Getting started with racing

I’ve gotten a few questions regarding racing, so I figured I’d write down a few things I’ve discovered. First, this is far from compete — I’ve only been doing this a few months, and just have a few races under my belt. That being said, it’s a blast, and this might help folks who are interested in it.

Racing Season
I’ll start with a bit on the calendar. Racing season is from April through September, i.e. when it’s mostly sunny. There are a few “sub” seasons within that — road races (usually a few laps around a long course) tend to be early in the season, crits (criterions, which are many laps around a very short course) in the middle, and stage races / omniums are towards the end. Training season, a.k.a. the off-season, is from October through March. Training season is important, because before starting to race, a racer needs to be able to do a couple things:

  1. Work together with cyclists;
  2. Ride safely in a pack;
  3. Be able to pedal using your big chain ring for 2-3 hours

While it’s possible to jump in without going through a training season, I wouldn’t recommend it. If a racer can’t keep up, or can’t work with a pack, then the peleton will just drop that racer quickly and efficiently.

Race Teams
Most racers are part of a racing team. Teams do a number of things that are critically important to learning how to race. The first is that teams provide the skills to work with other cyclists and ride in the peleton. Second, teams provide a support system for a race. While everyone is in competition during a race, race teams cooperate among themselves to try and get favorable outcomes for more of the team members.

So how does one join a race team? Well, starting in September, teams (at least in the Seattle area) have “meet the team” rides, usually on Saturday or Sunday mornings. In the Seattle area, there are a number of teams. In particular, there are a couple of big ones that have people of all levels; I’d recommend for new racers to join one of the bigger ones that has the experience. There’s the team I joined, Union Bay Cycling / Wines of Washington. There’s also (in no particular order) Seattle Super Squadra / Zoka Coffee, Jet City Velo / Byrne Invent, Avanti Racing / TiCycles, Pazzo Velo / First Rate Mortgage, and Lake Washington Velo / Hagens Berman Cycling. For women, there’s also Sound Velo / Team Group Health and Starbucks Cycling. There’s not a whole lot involved in joining… just go on the meet the team rides, make some friends, and join the team that seems to fit.

Cost and Gear
Racing isn’t just about training. Turns out a fair amount of gear is needed. There’s proper clothing for winter (rain) riding, team kits (jerseys, shorts, arm and leg warmers, jackets, etc.). Oh, and there’s typically a dedicated race bike vs the standard touring / commuter. Rear racks, fenders, lights, and so on are just added weight and drag, and it turns out commuting on a race bike tends to be a bit of a pain. Plus, gear for racing tends to wear much faster than regular gear. Rather than thick kevlar tires for commuting, racers use slick tires — better traction, less rolling resistance, but faster wear.

Building Skills
OK, so having joined a team, now what? Well, invariably there are weekly team rides, where Cat 5 men and Cat 4 women (rookies!) build on their endurance riding and learn to ride in close proximity with other riders — riding two abreast, rotating pacelines, eschelon, and semi-organized pack riding. In addition, there’s also a fair amount of non-team riding and training, such as straightforward weight lifting, that needs to be done. It’s a decent time commitment, but hey — the other people are putting in their time too. How much time? It depends, but expect at least an hour a day for four days a week, excluding the weekly long ride.

Racing is actually very unlike training… and the only way to really figure it out is to actually race. It’s shorter duration, but there aren’t any stops along the way. Training was spent spinning at about 90 RPM, usually in the smaller front chain ring. Racing is spent pushing that big gear. Training along roads means frequent slow-downs… people stop for stop signs, lights, and so on. Gaps between you and the bike in front of you are easily closed. In a race… too big of a gap, and you’re out of the race.

and then…
Well, I’m not fully sure what comes next. But zipping along at 30-40 MPH with 30-60 friends is a rush like nothing else!

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