Bike racing newbie advice
July 5, 2010 9:54 AM   Subscribe

I want to sign up for my first bike race, a 15 mile crit at the end of August. What should I do, buy, and expect?

For my age and category, last years times were between 40:25 and 54:53, so I don't think they drop any racers. I'm in decent shape from other sports, bike commuting, and occasional longer rides. But I don't have any experience riding in a tight fast group, and I have no racing strategy. Can you give some advice?

I have a few months to train, and I have easy access to the course, albeit with cars and a traffic light. Can the MeFi amateur racers recommend their training regimens? What kind of conditioning do you do besides riding?

My bike is a Ross 10-speed from 1989, a bit of a weight and aerodynamic disadvantage, and probably about an inch short. What equipment changes would give me the best bang per buck. Thinner wheels? Clipless pedals? What might break?
posted by domnit to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmm. Crits require experience -- I would not take this likely.

It looks like this race is a USA Cycling sanctioned event. Therefore the bike you use must conform to current UCI regulations. Unfortunately your Ross 10-speed will most likely be rejected during the bike check -- you likely have to buy a new bike.

As for training, you have 8 weeks, not a "few months". You should immediately find a local amateur crit series to practice in -- in most cities there will be at least one of these happening on a weekly basis.
posted by randomstriker at 10:39 AM on July 5, 2010

I would not take this likely.

Doh. I meant "I would not take this lightly"
posted by randomstriker at 10:40 AM on July 5, 2010

You might be able to borrow a lighter bike from a friend if you know someone of similar build to yourself. If not, I wouldn't worry about getting anything too fancy for that bike. If you are running flat pedals, you may want to get some clips (baskets for your toes) to keep you stable.

It is going to sound extremely elitist to say this (and I have a heavy steel-framed bike myself), but I would concentrate on pacing yourself and just finishing the race. I bet you'll be surprised at just how well you can do. I had a roommate who decided he wanted to try cyclocross racing and all he had was an old heavy mountain bike. He went out and placed 6th in the race and it inspired him to work up to a more modern road bike.
posted by tmt at 10:47 AM on July 5, 2010

And missing the preview, what randomstriker said.
posted by tmt at 10:48 AM on July 5, 2010

I'm not sure what aspect of a 21yo bike would violate current UCI regulations, but if it's in good repair, I'd be surprised if it violated any.

If you're racing in a crit that's a cat5 or citizen's race, I'd expect crashes—whether or not they're caused by you, they're relatively likely to happen (both because of the frequent jostling in a crit, and because of the relatively inexperienced field), and you may get caught up in them.

Clipless pedals will certainly give you an advantage over street shoes; you could get clips and cleats, but clipless pedals are more comfortable and release more easily in a crash than clips with tight toestraps. I wouldn't worry too much about the wheels except to make sure they're true and properly tensioned; a good set of tires, OTOH, might be worth springing for.
posted by adamrice at 10:58 AM on July 5, 2010

The local sponsoring club is listed as Tioga Velo Club, and their website says they hold weekly training rides, time trials and races. If you're close enough, IMO a $20 membership is worth the experience of riding in a group a few times before the race itself.
posted by sillymama at 11:13 AM on July 5, 2010

Best answer: Hmmm. Crits require experience -- I would not take this likely.

Yes, this is absolutely spot-on. First, it will be faster than you expect. It'll start very fast from the gun and continue until the adrenaline is burned off, probably 4-5 laps. After that, it'll slow down a bit and then yo-yo whenever someone tries to make a move off the front or when there's a prime. Expect the average to be 22-25mph, but you'll never actually be going that fast... you'll either be going 20mph or 27mph, kissing 30 at times and more in the sprint.

Also, because this is a criterium, there will be blood corners. If it's the same course as the Pro/1 race, it's a technical 6-corner course. That means carnage, especially in a pack full of Cat 5s who don't have a lot of experience cornering at speed in very close proximity to 49 other riders. And everyone will be sprinting out of every corner. That's why the speed fluctuates so much: slow for corner, sprint out, slow for corner, sprint out, etc. So, all the steady long distance riding you've done doesn't count for much when it's your ability to dig deep and then recover over and over and over that is meaningful.

Re: carnage... well, there were enough 4/5 riders on my club team who broke collarbones (and required surgery) last year that they now have an impromptu club called "Team Titanium." I'm recovering from a broken collarbone right now myself, actually, though I didn't need surgery. There will be crashes in this race. Staying forward will help you avoid them.

