How to Start Racing Bikes
As an addition to our expanding list of Guides on the TBD Journal we are building out a ‘how-to’ when it comes to bike racing jargon and the various steps to completing your first bike race. We cannot promise this will be a completely comprehensive guide (there is a lot of ground to cover!) but we' are going to try to fit in answers to everything we wish we asked when we first started racing. If you have any recommendations or additions for this guide, please drop us a line via the contact information in the About page.
How do I sign up for my first race?
Start by signing up for an annual USAC license at https://www.usacycling.org/. A USAC license is required for most road and cyclocross races as part of the insurance and category system the sport uses. When you sign up you will be assigned a ‘category’ that indicates what ‘field’ you will participate in for a given race. With a few exceptions all riders start at ‘Category 5’ so when you sign up for a race that is organized by category you will be looking for the ‘Category 5’ or ‘Cat 5’ field. Some races will combine categories, for example ‘Cat 4/5.’ A USAC license is good for one calendar year so if you continue racing you will need to renew before the following season.
If you aren’t quite sure whether you want to buy a full fledged USAC membership before your first race, there is also a ‘one-day’ license option that costs just $10 and lets you participate in a given day of racing. And if you buy a license after purchasing a one-day license, you’ll receive a $10 rebate on the full annual license from USAC. For more information check out the One-Day Licenses page on USA Cycling’s website.
To sign up for an actual race, you’ll most likely be using a registration service called BikeReg. Search Bikereg (or the TBD Race Calendar) to find the race you’re looking for. Then select the field within that race that mirrors your USAC category and complete the check-out process. Bikereg charges a small fee but generally speaking registering in advance (as opposed to ‘day-of’ registration when you sign up at the race) is easiest as it gets your information to the race organizer in advance (they will often email final race instructions to riders who pre-registered on Bikereg) and insures you have a reserved race number in case the field sells out. Some races, particularly the CRCA Open Races are also pre-registration only so there is no ‘day-of’ available.
If you are in NYC, we suggest you consider joining the CRCA. It is an excellent environment to get started racing, meet people in the community, and get to race in one of the most iconic parks in the world.
What type of Race Should I Do?
There are many disciplines of racing to choose from, both on pavement and off-road. We have always been fans of cyclocross events as a good introduction to bike racing as the risks associated with crashing are generally lower in a cyclocross race compared to a road race. But if you want to give it a go at a road race for your first event circuit races, which are multiple loops of a short course, typically 3-15 miles, are a good introduction as they generally are less technical (e.g. less high speed turns) and the short laps mean that if you get dropped from the main pack you’re only a few miles from the start/finish area at any given moment. In comparison criteriums (many laps of ~1 mile courses) typically involve more bike handling skill and close quarters cornering, while road races can make for a lonely experience if you are dropped and have a 40+ mile ride to the finish.
All that said, we highly encourage riders to experience multiple formats of racing, particularly while in the lower categories when it is possible to be reasonably successful across race formats. As you progress through the sport you’ll tend to specialize a bit (e.g. become more of a climber, or a sprinter or a crit racer). And whether you’re a roadie or an off-roader don’t be afraid to give other road surfaces a try. It’s fun to mix it up.
What Equipment Do I Need?
Bikes can be exceedingly expensive. But you definitively do not need a $10,000 bicycle or fancy carbon race wheels to enjoy racing. We may post some beautiful bikes on the Journal, but the reality is that to participate in your first race you’re just as well off (maybe better!) on a $500 used aluminum road bike as some fancy aero carbon race machine that costs 20x that. All you really need is a safe, working, drop bar road bike (with brakes, no fixies allowed outside of the track). The rest is all just icing on the cake when you’re getting started. Though you should have a water bottle mount (with a water bottle in it!) for your first race.
Outside of the bike, you need a good helmet. In our view this is an item worth splurging on as it plays an important role in comfort and keeps your noggin safe if you crash. Clip-in pedals and cycling shoes are also recommended as is a cycling jersey (note: sleeveless jerseys are not allowed in USAC races) and cycling shorts (these are important for comfort). Many racers like to wear gloves for comfort and protection.
What Should I do Before My First Race?
