racing 101

Are you an experienced recreational rider looking to take it to the next level? Getting tired of solo riding, long centuries and no-drop group rides? You might want to consider racing.

Racing can be fun, rewarding and an adrenaline kick start. It can also be overwhelming and intimidating to newcomers. To help you prepare, here are a few things you’ll need to know before hitting the starting line.

Types of races:

The most common types of races are; road, mountain (MTB) and cyclocross. Road races are further broken down by criteriums, road races, hill climbs and time trials.

  • Road races begin with a mass start on a course generally between 15 to 75 miles in length. Course terrain will vary and are often on roads open to regular traffic.
  • Criteriums (a.k.a. Crit) are held on short courses often on blocked-off city streets. The course is short, usually less than 5 km, and is a closed circuit where riders complete multiple laps. Riders typically race for a given length of time, typically between 30 to 60 minutes.
  • Hill climbs begin with a mass start and, as its name implies, involve a continuous hill climb with a summit finish.
  • Time trials are races in which cyclists race alone against the clock on flat or rolling terrain, or up a mountain road. Each rider will be given a start time to show up at the starting line. There are also team time trials where the team races together as a group.


Categories are designations given to all USA Cycling racers with the intent of grouping riders by ability and experience. New riders are assigned to beginner categories and all their individual race results are tracked by USA Cycling. Advancement to a new category from a beginning category is automatically granted when a rider meets the requirements for that category. In road racing, men start in category 5 and women in category 4. Advancement beyond the beginning category is based on race results.

Individual races are often further divided into age groups with separate start times. Pick an age group appropriate for you. Note, you can race in a younger group if you choose, but not in a group older than your actual racing age.


To race you need a USA Cycling (USAC) license and in Colorado, a BRAC membership. You can usually buy a 1-day license and BRAC membership before each race, but if you race for team, you should purchase an annual membership at

Choosing a team:

Since you can race as an unattached rider, why would you want to join a team? Simple, bike racing is a team sport. A strong team will enter each race with a strategy. Team tactics include; energy conservation by drafting, rider protection, pace control, bridging teammates into the lead out group and several others.

Good teams also provide training & fitness opportunities, support, encouragement, and fellowship. Joining the right team can make all the difference in your success and overall racing satisfaction.

Each team has its own goals, mission, requirements and resources. So, careful consideration should be used in selecting the team that’s the best fit for you.

Choosing your first race:

Information on local races can be found at; Most races include a link to an event flyer with all the information you’ll need including; registration, costs, race categories, start times, directions, parking, etc.

At first glance, racing categories listed on flyers may be a bit confusing as they are often abbreviated. They appear as; MM 35+ 4, SM 4, SW OPEN, JM 11-12, and others. The descriptions below will help you interpret some of the common categories:

Category Description
JM 11-12 Junior Men between the ages of 11 & 12 years of age
JW 9-10 Junior Women between the ages of 9 & 10 years of age
SM 3 Senior Men (18 or older) who are a category 3 racer
SW OPEN Senior Women (18 or older) any and all racing categories
MM 35+ 4 Master Men 35 years or older who are a category 4 racer

What to bring:

Here is a good list to start with:

  • Your bicycle (in good working order)
    • You don’t necessarily need to buy a new bike to try racing, but to be competitive, you’ll eventually want the lightest bike you can afford.
    • For short races, you’ll want to remove all unnecessary accessories like saddle bags, frame pumps, etc.
  • Your racing license
  • Cash for race fees (unless you’ve pre-registered)
  • Your HELMET. You won’t be racing without it.
  • Water bottle and energy bars
  • A pump with pressure gauge.
  • Your tools for last minute adjustments.
  • Safety pins for your number. (Most races provide these, but it never hurts to be prepared).
  • Your race kit and any additional clothes you might want (see “What to wear” section below).
  • A change of clothes to watch the other races or for going out after the race.
  • Optionally, some racers bring a stationary trainer to warm up on. Alternatively, you could also ride on local streets nearby.
  • Optionally, spare set of wheels (Check race flyer as some races provide neutral wheels).

What to wear:

  • Most racers will wear a matching team jersey and cycling shorts or bibs (a.k.a. Team Kit). You may not wear the kit of a team you’re not a member of. If you are unaffiliated with a team, wear a plain jersey and shorts with no sponsorship logos (the only logos allowed are those of the clothing maker).
  • Vest, arm/leg warmers, etc (as weather dictates)
  • Approved helmet
  • Optionally, gloves to protect your hands in the event of a crash. Some riders prefer the feeling of bare hands for when shifting and braking.

Pinning on your race number:

When you register or check in at the race, you will be given a race number. If only one number is provided, ask an official which side to place it on. It must be visible to the cycling officials at the finish line; therefore it must be placed properly, hair cannot cover the number.  A common mistake is attaching the number facing the right way. The top of the numbers should be closest to the center of your back. Pinning your number is a learned skill in itself. If you want a quicker way to pin your number, check out this great article “Can you Pin My Number?”.

The Race:

You should arrive one to two hours prior to your start time. You’ll need time for registration/check-in, attaching your number, unloading your bike, warming up, etc. After your warm up and before getting to the start line, check and double-check your equipment including: tire pressure, skewer tightness, brake pads don’t rub, etc. At crits and cyclocross races, there’s often an opportunity to pre-ride the course once or twice between each race. In most road races, riders line up “first come, first serve”. Cyclocross racing often have call-ups and line up riders according to their overall ranking. At the start of the race, the chief referee or designee will give race instructions and announcements.  He/she will then signify the start of the race with a gun or whistle.

On short courses; remaining lap counts are often displayed at the start/finish line. All competitors will finish on the same lap as the winner even if they’ve been lapped during the race. Race officials may ask lapped riders to pull out of the race early. A bell will announce sprint laps and the final lap of the race.

In general, races often start fast and gradually slow as the race progresses – especially on short courses. Do your best to hang with the group, as riding with a group conserves much needed energy. Remember, if you’re tired, everyone else is likely tired too. So just hold on. Tactics are best learned by doing, observing and by working with coaches and teammates.


For your first races, keep your expectations low and remember to have fun. You’ll get better and more confident with every race.

Click here to download racing 101.