will be okay for all junior road races. On the track, limits vary with age: 48×17 up to age 12, 48×16 for 13-14 , 48×15 for 15-16, and no limits for 17-18 juniors. Remember that tire size is a factor - check the actual rollout distance, especially if you have unusually large or small tires. If you are entering a road race and your highest gear is more than 52×14, you will have to “block out” some cogs in the back by adjusting your derailleur so that it won’t shift to any disallowed gears. Don’t leave this until just before the race - you will have other things to do. Be aware that most races will require juniors to attend “roll out” to check their gearing before each race, and often afterwards as well. Check when you register, and if you don’t hear an announcement when it’s time to roll out, ask.
- Dress wisely. You should strive to be warm, but not hot. At spring races in most climates, you’ll probably want to have arm warmers and leg warmers or tights. Avoid sweats and loose jackets if you can - they catch a lot of air and slow you down - just use more layers of t-shirts or jerseys. One more thing - don’t wear the uniform of a team you don’t belong to. Leave that U.S. Postal jersey at home. Just wear a plain jersey or even a t-shirt unless you actually belong to a team.
- Warm up.You may be shocked to see how hard riders warm up for races. Your body will work better if you allow for a gradual warmup of 30 to 60 minutes, with a few really hard efforts. A wind trainer or rollers work best, because many races don’t have safe warmup roads nearby. Even otherwise good roads may be closed to you due to traffic control or other race arrangements.
- Know the rules.The USCF rules are referenced below. You also need to read the race announcement for any special conditions. For example, some races are on open roads where it is against the rules (and good sense) to swing out into the oncoming lane. Others are on closed roads where using all the lanes is expected.
- Listen to the starter. Often the race officials will say things you need to know. Sometimes rules are modified or a special hazard is mentioned. Listen up and move away from anyone talking loudly enough to keep you from hearing.
- Expect anything. Most club rides, even with racers, are much steadier than a race. Juniors especially tend to start races very fast, so don’t be shocked when they blast away from the start line. If you can stay with them for a couple of laps, you will find that the pace drops a bit. In all races there will be sudden surges of speed and sometimes sudden slowdowns. This is all part of the way riders try to tire each other out or escape from the pack. If there is a crash, don’t overreact. Brake if you need to, but don’t swerve to the side and cause another crash behind you. A crash does not usually cause a race to stop. Keep going unless it’s unsafe or the officials stop the race.
- Know when to quit. Normally, it’s best to finish your races. Most coaches feel that it’s good physically and mentally to stick with it and finish, even if you are out of contention. In most races, you do NOT need to drop out if you get lapped, and you can even ride with the pack again (but read your rule book for things you can’t do once you are lapped). On the other hand, if you become really weak or an official tells you to stop, do so at the first safe opportunity. Don’t swerve to the side, because a rider may be passing, but get off the road when you can. Never ride a course backwards to get back to the start. Ride forwards or find a way to stay off the course.
- Don’t run off. After any race it takes the officials a while to write down the finish order, and they may need to consult a video of the finish. Then placings are posted and there is a 15-minute period during which riders may protest the results. Even if you didn’t place highly, you should check the results in case there’s a big error or you have been omitted entirely (except in some races, which only list a limited number of top finishers). If your placing is wrong, politely make your protest. Mistakes are common with a few (often unpaid) officials trying to spot dozens of riders. It’s especially tough when there are multiple packs on the course at once, or when lapped riders are mixed in. Tell the official what you think is wrong, be available to help if they want to ask questions, and accept the result. Be patient - there is no time limit on how long they can take to answer the protests, and the judge or referee many be busy with other races. Don’t be too shocked if there are errors you can’t get corrected. There’s just not always enough time and information to straighten everything out, and you’ll probably get fair placings on average.
- Cool down.You will be tired after a race, and maybe excited to talk about it with your friends. Instead of standing around or collapsing on the ground, take an easy ride or a spin on your trainer. Your legs will thank you tomorrow, and you can always invite your friends to cool down with you.
- Join a Team! Enjoy racing? Wish you were better prepared? If you are on an active team you will learn a lot more than I can tell you here. Look around and ask questions. Some teams only want dedicated racers with proven results. Some teams are very casual. Some specialize in old, young, male, or female riders. Find a group you can enjoy and learn from.
Racing age: your age at the end of the current year. For example, if you are 11, but you turn 12 in November, your racing age is 12 all year.
Rulebooks: You should be familiar with the USA Cycling and USCF rulebooks for road and track racing. Those and the books for other areas of cycling are available from this USA Cycling page.
For every item on the list, there is more to learn, and rules and conventions vary from one region to another. The information here should be enough to get you into your first race without too many surprises, but you will continue to learn. Watch other riders. Ask questions. Find a team and/or a coach. Read books. [Internet kids: there are still public libraries! They are generally free, and there is good stuff there. The card catalog (that’s how you look up books) may even be online.]