Road Racing

Ultimate Guide to Getting Started in Road Racing

By: Jim Rutberg, TORRE  April 22, 2023

If you are interested in challenging yourself and testing your skill and speed against other riders, here’s a guide to getting started in road racing.

Road racing is one of the fundamental competition formats for cyclists. Although riders have access to an ever-growing variety of events, including gravel, mountain bike, and cyclocross, many incorporate road cycling and road racing as a component of their cycling season. Many cyclists get interested in road racing after riding on their own, joining group rides, and participating in mass-start events like charity rides and gran fondos.

Types of Road Races

Road racing encompasses a range of competitions, including traditional road races, circuit races, criteriums, time trials, hill climbs, and stage races. Click here for specifics on the parameters for these race formats. Almost all road races are mass start events with competitors separated into categories based on gender, skill, and/or age groups. Exceptions to this include individual time trials and hill climbs. These are timed events in which competitors start one-by-one and drafting is not allowed. For road races, circuit races, and criteriums, riders who start together as a peloton are allowed to draft and cooperate with each other throughout the race, and the winner is the first rider to cross the finish line. Stage races and omniums combine multiple races, typically over a period of days. The winner of a stage race is the rider with the lowest cumulative time through all stages. Omniums, on the other hand, are decided by cumulative points earned during individual races.

Competition Categories

Unlike gravel races and gran fondos that feature mass starts that include all participants, road race fields are segregated into categories based on gender, skill level, and sometimes age group. Categories for road racing start at Novice (replaces Category 5), progresses to Category 4, and then numerically to Category 1 (elite). Although male and female competitors race in separate categories, race promoters can combine skill categories to encourage competitive fields (e.g. Categories 3 and 4 racing together in a criterium). Similarly, promoters have discretion to separate or combine age groups within skill categories (i.e. Male 40-44 Category 3 and Male 45-49 Category 3).

Athletes are encouraged to upgrade to more advanced skill categories as they gain experience and fitness. Racers earn upgrade points through race results. You can review the road category upgrade policy here. Riders can upgrade from Novice to Category 4 voluntarily at any time and must upgrade to Category 4 upon earning 10 upgrade points in a 12-month period. Upgrading from Category 4 to Category 3 and beyond can be accomplished voluntarily with results that meet the minimum requirements laid out in the upgrade policy linked to above. To encourage fair competitions at all levels, mandatory upgrades are required when cyclists earn sufficient upgrade points within a 12-month period.

Equipment for Road Racing

Bicycles used for road racing typically feature multiple gears with a freewheel and derailleurs that allow for coasting and shifting into harder and easier gear ratios. The bike must be equipped with brakes for both wheels. Although flat handlebars are technically legal, the vast majority of racers compete on drop-bar bikes. However, no matter whether you have flat bars or drop bars, forward extensions (i.e. aero bars or bar ends) are only allowed in some time trial events.

Can Gravel and Cyclocross Bikes be Used For Road Racing?

The short answer is, yes. The differences between bicycles marketed for road, gravel, and cyclocross disciplines are mainly focused on tire clearance and frame geometry. Traditionally, road racing bikes feature tight tolerances for tire clearance and angles suited to high-speed cornering and stability for descents. Cyclocross bikes have increased tire clearance and higher bottom brackets to handle the grass, mud, and barriers that are part of cyclocross racing.

The geometry and features of gravel bikes vary widely. Notably, gravel bikes typically have the greatest tire clearance, slacker angles and more relaxed geometry to provide increased stability and comfort over rough terrain. Bikes marketed and designed for road, gravel, and cyclocross can all be used for road racing, and there are no restrictions on tire width for road racing bikes. However, it should be noted that the handling characteristics of your bike will influence the level of confidence and comfort you experience in road racing situations.

For the longest time, USA Cycling had a requirement for junior gearing for road races. This rule is no longer in effect as of January 1st, 2023. Which means juniors don’t have to question if their bike is legal for a road event, they can hop in the desired event with a gravel or cyclocross specific bike if they wish to do so.

Before Your First Road Race

Group rides and practice races are the best way to learn the essential skills for road racing. It is important to ride with other people so you get comfortable riding in close proximity to other cyclists. Group rides are a great opportunity to learn to draft, or conserve energy by riding in another cyclist’s slipstream. You’ll also want to learn to keep your head up and eyes forward, beyond just the back wheel of the rider ahead of you. Looking further ahead helps you anticipate changes in pace and upcoming turns and obstacles.

