How to prepare for your first road race: a beginner's guide
Want to pin on a number for the first time? Here's how to get started in the world of bike racing
Has the success of Chris Froome, the Yates twins, Geraint Thomas and co tempted you to pin on a number and race?
With the arrival of summer, the amateur racing season is in full swing and many riders who have caught the competitive bug will be keen to make the switch from sportive or club rider to racer.
But where to start? First, the basics. Time trialing aside, racing is typically made up of two disciplines: circuit races (criteriums) and road races. Criteriums typically take place on closed circuits such as Hillingdon or Hog Hill in London and are fast, frantic affairs which last approximately an hour. Road races, on the other hand, are held on open roads, normally with the support of National Escort Group (NEG) outriders on motorbikes to control traffic. Road races tend to take place on a lapped course over a number of hours (typically around three hours).
Races are classified according to ability and all new racers start as a fourth category rider having signed up for a British Cycling racing licence. Riders then accrue points based on finishing positions in races to move through the ranks (fourth, third, second, first categories and elite). Ten points are required to move from fourth cat to third cat, for example. Some events allow riders to buy a day licence in order to race, but you won't be eligible for points.
Interested? The route from the club run, to sportives, to racing is well-trodden but how do you best prepare for your first time in the bunch? We caught up with cycling coach James Spragg to find out how to train for your first race.
The foundations for form are laid in the winter, according to Spragg, or at least after a period of base training, where long, steady rides are used to build aerobic efficiency. The same principle applies whether preparing for a long sportive or road race.
"Base training is when you lay the foundation for your aerobic efficiency on the bike," says Spragg. "Everything is built upon that - without being efficient aerobically, you're always going to struggle later on. If you're not aerobically efficient, then your threshold might not be high enough, which means you're going to be dropped on the climb on race day.
"Think it like a pyramid. If your aerobic efficiency is the base of the pyramid, then the bigger the base the higher the form peak can go. Everything's built on those foundations and it's a really important part of training."
Keep it steady
Base training typically takes place in training zones two and three, or between approximately 60 or 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate, and while riding slowly to race fast can feel counter-productive, Spragg says it will pay off in the long run.
"A lot of people train too hard, especially early in the year, and they're putting in too much fatigue at an early level, so by the time they hit the start of the season they're already plateauing because their fatigue levels are too high and they can't improve without having a rest," he says.
"It's important to lay that base but it's also important to lay that base without putting too much fatigue into the system."
Having undertaken a period of base training to establish the aerobic foundation for success, Spragg says it's then time to up the ante to build form and prepare for the intensity a race will put a rider under.
Let's face it, your first race is likely to be a shock to the system and the key, Spragg says, is in preparing your body not only for the intensity of riding at race-pace, but for the constant accelerations that are required to stay with the bunch, whether sprinting out of every corner in a criterium, moving around a rider in the bunch, or attacking the brow of a hill in a road race.
Spragg recommends using the final few weeks in the build-up to your first race to work on your FTP or Functional Threshold Power - the maximum power or, more likely for those new to racing, heart rate you can sustain for an hour.
"Unlike a time trial when you can ride at an even pace, you won't be racing consistently at one power or heart rate," says Spragg. "There will be a lot of peaks and troughs with every acceleration in the bunch.
"If you think of your FTP as a capacity to do a certain amount of work in an hour, all your peaks and troughs are going to add up to a normalised (average) power or heart rate of around threshold, so the higher your threshold, the more peaks and troughs you can put into that race, and the higher those peaks can be. The last few weeks of training are used to prepare your body for the sporadic nature of racing and the efforts involved."
Spragg recommends matching your efforts in training to those that will be required to make in a race. As a result, a crit rider should work on there explosive power.
"A crit is like a series of sprints for an hour," says Spragg, "so your 100th sprint needs to be as strong as your first." On the other hand, a rider doing a hillier road race should place more emphasis on working at threshold power or heart rate. "You might be going up a climb for ten minutes on every lap," he says.
Anaerobic and VO2 Max training sessions
Spragg highlights two of his favourite training sessions used to replicate race-pace efforts and raise the body's capacity to execute them.
"I like doing an anaerobic session," he says. "With a 15-second sprint and 15 second-recovery, 30-second sprint and 30-second recovery, 45-second sprint and 45-second recovery, one minute sprint and one minute recovery, 90-second sprint and 90-second recovery, and two-minute sprint and two-minute recovery. That's a really anaerobic session, which is good for sprinting out of corners, or attacking small climbs at the end of a race.