In preparation, find a group and ride with it, as much as you can. You need experience riding in close proximity to others. Even that, though, won't prepare you for the tightness of a crit. Practice sprinting out of the saddle, recovering for a short period, and repeating over and over. I'm not a coach, or your coach, and this isn't training advice, but the only way to get better is to do it. In fact, you should just start racing now at as many Cat 5 races as you can. You're likely to get dropped on the first or first ten races you do, so might as well start getting them out of the way.

In-race: stay in the first third of the pack (this probably be difficult for your first several races), but not in the wind. There's a maxim that if you're not moving forward, you're moving backwards. This is true. Pack position is all about fluid dynamics, and there will always be flows of riders moving up in the pack. Follow good wheels and avoid sketchy guys. Stay out of the wind. If there's a cross-wind, stay on the other side. Hold your line in a turn--follow through smoothly, don't brake unless absolutely necessary, and don't shift left or right. When the pack is going fast and is all strung out, just do your best to hold your position; when it slows and mushrooms, use your momentum to move up.

Your bike will definitely hinder you, and you will definitely be at a huge disadvantage without clipless pedals and shoes, 23c tires, and integrated shift/brake levers (I'm assuming you have downtube shifters). Especially if your feet slip off the pedals (they will if you don't have at least toe clips) or you look down to shift and miss something crucial ahead of you). You need toe clips at least. I don't even know if your bike will conform to regulations, but even if it does, you're going in hindered.

It should also be said that Chris Thater is a big-time race; the Pro/1 race is part of the National Racing Calendar, so this is a huge event, even for the lower categories.

If I were in your shoes, I'd join a racing club, start doing group rides, and absorb as much wisdom from those riders as possible. Then start doing some training crits in the spring and, if those go well, continue on into events like Chris Thater next summer. Bike racing is awesome, but deceptively difficult. It definitely helps to prepare well.
posted by The Michael The at 11:37 AM on July 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

One more item I left off of the In-race strategy: don't find yourself on the back of the pack. That's where the worst yo-yo effect exists vis-a-vis corners. The first guys through can go smoothly. The next guys slow a little, and the next a little more, and so on. If you're at the back, it'll feel like you're stopping and then sprinting as hard as you can. This will wear you out. But, you have to hold on, because as soon as you're popped off the back, it's very unlikely that you'll catch back on. Even if you do, you won't be able to do it repeatedly, and at that point your race is essentially over. So, stay forward!
posted by The Michael The at 11:42 AM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was thinking of asking local bike shops about renting a bike for a week or few leading up to the race. Or using this to justify dipping into savings for a new(er) bike.

Your warnings will help motivate me to train, but I'm not expecting cutthroat competition. The pro race is big, but I'd be in the cat5/citizen's race, which is a bunch of unattached, local riders. Last years results (pdf) show a 4 rider breakaway group and 5 stragglers. My overall strategy, I guess, will be to keep up with the front group as long as possible, and try to only get dropped along with someone else. Right?

This is the shorter 4-corner course used for everyone besides pro men, so at least I don't have to learn to turn right. I went for a first training ride around the course yesterday, and another guy was finishing up his training. He mentioned the Tioga Velo Club, so I was planning on going to a race as a spectator, to see their level.

Thanks for all the advice so far, keep it coming!
posted by domnit at 11:53 AM on July 5, 2010

Best answer: My specialty is crits. What I mean is that I suck less at crits than road races. Basically, if I'm in the top 10 with 500m to go, I've got a good shot at the podium. Aside the from the obvious like clipless pedals and STI shifting (you can get by with downtube shifters, but nobody else is going to be taking their hands off the bars to shift; you'll the the only one, and in a Cat 5 crit you really want your hands on the bars), I recommend:

-Getting comfortable going full throttle while in the drops. Stay away from the hoods and the tops of your bars. You need to be comfortable in full tuck and at nearly full power. You want to feel very fluid getting out of the saddle for a short sprint to bridge to the breakaway if necessary, but you want to have your hands on the drops at all times for that. Ride hard for a solid hour and never take your hands off the drops.

-Getting comfortable riding that distance with no nutrition and no water. You can go hard for an hour without this. Get used to it well before the race.

-Get race tires like these and latex tubes like these. Don't get one without the other. You will be blown away by how this affects the handling of your bike. It's night and day. When you put on your race tires, you're racing.

