Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Want to Race Your Bike?
FAQs for Getting Started in Austin

By Kat Hunter

Hotter'N Hell P1/2 criterium photos courtesy of Robert Spangle Photography

Everyone has to start somewhere, and at the very beginning we’re all in the same boat: we know we like to ride bikes, but how one goes about doing that competitively is something of a mystery. Often “the way things work” in the Austin cycling scene is word of mouth, and you might not have the right person to ask or even have a firm grasp on your questions. Here’s a very basic FAQ for someone who knows nothing but wants to learn more.

What is bike racing? (also: upgrading and the category system)
There are lots of different types of bike racing, from track racing to mountain biking to adventure racing to cyclocross. This post will focus almost exclusively on road cycling—criterium races, road races, stage races, time trials, and the like—all of which take place on pavement and on a road bike or time-trial bike.

Most of Texas’ road cycling events are mass-start races, meaning you’ll begin with a group of people (in a “pack” or “peloton”) and complete a certain distance or duration to the finish line. The Texas calendar is very heavy on criteriums in particular, and there are also a number of popular road races (which take place predominantly in the late winter/early spring); pure time trials can be scarce and are usually less well attended.

HHH, Christie Tracy of ATC Racing
Road cycling has a category system, cat 5 being the lowest and greenest category and cat 1 being the highest category short of an official UCI pro designation. You “cat up” by placing well in mass-start events (TT results don’t count), so a rider’s category reflects a combination of experience and talent. A cat 5 man needs only to complete 10 mass-start races to upgrade to a 4, and from that point on he earns points to upgrade. A woman starts out as a cat 4, so she’ll need points to upgrade from her starting category. Races tend to be split up according to predicted field size—as a typical example, the men might have separate masters, cat 5, cat 3/4, and Pro 1/2 races, while the women almost always have three fields, which are cat 4, cat 1/2/3 (or possibly “Women’s Open,” meaning that 4s can opt to race in that field), and 40+ masters. It’s not uncommon for fields to be combined and scored separately if attendance is low (e.g., the women 40+ race with the W4, or the WP123 races with the masters men).

How do I get on a team? 
Before you start thinking about joining a team, you need to race. This is not only a matter of practicality but necessity. Most teams aren’t going to consider you unless you’ve raced before and they know you personally. Cycling is largely about who you know and how you interact with people, not your power numbers. You have to prove that you can race well, not just go fast in a straight line.

For men: You might be able to get on a team fairly quickly if you have the right connections. Men have more club-type teams that have large numbers and don’t require a specific amount of participation or experience level. Ask around at group rides and bike shops.

For women: In Austin the women’s teams tend to be very small and selective. Most teams are comprised of cat 3 riders or above, meaning as a cat 4 you have very few options. Being a solo rider for a season until you meet everyone and figure out where you might best fit is probably your best option (see below).

Why Solo Is Good:
Whether man or woman, being an unattached rider for a season or a few months gives you time to figure out the sport and the teams you could see yourself riding for. Without teammates or the pressure to perform a specific role, you can focus on your own personal results and simply play the part of observer and opportunist—these things can be very nice. And don’t worry: there are a lot of other solo riders just like you, and you’re going to get to know people very quickly, whether that’s your aim or not. Bike racing is social, and everyone knows everyone else. Keep in mind that if you want teams to look at you the next season, you need to go to a lot of races, not just for the results and upgrade points but also to show your commitment level.

Allegiances begin shifting and teams begin deciding their rosters for the next season in the late summer or fall. You may be approached by them, or you may need to give the team organizers a heads up that you’re interested. Switching teams mid-year is typically considered bad form. Some teams may have extra kits or mid-year kit orders that make it possible to add riders during the season; if you’re interested in joining a team, it doesn’t hurt to ask, but don’t be offended if they turn you down.

Important Things to Consider When Choosing a Team:
First and foremost, think about how well you get along with the other riders. It might also be more enjoyable to race in the same category as most of your teammates—you’ll find some teams have more masters members, for example. You might also decide on a team based on who you can most easily train with, maybe one whose members live around the same part of town. Make sure you understand the commitment level the team wants (e.g., number of races) and that this aligns with your personal goals. Some teams will pay full or partial race entries and heavily subsidize kits; some teams require you to pay all costs yourself. If you start by asking “what do I get,” though, you’re probably not going to get a warm welcome from the team.

How do I get a free bike? 
You're kidding, right? Teams sometimes get sponsor deals that they share with members, but the free-equipment crowd is an elite group of 1s or 2s on small and very selective teams. Often they're essentially full-time bike racers and travel to national races. If you join a team that has a good relationship with a local bike shop you may get shop deals on bikes and other equipment, but don't expect this, and treat those opportunities with respect.

How do I learn more about racing? 
If you're looking to buy new, you might consider the
Cannondale CAAD12 or Focus Cayo AL Tiagra
as a quality "starter bike" for racing.
Before you even think about doing your first bike race you need to be experienced in riding with large groups of other people. Go on group rides. Challenge yourself to the hard ones. (Here’s a list of area group rides—note you’ll need to check on current ride times and details, as this post was written last spring.) Start asking around about what races other cyclists are doing and what they’d recommend. Most people are very willing to help and answer questions. Read race reports (see our ATC blog archives—we have lots!); also check out The Texas race calendar can be found at

What kind of bike do I need? 
You need a road bike to do crits and road races. It doesn’t have to be expensive—the real priority is a good set of race tires. Tri bikes can only be used for time trials. If you’re worried about your setup and looking silly, go out and watch a race before you register for one, or take your bike to the shop and ask what you need to do to make it race-ready. Staff should be able to help you, and if not, switch to a shop that has more of a competitive customer base.

