“I could do that!”
Almost invariably it’s around the time of the three great tours that many occasional cyclists get so carried away by the unfolding drama, passion and competitive spirit of the Giro d’Italia,Tour de France and Spanish Vuelta that they picture themselves flying along in the midst of an illustrious bunch or riding with relative ease up steep mountain climbs with cheering crowds lining the road.
At least that’s what appears to be the case, even though you know that the apparent ease at which the riders are “flying” along at an average speed of 45k per hour is deceptive and the whole idea, in fact, may seem totally mad and completely and utterly out of my league – even more so as the prerequisite is incredibly hard training, unbelievable talent and a super-human physique. But cycling is all about sticking at it.
Springtime is the ideal time to start road racing as there are plenty of races for novices and it will also give you a head start come the Summer when your form and experience will have improved. Here in Britain there are many road race events where a reasonably fit amateur cyclist can pit their racing prowess against other riders of a similar ability, starting from entry level with the possibility of climbing through the categories to eventually become an Elite rider (depending on your ambition, of course).
The racing season starts in March, reaches its peak in June, July, August and goes on until October. For the hardy among you there are some winter leagues, depending on weather conditions.
To find yourself a race venue from, let’s say, a cycling magazine or website is relatively easy, but after that it becomes a little confusing. There are categories, racing licences and rules…p>
While some of the administrative hurdles are due to quite obvious issues such as insurance, others are more obscure and, as cycling has a very long tradition, historical.
The various race events are administered by different cycling bodies, the main one being British Cycling (BC) (see below). To race at BC events you have to become a member and get a race licence. This gives you insurance coverage and states your race category. Non-members can take out a comparatively expensive day licence. After 1 July membership (July – December) is half price.
The greatest expense of entering a race is the entry fee, normally around a tenner per race (depending on the cost of the event, the levy fee and the available price fund). You’re usually able to enter a race in advance and it’s a good idea to: although many races allow Entry on the Line (EoL), this often involves a surcharge and you can’t be guaranteed a place.
Race categories depend on racing points accrued; starting from fourth cat and going up to elite. (The abbreviations used for these are E/1/2/3/4). Above the age of 40 you’re a vet/master. Women often have separate races or separate start times, as do vets and juniors. Youth cats are not points but age related i.e. U16, U14, U12, U10, U8. Exceptionally talented youths are sometimes allowed to enter the junior category (16-18yrs.)
You need fully functioning road bike with gears, working brakes and drop handlebars (not a mountain bike!). It doesn’t have to be top of the range and high tech, racing is just as much (or more so) about you and your body. There are some top-class riders who race on old-fashioned, or less than cutting-edge machines. Neither do you need to shave your legs (unless you fancy the slug-leg look, but if you do here’s how to do it).
For your first race don’t enter an elite race, look for a 3/4th cat event where hopefully you’ll compete against other riders with a similar level of experience.
Occasionally there are special novice races which are worth doing. Every race that is sanctioned by a racing body earns you points, and when you have accumulated enough you can move up a category. Oddly enough, the points are not transferable between the different racing bodies
Good races to do at entry level are race series, e.g. leagues and circuit races. These are usually regular events with consistent: officials, participating clubs (who provide marshals) and fellow competitors, so over the number of weeks or months they run people will get to know you and start cheering you on during the race. And being cheered gives you a great psychological boost, especially when you’re beginning to fade.
Circuit races are nice and compact. If you get dropped by the bunch, you’re not going to be left on your own in the boondocks. The bunch will be around again so you can jump on someone’s wheel. This is perfectly acceptable, but once you have been lapped you should not contest the final sprint to the finish line. Good circuit races in the London area are held at the Eastway and Hillingdon cycling circuits, for example.
Join a club!
A good way to get into racing and meet people is, of course, to join a club. Check out various clubs to find one that suits you. The other club members will be able to show you the ropes, you may be offered a lift to a race in someone’s car (or vice versa) and you’ll always have people to talk to and ask advice from. Most clubs have websites so you can find them on the internet, plenty of them are listed here on RCUK.
For youth riders (under 18) there are “Go-Set” clubs which cater for the age groups under 16. Everyone else (18+) are seniors; some clubs are just for adults, some have junior sections too.
Apart from leagues and circuit series you can enter regional and national championships which broadens your competition.
And to start you off on your search
Here are a few leagues to give you an idea :-
Come ‘N Try Bike Racing (Welsh Cycling Union)
Riding in a bunch at speed (provided you can stay with them) can be a scary experience. One touch of a wheel can bring several riders crashing down in a heap with bikes flying up in the air and arms and legs flailing. The most common injuries thus caused are road rash (very painful) and broken collar bones (an old cyclist’s favourite). Rule number one therefore is to always ride your line and don’t switch unless you’re quite sure there’s no-one in the way.
As you become more confident and fitter, you accumulate points and can consider moving up a category. 3rd cat means racing harder, you’ll face stronger competition and need more training. To help with your training you can employ a personal coach (which many amateur riders do!) and/or join a club and do your training as part of a chain gang.
The main racing body is British Cycling which is split into regional organisations such as the South East. There are two smaller rival organisations; The League International (TLI) for all cats from youths to vets and the League of Veteran Racing Cyclists (LVRC) who cater for the over 40s categories (sadly neglected by BC). These two bodies follow different rules and there is a certain tension between them and BC.
Useful URLs of cycling bodies
Some BC Divisions have web sites such as :-