The best way to learn the basics of riding in a group is to find a USA Cycling Club in your area. Joining a cycling club is a great way to get engaged with your local cycling community and learn from riders who are eager to share their knowledge and experience.

Choosing Your First Road Race

There are no set requirements for your first road racing event. Your first race could be a criterium, time trial, a single-loop road race, or a circuit race. However, there are some considerations you may want to keep in mind:

  • Criteriums are fast and intense, but they are also multi-lap races on a short course that’s entirely closed to traffic. This means the race is entirely contained within the venue. Staff and support resources are almost instantly available, and if you lose contact with the pack you may be pulled from the race but you can’t get lost.

  • Time trials are a lower-risk entry point into road racing because you ride individually instead of within a large pack.

  • Circuit races and single-loop road races resemble local group rides, just faster and more competitive. They are usually less technically demanding than criteriums in terms of repeated cornering and sprinting, but are typically held on open roads rather than totally closed courses. This means the center-line rule is strictly enforced (riders must stay in the right lane) and riders must be aware of the possibility of automobiles in the opposing lane. Riders who lose contact with the pack must also continue riding on their own to return to the start/finish area.

Race Day Tips for Beginner Road Racers

Once you choose the type of road race you want to start with and select a specific event, here are some tips to having a great experience at your first road race:

Review the race details:
The more you know about the race, the more comfortable and confident you’ll be on race day. Review course maps and talk with racers who have competed in previous editions. Learn about the registration and packet pickup process. Either pre-register for the race or make sure that on-site registration is available. Confirm the locations of racer parking, registration and packet pickup.

Arrive early

For beginners, a good rule of thumb is to arrive 90 minutes to two hours before your scheduled start time. This allows for plenty of time to find parking, pick up your race packet (including the numbers you’ll pin to your jersey), prepare your equipment, use the bathroom, warm up, and get to the start line. It is better to have some extra time than to feel rushed and stressed before your race even starts!

Question: What should I eat before a road race?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions from new racers. The general rule of thumb is to eat normally the night before a race; “carbo-loading” or consuming exaggerated amounts of carbohydrate is rarely necessary or advisable. On race day, scheduled your final pre-race meal 2-4 hours before the start. It should be rich in carbohydrate and contain moderate amounts of protein and fat. The size of the meal should get smaller if you are eating it closer to the start (i.e. 4 grams carbohydrate/kilogram of bodyweight if eating four hours pre-race, but only 2 g/kg if eating 2 hours pre-race). Consume fluids to maintain normal hydration status. If you are feeling hungry before your race, consider a small snack or sports drink about 15 minutes before the start.

Warm up

Recommended warm up strategies vary based on the types of road races. Generally, the shorter and more intense the race, the more important it is to complete a long and thorough warm up. As a result, riders typically spend more time executing structured warm up routines for time trials and criteriums. In comparison, the starts of circuit races or single loop road races are typically less intense, so pre-race warm up routines are more general.

Get to the start on time!

Road races start on a schedule and do not wait for riders who show up late! It is also important to note that road races are held rain or shine, although there are contingencies for lightning and hazardous weather conditions. Arriving at the start line early may help you start closer to the front of the field, which can be advantageous when there are a lot of riders.

Manage your risks

Road racing is unique in that it is collaborative as well as competitive. The peloton works together to share the work and go faster, while riders also manage their individual efforts and tactics to create a competitive advantage. Safety is central to both ambitions and in a road race, all riders depend on each other to stay safe. Riding predictably and within your skill level are they best ways to keep everyone in the group safe. If conditions (i.e. weather or surface) or rider behaviors feel unsafe, slow down and let the pack ride ahead. Consider it a learning experience that will help you improve before your next race!

Have Fun!

Above all, have fun! The road racing community is one of the most supportive and welcoming communities in cycling. Every rider, across all categories and age groups, was once a novice and understands the process you are embarking on. They want you to succeed! Joining a club or team is a great way to find a group to travel with and cheer on during race weekends. And don’t forget to cheer on the categories that race before and after yours!