Will I get dropped? 
Probably. Just make sure you have an idea of the route and make your way back. Don’t be embarrassed—it happens to the best of us sooner or later. Road racing is not a participatory sport; it’s not about completing a certain distance but rather being the first to the line.

I can’t get injured. Should I do this?

No. Better you hear this now than later—you have to be willing to leave some skin on the asphalt in this sport. Sooner or later you will crash. The result may be minor road rash or broken bones. You have to accept the possible outcomes going in. If you’re completely averse to risk or you’re particularly uncoordinated, it’s probably better to focus on non-drafting events like time trials or multisport races or just going on challenging group rides or gran fondos. Roadies are accustomed to crashing, dusting themselves off, and getting back on their bikes to finish the race—if this grittiness and element of danger appeals to you, you’ve found your sport.

So why should I do this? You make it sound like a lot of work, not to mention a big hospital bill. 
Competition is beautiful. There’s nothing like beating someone at the line in a sprint, split seconds between you. It’s an endorphin rush you’re never going to feel from a steady time trial. Racing works your mind in surprising ways, too—you learn to read people’s movements and thoughts, even predict the future. You’ll get into the deep dark depths of yourself—what you’re afraid of, your physical limits and strengths, how far you’re willing to push yourself, how well you can manipulate and manage other people and situations. In the process you’ll find talents you never knew you had, like performing well sprinting for a certain distance or sliding into a tight spot. Getting to race on a team in a sport in which a team actually matters is fun, too; the opportunity to contribute and work toward a mutual goal is immensely satisfying. Racing is addictive, and you’ll have a hundred sane reasons for not doing it, and you’ll do it anyway. It’s kind of like eating ice cream.

And now for those of you who aren’t satisfied yet… 
I’m a strong time trialist (or triathlete), so I’m going to be awesome at road racing, right?
Not necessarily. This was me…I did a few Mopac TTs and the Tour de Gruene TT and thought I was going to win my first road race easily. I learned a few very hard lessons. Lots of roadies don’t do TTs and tris, especially in the road “off season” when they’re all taking a much-needed break, so you’re going to see whole new levels of fast in your first mass-start races. The format is also very different—you don’t get to choose the pace; expect sharp accelerations throughout and adjust your training to prepare by incorporating intervals and hill climbs. You’ll also have a lot to learn about race tactics and positioning. If you’re a strong time trialist, you’ll figure it out if you make an effort to, but it’s going to take time, so don’t be too disappointed when you don’t make the podium your first couple of races.

Yeah, but you don’t understand. I’m really fast. People keep saying I could be a pro. How do I race at a professional level?  
Well, that changes everyth…no, it actually doesn’t. Not at all. You still have to work your way up from the bottom like everyone else. You may win your cat 5 races, and that’s great, but old fat guys are going to be beating you at local races when you get to 1/2 if you don’t train like a demon and learn how to read the group. If you’re the prodigy you say you are, you’ll rise through the ranks quickly and eventually you’ll hit the plateau where either talent or experience is curbing your rapid rise, and there you will learn all the things you may have skipped in the easier categories. Like I said, everyone pays their dues.

The way it’s done in most cases for men is that they start young, maybe riding for a junior development or local elite team. They usually spend quite a bit of time racing locally before they sign up for National Racing Calendar events, which represent the U.S. domestic pro circuit. If they’re really, really good, they might eventually start racing for a team in Europe, which is where the only real money in the sport is. But don’t give up on the idea of racing —if you’re not young and you’re not earth-shatteringly fast, in Austin there’s still a lot of prestige in racing at the top categories on a local level, and you’ll have incredible competition.

Women tend to start later and come from a wider variety of backgrounds. The advantage of being a woman: you can start racing with the best in the country as a cat 2, possibly even in your first season. Most NRC races are P12 fields for the women. For some events you can enter as a solo rider, and if the race is limited to invited teams, often you can still get a guest-riding spot on one of the smaller elite teams. The disadvantages of being a woman: there’s even less financial support than for the men, and there’s a huge jump from local races to NRC in terms of talent and field size. It’s a good idea, if you’re thinking you’d like to race pro, to race with the local men’s fields as much as possible. In general, the path to racing for a woman’s domestic pro team is very simple: 1) cat up to at least a 2 and learn how to race in big, fast fields; 2) guest ride for pro/elite teams to get some exposure and experience; 3) make connections with other riders and team directors to get invited onto a team.

To be a professional cyclist you’ve got to love the sport. There’s very little financial incentive. As a woman, you won’t get rich, period. You’ll be lucky to get paid anything. As a man, there’s a 99.9% chance you won’t get rich, either, and only a slightly higher probability of receiving a minimal salary. That’s the reality. So no matter what, have fun with it; that’s the only real reason to race.

List of group rides
Robert Spangle's cycling photography

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