Everything You Need To Know About Road Racing

A guide to handling everything you might encounter while competing on skinny tyres.

Molly Hurford |

Road racing is a hugely rewarding hobby, but it can also be intimidating, whether you’ve only watched it on TV or have been lining up at races yourself for years. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed – by the training, the racing strategies, the etiquette, or simply the pressure – former pro road cyclist and long-time cycling coach Janel Holcomb has some words of wisdom to get you racing safely and confidently.

Here, she points out strategies any of us can use to race our best, and advises certain tactics for specific kinds of road racing:

Do Your Prep Work

Review the race course: “It was a lot of planning, for me, when I got started. That way, I was prepared, even if I was nervous,” says Holcomb. “I wanted to plan so there were as few surprises as possible, so what I did was always do a course recon. I find when you’re racing locally, that’s not too hard, and if you can’t get there, you can use Google Maps and street view it if you can’t preview in person.”

Ride in a pack: Before you start racing, it’s a good idea to spend some time riding with other people to get used to drafting, moving around in a pack, and even sneaking in some sprints to town lines or to the local coffee shop. “On a group ride, at least you’re in close proximity with others,” Holcomb says, “And that helps a lot. If you’re on a group ride, you get used to that proximity.” Strategy doesn’t replace athletic ability, though, so make sure to follow a training plan to get in tip-top shape.

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Simulate racing: Once you’re comfortable riding in a group, either ask the group to help you practice, or find a group that incorporates race simulations into its rides. “A lot of the group rides would have sprints at different times, some downhills, or you’d roll through in a pace line and go hard at the top of hills, so you got to practice a lot of race-type scenarios,” Holcomb says. If you’re just riding with a group of friends, ask them to help you practice by setting up some random sprints during the ride.

Know the lingo: Cyclists can seem like they’re talking in code, and announcers during the race aren’t any better. Here are a few cycling terms you might hear as you’re racing.

  • Prime: The race isn’t over, but there is a sprint to the finish line on a Prime lap, and there’s often a small prize attached.
  • Penultimate lap: Second-to-last lap (start getting excited, it’s almost over!).
  • Peloton: The main group of riders in a race.
  • Breakaway: The small group or rider who has gotten ahead of the peloton.
  • Chase group: A group attempting to catch up to the breakaway (this can be the whole peloton or a group of riders that breaks away from the peloton to go after the breakaway).

On Race Day

Warm up: You might be confused to see people on trainers in the parking lot of a race venue, or rolling up and down a tiny stretch of road. They’re warming up for the race, getting their legs ready to go, and go fast. “Warm ups can almost always improve performance,” Holcomb says. This is especially true in any race that’s going to have a hard, fast start, like a time trial. So even if it’s just for a few minutes, spin around and get your legs moving.

Account for unpredictability: Racing requires constant vigilance – people get mechanicals, get distracted, and misjudge their handling, and that’s something you have to be ready for. To avoid crashing (or causing a crash), Holcomb says accepting unpredictability will help when you’re in that race scenario where the person in front of you grabs his or her brake. If you’re prepared for something like that to happen, it’s easier to adjust your course of action and not panic.

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Err on the side of caution: Road-racing etiquette takes time to pick up, and people make mistakes. Don’t be surprised if someone yells at you during the race (justified or not), since tempers tend to flare in group racing situations. “If it’s your first race, the biggest thing is to go out and use it as a way to observe and watch what’s going on and just focus on being as safe as humanely possible,” Holcomb says. “That said, I wanted to win my first race, and you’re not going to win it by just watching.” So, she says, the goal is to find a balance: if you’re feeling super strong and it’s easy to ride at the front, do that. But if you’re struggling, think about your safety first and hang in the back until you get more comfortable. You’ll still learn a lot about racing, even if you’re not winning any sprints.

Be realistic: “If you’re not used to technical descents, stay towards the back on that mountain descent,” Holcomb says. You know your limits, and your first race isn’t the time to push those limits. Don’t overestimate your abilities here! If you’re just getting into road racing, realistically, you’re likely not going to win this race, or get offered a professional contract for your sweet skills, so pace yourself and stay safe.