Bike handling skills are an important part of racing. If you haven’t hard the opportunity to partake in a group ride or a race clinic, those can be good places to start BEFORE your first race. In NYC we are fortunate to have a comprehensive, year-round CRCA Coaching program that is available for FREE to all CRCA Members. It’s tremendous value for the money (you can join CRCA as an associate member for just ~$50). You’ll have more fun in your first race if you are comfortable riding in a group, so if you’re not in NYC investigate what instructional options are available in your area.
If you want to race in the CRCA, you’ll need to participate in a race clinic first. Race clinics are great for practicing group riding, and will give you good insight into what you should expect on your first race.
If you’re in NYCC but not yet a member of CRCA, you can also take a look at NYCC SIG’s program - many racers have come through the instructional SIG program which is a great place to learn group riding skills.
As discussed above under ‘What Equipment Do I Need’ we highly recommend having your bike looked at by a local bike shop before your first race. There is nothing worse than getting to a race and suffering a mechanical on the start line. Getting a professional to check out your bike before your first race helps minimize this risks and should insure that your bike is safe and ready for the rigors of racing.
What do I do on Race Day?
Be prepared to show you USAC license when you check-in/register. There is a phone app for this but it has been buggy in recent years so having a screenshot of your ‘authorization to ride’ from the USAC website isn’t the worst idea. Generally speaking you’ll show your license, sign a pre-printed waiver that the race director prepared for you and then be given an assigned race number for the event. When it comes to pinning your number, please do yourself a favor and read this.
Also, be prepared for the weather conditions. If it is a hot and humid mid-summer race make sure you’re hydrated and have water available on the bike. If it is a cold early season race make sure you’re dressed appropriately and, depending on the setup of the race, have extra clothes available for pre-and-post race. If you need help selecting cold weather kit, check out our guide to our favorite winter kit.
Arrive early! We suggest arriving early to make sure you have time to find registration, check-in, make sure where the start/finish is, get a warm up and maybe have time to go to the bathroom before the race, if you need to. Being worried about getting there late won’t help with race nerves, so best to be there with time to spare.
Nervous? That’s fine and totally normal. Everyone is nervous their first race. Don’t worry about this, just focus on having fun. It’s your first race, enjoy it!
What Do I Need to Know About Upgrades?
Initially don’t worry about upgrades! You’ll need to complete 10 races as a Cat 5 rider before being eligible to upgrade so just enjoy the ride! When the time comes there is more information below on the upgrade process. But as a general rule we’d encourage you not to place too much emphasis on rushing to upgrade as quickly as possible. If you’re anxious about the category on your USAC license it can take the fun out of racing bikes.
More Information from the CRCA New Rider Information Sessions
Governing Bodies (USAC/NYSRBA)
USAC: USA Cycling is the primary governing body for organized cycling in the United States. As such USAC issues racer licenses that are required to participate in USAC registered events including for all CRCA events (see below for information on one-day licenses).
NYSBRA: New York State Bicycle Racing Association. NYSBRA is a USAC local association - essentially a regional sub-organization - whose mission is to support bicycle racing in New York State. NYSBRA coordinates category upgrades, runs State Championships and offers a variety of grant programs.
The USAC Category System
USAC races are generally organized by categories that are identified on your racer license. Categories start at 5 ("Cat 5") and run through Cat 1 and Pro. All new racers start at Category 5 and from there work up through the system through "upgrades"
Category 5 to 4 upgrades are based on completing a minimum number of races to insure riders have the opportunity to build sufficient riding and racing experience before moving onto Category 5. Certain race clinics and coaching sessions may count against this requirement as well.
To upgrade beyond Category 4 upgrades are largely based on earning "upgrade points" awarded for finishing position in races with the number of points awarded based on the length of the race and the number of participants. See the USAC upgrade guidelines for additional detail.
When registering for races (see more on that below) it is important to always register for your current USAC category. For example Cat 4 riders cannot race in Cat 1/2/3 fields.
Types Of USAC Racing
CRCA is primarily focused on road racing but USAC offers a variety of race formats including road, track, cyclocross and mountain biking.
Within the road format there are a number of types of road races with distance of the race and the style of the course as a key determinant.
