Road racing is exhilarating – riding in a close group means higher speeds and even higher heart rates as competitive nature powers your legs.
The social scene around road racing is very active, too - and getting stuck in doesn't need to be scary.
It’s understandable however that the idea of pinning on a race number and joining the start line can be intimidating – even getting there can be a bit bewildering as you try to navigate the British Cycling license landscape.
We've put together a guide to some of the logistical elements of beginning your road racing career, as well as some of the skills that are well worth brushing up on...
A License to Race
To get your race license, you’ll need to be riding for a club that is accredited by British Cycling. Being part of a cycling club gives you instant access to group riding practice on club runs, and a wealth of knowledge and experience, so it is well worth getting involved.
The license is £36 for most adults, but your British Cycling Membership does come with a provisional version – which allows you to race a couple of events before paying up.
You won’t be able to get any points with your 'P' plates on - so if you plan to win your first race you best get a full license first!
Your first license will be a Fourth Category license. To move up to Third Category, you need to pick up 12 points during one year long season. To move to Second Category, you need 40 points, and so on, right up to Elite Category, where you need 300.
Once you get your Third Cat license, you’ll never be demoted back to Fourth, but above that you need to get enough points each season to maintain your position.
You get points for your placing in a race, and the number of point will vary depending upon the rank of the race.
Where to Race
Once you’ve got the road racing bug, the British Cycling Race Calendar will probably become your favourite website.
Events are category specific, though there are many women’s ‘E/1/2/3/4’ races, that any rider with a license can enter.
Entering E/1/2/3/4 races will mean you’ll be racing against some very experienced riders. This can be a good way to learn, but you might find yourself watching the strongest women from afar as they lap the field! Category 3/4 races might be more comfortable.
Crits vs Open Road
Most people start out racing criteriums – these are held on closed road, purpose designed cycle tracks such as Cyclopark in Kent. Crit races take place all over the country, and it’s likely there will be a circuit near you.
Crit races are usually around an hour, and take place over multiple laps – usually with a lap board counting you down. When you pass the board, and hear a bell being rung, that means the lap you are just beginning is the last (so if you can, try and get a breather and prepare for the sprint).
When you’ve done a few crits, you might want to start looking at open road races – these are often over longer distances, and though crit circuits do have ups and downs, you’re more likely to encounter hills, rough surfaces, gravel and everything else natural terrain throws at you.
Criteiums are hard, fast and quick affairs – they suit riders who can work close to their maximum heart rate for the hour, and fast twitch muscle riders who can put in attacks and go with those that other riders throw at them. Road races will vary with the terrain, but being longer, endurance is more important.
Skills to Race
A lot of the skills you need to race will become apparent when you ride your first events, even if that means making the odd mistake as you go along.
When we spoke to Elinor Barker, formerly of Wiggle Honda, at the Matrix Fitness Pro Cycling Team Launch, she told us she’d advise new racers to enjoy their sport, and accept mistakes happen - saying: "You’re going to make mistakes, the only way to get better is by making those mistakes in the first place. The more you make the quicker you’ll learn early on."
However, there are some skills you can try to master by practicing before you get to your first event:
Riding in a group
Riding in close proximity to other riders when working as hard as you can to maintain the pace requires you to be comfortable and confident riding in a group. In this case – it really is all about ‘practice makes perfect’.
Rides with your cycling club are the good old fashioned way to learn, and many clubs run specific chaingang and race training sessions. Check out our guide on riding in a group and start training with friends and team mates.
Cornering in the group is a skill that can be a stumbling block for some riders, and it takes practice and know how. The key is never to brake on the corner, and to maintain your line throughout, moving to the left or right can cause disruption to those around you.
Make sure you are familiar with road riding hand signals – putting your hand in the air to indicate a puncture, pointing out pot holes and indicating out when passing obstacles, as this will ensure you can communicate effectively and there are no sudden surprises!
Another useful skill to master is clipping in quickly at the start of an event. When the call of ‘Go’ sounds, you don’t want to be looking down at your feet trying to get cleat and pedal to connect!
Starting with your strongest leg clipped in, at around the 3’oclock position should give you the best chance of a good push off, but practicing clipping in quickly, without looking down, is a good idea.
Drinking and eating on the bike
Drinking and eating on the bike when you’re riding at an easy pace needs to be second nature before you’ll feel comfortable doing it in the middle of a race. You definitely don’t want to find you aren't confident doing so five laps in when cotton mouth has hit.
Make a note to regularly practice drinking and eating on the bike – ideally when you’re working quite hard, riding uphill – basically find ways of making something that is generally very easy to do in training more difficult, to replicate how it will feel in a race.
You’ll pick up your own racing tactics over time – and your first races should really just be about having fun, and not putting too much pressure on yourself.
However, if you want to make a go at being competitive, try to stay in the first third of the group during the race. The pace will probably accelerate in the first few minutes, but hold on, and concentrate on keeping well within the group, where the effort required to keep up is less due to the benefit of drafting behind other riders.
If you do find yourself close to the front, be careful not to give the entire peloton a tow around the course until the final sprint, and flick your elbow out to make it clear you’re moving off the front before positioning yourself in the safety of the bunch, where you can conserve some energy.
To the contrary, if you find yourself out the back of the group, you have two choices: time trial around on your own for an hour, or find a group of other stragglers and work together to get as close to the bunch, or the front of the race, as possible. The latter will probably be much more fun, and gives you an opportunity to practice skills in a smaller group.
There are some specific women's skills training days available that may help - check out the Racing Chance foundation for upcoming dates.
Whatever you do, take the advice from Elinor Barker - and have lots of fun during your first season!