Keep track of your front wheel: “I always tell people that they’re responsible for their front wheel,” Holcomb says: That’s both literal and figurative advice. You’re in charge of your front wheel in the sense that if someone in front of you does something weird (like grabs his brake or changes his line suddenly), you’re still responsible for holding your line and not swerving into the guy next to you, Holcomb says. In a figurative sense, it just means you’re responsible for yourself and your bike, race respectfully and safely.

Be predictable: Keeping yourself upright is easier if you don’t try crazy lines (like riding the cobbles while everyone else sticks to the pavement). “Ride predictable lines, especially when you’re new,” says Holcomb. “No sudden change in speed or movement. If you find yourself suddenly overlapping someone’s wheel and he stands up and you’re worried he’ll run into you, don’t overreact and make a drastic change that will have the guy behind you crashing into you.”

Keep it simple: Race tactics? What race tactics? If you’re really new to road racing, don’t worry about strategic places to attack (i.e., accelerate and break away from the pack), or where you want to be in the sprint finish. Just focus on finishing. “When you’re just starting, it’s too much to be able to contribute much strategically to the race because there’s too much new that’s going on,” Holcomb adds.

Learn Race-Specific Skills

Hang on in your first single-lap road race: These races can be brutally hard for beginning racers. Holcomb’s first piece of advice is to stay in the pack for as long as you can. “Heart rate, power, exertion—none of that matters if you’re off the back,” she says. It’s often easier to put out one hard 15-second effort to stay attached to the back of the peloton than it will be to finish the rest of the race solo.  Knowing the course is even more important in single-lap races, Holcomb says: Avoid missing poorly marked turns by loading the route into your cycling GPS computer or by taping a cue sheet to your handlebars.

RELATED: 5 Skills Every Beginner Cyclist Should Master

Get sneaky in your first circuit race: In a circuit race, you’ll do a few long laps of a large course. These are more common than traditional road races at a local level because they’re easier to mark and plan. Holcomb’s advice is the same as her road race advice, but she also cautions that in a circuit race, “There could be moves that happen in the first couple laps, but statistically speaking, they aren’t moves that stick.” So unless you’re feeling really good and want to practice chasing down breakaway groups, stay in the main pack for the first half of the race and watch what everyone else is doing. You’ll learn where the best spots to escape from the group are, and you’ll be more familiar with the course so if a breakaway does go in the last two laps, you’re ready to go with them.

Focus on skills in your first criterium: Criteriums are the shortest road races, and also one of the most technical: They involve corner after corner of tight turns and often end in sprint finishes. Your best advice, Holcomb says, is to “Practice cornering ahead of time.” Practice by yourself, especially at higher speeds, but also try cornering with a group so you know how it feels to have people on both sides of you as you lean into a corner. You want to avoid braking before corners as much as possible during a crit, since that’s where most of the separations happen, and where most of your energy will be wasted. If you’re nailing corners with no problem, Holcomb says this is when you should start going for primes. “When you go for primes, it’s like a mini practice sprint,” she says, which means not only do you get sprint practice (with less pressure than a finish sprint), but you get to know the finish line and how the sprint will play out – so you’re ready for the actual last-lap sprint.

Prep right for your first time trial: Time trials are the least scary of the road races for beginners, because they’re solo efforts and pack tactics don’t come into play. You still want to know the course (not all time trials are flat and straight) and prepare for corners, but you will prepare a bit differently. “Do a good warm-up!” Holcomb emphasises. “You’re starting out at such a hard level in a time trial that you need to be warmed up and ready to go.” Because time trials for beginners are often short, it’s important to be ready to go with your heart rate up and your legs feeling good. If you’re warming up on the road, on the trainer, or on rollers, do a few sets of hard, 10-second efforts to get ready.

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Stay strong in your first stage race: “Eat. Eat early and eat often!” Holcomb laughs. Stage races are races of attrition and can combine any of the other race styles – single-lap, circuit, crit, time trial, etc.—in any order over the course of a few days. Your task is to stay just as prepared on the last day as you were on the first day, and to do that, Holcomb says making sure you eat and drink enough on and off the bike is key. For multi-day events, post-race recovery meals become even more important, so make sure you’re making that meal count.

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