Sunday’s racing clinic is a circuit-style road race - known as a circuit because the field will complete multiple laps of a medium distance circuit (the Central Park Loop).
Criteriums typically use a very short loop (as short as 0.5miles) that will be completed a significant number of times during the race. CRCA criterium (Grant's Tomb, Zach Koop/Orchard Beach, Tour of Fort Lee) length is typically based on time rather than distance (ie 40 minutes).
USAC Racing License
All USAC events require a valid USAC annual racing license - as described under "USAC category system" this helps categorize riders based on experience and skill level as well. This insures that new Cat 5 riders will generally not have to race against highly experienced (and very fast) Cat 1 racers.
Many races will permit Category 5 racers to purchase a one-day license - this cost is included in the Clinic registration fee - and a one-day license is a good way to try a race or two before deciding whether you want to buy a full annual USAC license.
Be prepared to show your license when checking in at bike races - the easiest way to do so is to download the USAC mobile app and sign-in. That will insure your license is always handy (as long as you have service - if you are racing in a rural area it's not a bad idea to screenshot your license in advance).
Bikereg & Registering For Races
Bikereg is the registration website used by most races on the East Coast (a few will use the USAC website for registration). It is also a great resource to look for race opportunities - you can sort by location, race format, etc.
Two notes on Bikereg: the site charges a small fee to cover credit card processing and operating costs and the site does not provide or authorize refunds for registrations. Any refunds must be authorized and processed by the race in question.
All CRCA Open Races (the events not included in the CRCA Club Series in Central Park) are pre-registration ONLY. This means you must register in advance on Bikereg. Some non-CRCA races will offer day of registration if they do not sell out but they generally charge a ~$10 premium for day of registration.
Once you register for a race make sure to pay attention for any e-mails from the race director. Often race guides or last minute instructions will be distributed via the Bikereg e-mail system.
CRCA Coaching Program
In addition to a full race schedule, CRCA offers coaching sessions throughout the season. These sessions are FREE to members - for new racers this benefit alone is arguably worth the cost of CRCA membership.
Coaching sessions are usually held in Central Park and feature a variety of formats from climbing to sprint work. There are also women's only sessions offered this year as part of the CRCA Women's Development Series.
Seriously, if you're a new racer don't miss out on these sessions - it's one of the biggest benefits of being part of CRCA.
Sponsored Teams And Biking Groups
CRCA is the largest USAC organizing body in the city and is led by an all-volunteer Board of Directors. All CRCA racing members are required to marshal during the season to help maintain the CRCA calendar of activities.
CRCA sub-teams: there are twenty plus CRCA sub-teams that are part of the CRCA community and participate in the CRCA Club Series in Central Park. Sub-teams are organized by their respective members and have a variety of distinctions (women only, development focused, elite riders, etc). Sub-teams are required to complete team duties (i.e. helping with the Rider Clinic) as part of their contribution to the club.
NYCC: is the largest body of riders in the city with more than 2,000 members. NYCC has historically focused on recreational riding with weekend group rides for a variety of experience levels. This year NYCC also started a CRCA sub-team to get involved with racing as part of CRCA.
Rapha Rides / Bike Shop rides: outside of CRCA and NYCC there are also a variety of Bike Shops that will organize group rides. Rapha is probably the most active in this regard.
Preparing For A Race: A Brief Checklist
Getting to the start line can be a stressful process but here are a few checklist items to help get ready:
Get your Bike Ready
Inspect your bike: check tires, wheels, brake pads, chain. If you have any questions or concerns take your bike to a professional mechanic for a quick check!
Foot retention: clip-in pedals are not required for the upcoming CRCA Race Clinic but they are strongly recommended.
Drop handlebar geared bike: aero bars, flat bars and fixed gear bicycles are not allowed in USAC road races.
Nutrition & hydration before, during and after a race
Make sure you're hydrated and make sure you bring water on your bike for the clinic.
Nutrition is subject to personal preference and experience but it's recommended to eat something on race morning.
No accessories on bike (saddlebag, lights, fenders, etc.)
Garmins, water bottles, and snacks are okay!
Helmets and jerseys with sleeves are a must!
Given the early start times for many CRCA events it's a good idea to get organized the night before to insure you're at registration on time!