"You can also do a VO2 Max session where you do efforts of anything up to five minutes working above threshold power. You can also mix and match and do a session which replicates an attack in a race. Do a hard attack effort for 30 seconds, then hold threshold for two or three minutes, then do another two or three minutes in zone five, which is above threshold (VO2 Max) and you're getting an all-round workout in one session."
Spragg recommends using both the turbo trainer and open road to perform such sessions. "It's very controllable on the turbo," he says, "and if you're doing a threshold session then you have the numbers right in front of you. If you're short of time then it's an efficient way to train.
"But any standing efforts - climbing out of the saddle or sprinting, for example - are easier do that on the road because of the natural movement between body and bike. There are obvious benefits to doing specific efforts on the turbo but you need to do some quality sessions on the road as well."
The peloton, with its shaven legs, expensive bikes and power meters, can be an intimidating place. It needn't be - anyone can turn up and race - and there are steps you can take to prepare for the hustle and bustle of the bunch.
"You need to be safe riding in a bunch. You need to be fairly confident and competent in terms of bike handling," says Spragg, who recommends joining your local club run - read our advice here - and chaingang to gain experience of riding in a tight group. "You wouldn't go down the motorway on your first driving lesson," he says.
Races are often won not by the strongest rider, but the cleverest rider, and there's a lot to learn for those new to the peloton, according to Spragg.
"Keep your eyes open as much as possible as to what's going on and the bigger picture," he says. "It's no good just staring at the hub in front of you as you're not going to learn. Try not to get overawed by everything that's going on."
Spragg says the best position in the bunch is about a quarter of the way back from the front. "You can see what's going on in front of you, but you haven't got your nose in the wind," he adds. "Try and get to the front and see what's going on up there. See what the wind is doing or think about what the course is doing to the bunch. Try getting to the front before a climb so you've got some slipping room through the bunch. Try and see the bigger picture."
That's easier said than done for a new rider, he admits, but those caught at the back of the bunch are more likely to waste energy. "If you sit too far back, then when you come out of a corner there's an accordion effect," he explains. "The guys at the back are going much harder, for much longer, than the guys at the front. In your first race, chances are you won't have the same race fitness as the others who have built it up over the years, so you don't want to give them that advantage of you having to go harder."
Spragg admits the best way to learn is through experience, but there's also plenty of common sense involved. "It's obvious - if you sit down and think about it - that it's not a good idea to attack into a block headwind," he says. "You're not going to get very far and you're going to use a lot of energy, but a lot of people will make that mistake in their first races as they take their brain out of the equation."
But everyone makes mistakes and there's nothing to be afraid of. "Remember that it's a learning experience and anything you do, even if it's completely wrong, will give you something to learn from and build upon. Everything is a positive."
Even if you've built a base the size of Mount Everest, trained religiously on the turbo and endlessly studied WorldTour tactics on the television, your first races are likely to be a very steep learning curve. The key, Spragg says, is to enjoy the experience.
"There are so many elements to think about that it's almost a little bit too much to take in," he says. "The main thing is that you need to enjoy it, otherwise you won't come back and do it again."
He also believes it's important to set achievable goals to measure progress.
"It's important to have some goals but non-result related goals," he says. "That might be, for example: get comfortable in the bunch, get to the front of the bunch, or to not ride at the back.
"Results are going to be difficult to come by in your first races but there are so many elements involved, so it's good to have something to focus on other than where you finish."
Ultimately, however, a race is about pushing yourself and finding your limits and, chances are, if you've got this far then you're willing to do that. For many riders that might see you spat out of the back of the bunch in your first race but it's nothing to be ashamed of, says Spragg.
"You should never be afraid to go really hard in a race," he says. "And don't be afraid to make mistakes.
"Sometimes I see that my coaching clients who race with a power meter produce less power in racing than they do in training and I think it's because they're worried about making a mistake.
"Don't be afraid to get stuck in and give it everything. The worst that can happen is you get dropped. Lots of people get dropped in their first race. I got dropped in my first road race, I've got dropped in many a race, and again it's a learning experience. It's not something to be ashamed of and if you go in with the right mentality then you will learn from it."