-My strategy is to always grab the first prime and then tuck back for the sprint. You might want to just wait for the sprint, or maybe you want to take a prime and then just finish the race. I like to get a prime and then contest the sprint; it makes me feel like I'm getting my money's worth.

-Try to stay in 3rd to 5th place at all times. This helps you a) set the pace, b) dominate the corners, and c) be in the sweet spot to get a good draft and be able to cover breakaways.

-Let the first breakaway go. Chances are they'll be caught, eaten up, and spit out the back of the peloton.

-If you get in a break, GET FUCKING ORGANIZED. Shout at them: "OK FELLAS, HOW DO YOU WANT TO DO THIS?!?!? LET'S EACH TAKE 20 REVOLUTIONS AT THE FRONT AND THEN CYCLE BACK. WE'LL TRY TO KEEP THE PACK AT BAY AND SHOOT IT OUT AT THE FINISH. DOES THAT SOUND GOOD? CAN WE AGREE ON THAT? WHO'S WITH ME?" Someone needs to organize the breakaway, and if nobody is telling you what to do, then YOU TELL THEM WHAT TO DO. You're not there to make friends, but if you work together in a 4-man break you have a 25% chance of a podium spot. If you don't organize, then each of you have a 0% chance of winning. Organize. If one guy is just sucking wheel and not doing any work, then he's using the rest of you to pull him to the sprint, and he'll probably snipe you at the end. It's a shitty thing to do, but that's bicycle racing, and that's his tactic. Tell the others in the group while he's taking his disproportionately short turn at the front: YO LET'S DROP THAT MOTHERFUCKER IN YELLOW AFTER HIS NEXT PULL. GO HARD FOR 20 SECONDS. PASS IT BACK. NEXT LAP. Break his will.

-Wait until the last possible minute to start your sprint. Most guys will go too hard too early. Get in their draft, suck their wheel, and stay seated. As soon as they open up a gap on you, accelerate up that gap and scrape by them. You don't want to pull out into the wind, you want to just appear out of their ass.

-Hold your line. Everyone will hate you if you don't. In a best case scenario, you're just disqualified.

Have fun. Crits are the absolute most fun you can have on a bike.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 12:48 PM on July 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Crits are the absolute most fun you can have on a bike.

Well, except for track racing, which is like crits on meth.
posted by The Michael The at 12:55 PM on July 5, 2010

Oh yeah, and after you race, and you think you were going a billion miles an hour, stick around and watch the P,1,2 Women race at 5:00pm and come back on Sunday to see the Pro Men at 11:30. They'll probably corner faster than you can I can sprint.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:00 PM on July 5, 2010

faster than you can and I can sprint.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:01 PM on July 5, 2010

Oh another thing: you said you have an opportunity to ride the course now, but make sure you ride it in both directions.

You're going to be taking corners from the far outside, swing over to just near the curb on the inside, and then swing wide back to the outside. That means you'll be crossing the yellow line on just about every turn. This means that you'll want to know where the potholes, manhole covers, and little bumps in the pavement are, on both sides of the road, not just in your lane of travel.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:09 PM on July 5, 2010

Ahhhhh, I took another minute to look at the Chris Thater reg page. It looks like you're planning on racing the "Public" (aka Citizens) category rather than the USAC 4/5. In that case, yes, it'll be less competitive, but that's a matter of degree: even straight Cat 5 races are shockingly competitive (including dudes who show up with Zipp 404 tubulars). So, everything I said before holds true, but it may be better, just because it'll be one-day license holders who haven't drunk the kool-aid, haven't yet bought in to the idea of crashing at speed, and who will give each other more room. Good luck.
posted by The Michael The at 1:38 PM on July 5, 2010

I used to race primarily citizens races. They are nothing to slouch at. A lot of citizens racers are guys like I was who could have raced cat 5 and maybe moved up the ranks but just didn't quite have the motivation. I can remember the pack doing the first three miles.

You'll get dropped right away but at least try and finish the thing.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 11:48 AM on July 6, 2010

crap. * i can remember the pack going 30mph for the first 3 miles.*
posted by DieHipsterDie at 11:50 AM on July 6, 2010

Response by poster: Hey, y'all, thanks for the advice. Most everyone had a nicer bike than me, but I kept with the front group and placed 3rd!
posted by domnit at 11:21 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:23 PM on August 28, 2010

« Older Ganesh's bomb shelter...   |   Where can I find this new yorker style poster? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.