The Tour de France is happening right now. It’s a month-long bike race, from June 22 to July 22, in which competitors ride their way from Liege, Belgium to Paris, France. All told, riders are looking at more than 2,100 miles of distance to cover, divided up into 20 discrete stages. It’s a challenging race, but it’s also among the most prestigious of the bicycle races on the professional circuit.
Photo Credit: RobinEllisActor – flickr.com
If you’re a proper Adrenalist, then you’re reading the news of the race’s progress each day and imagining yourself on the seat of one of those bikes. It’s how you’re wired. You bear witness to feats of human excellence and then you want to participate in some way. Not everyone can compete in the Tour de France, and it’s probably not the way to go for your first competition. If competitive biking is something you’re interested in turning into a real pursuit, however, then here are a few tips to get you started.
What kind of cyclist are you?
The first thing you need to figure out is what you’d like to do on the back of your soon-to-be-purchased new bike. Are you a speed demon? Do you want to be able to pull off tricks? Would you prefer a paved road beneath your tires or do you want to cover more rough-and-tumble offroad trails? Perhaps you’re interested in being able to enjoy some mixture of these.
Biking in all its facets is a big category, so we’re just going to focus on one type of competitive cycling: road racing.
Road racing, as the name implies, occurs on proper roads, typically with all riders starting at the same time and the winner being the first to cross the finish line. No, this is not rocket science to figure out. It is perhaps most popular in Europe. The birth of road racing as a professional sport can be traced back to the region, circa the late 19th century, and it’s been a component of the Olympic Games since 1896.
What kinds of races can you look forward to?
For every big racing event like the Tour de France, there are any number of smaller ones that cover a great deal less time and distance. We’ll cover how you get involved later on; for now, let’s take a look at the different types of races you might encounter as you take your first crack at competitive cycling.
The shortest of the road races starts and ends in a single day, though some of these will cover more than 100 miles. There are also nighttime variants, such as the Twilight Series weekend held in Athens, Georgia. This is a bigger event with a more diverse focus on pro cycling, though the centerpiece is the Twilight Criterium, is a multi-lap road race set on a short-distance track.
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The next step up are stage races, exemplified by the Tour de France. Unlike a typical single-day race, it’s impossible to judge the overall winner for a stage race based on who crosses the finish line first, since (usually) every stage begins with all riders on equal footing. Sometimes these are team-based competitions, typically with different legs of the race catering to the strengths of different types of riders.
It’s best to think of a stage race as a series of single day races or individual time trials. In fact, sometimes they’re just that. There are stage winners for each leg, but the overall winner of a stage race is the rider with the lowest cumulative time.
The most challenging race type of them all is the ultra marathon, which combines the single-day race’s focus on endurance with the stage race’s focus on long distance competition. An ultra marathon is a single stage race, typically lasting for multiple days, in which the winner is the first rider to cross the finish line. The most well-known ultra marathon is the Race Across America, a cross-country journey that typically lasts for about a week.
What sorts of skills and tools do you need?
The first and most important thing that you’ll need is, of course, a bicycle. Try to consider where you’ll be riding when you start your shopping. You’re definitely going to want to invest in a racing bike, but track cyclists will need a very different sort of ride than road racers will. Figure out how and where you’d like to compete, and base your purchase on that.
Expect to spend at least $1,500 and probably closer to $2,000 on up for your ride. Bicycles can be purchased for considerably less, but if you’re serious about turning your biking hobby into a professional pursuit on some level, then you’re going to need to invest appropriately in the right equipment.
Once you’ve got your wheels squared away, you’ll have to learn how to bike competitively. Pro cyclists know that conservation of energy and maximizing your endurance is important, especially when it’s a longer race that you’re talking about. If you just hit the road and start pedaling, you’re quickly going to be outpaced by people who know and understand the sport better than you do.
It’s important to know, for example, when you should stick with the peloton, a word that refers to the main group of riders. When you see a bike race on TV and there’s a giant pack of bikers all moving along together, that’s happening for a very specific reason. By sticking close together in a group, riders take advantage of the aerodynamic concept of drafting to use less energy than they would to achieve forward momentum when pedaling alone.
It’s an offensive tactic as well, sticking behind a lead rider to conserve your energy and then relying on those reserves to pick up an advantage later on. Sometimes you’ll see a group of riders pull ahead, a formation known as a break. Here, a smaller group works together to pull ahead of the peloton and pick up the lead.
For longer races especially, it’s also important to do some heavy research ahead of time and learn about the route(s) you’ll be riding. Where and when are there climbs? Where is the terrain flat and smooth? Conserving energy is all well and good, but you don’t win a race by being conservative. The trick is to save your juice for when you really need it, and it’s essential to know the lay of the land if you’re going to be effective in that regard.
How can you get started?
There’s a single organization that covers professional cycling around the glove: Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), based in Aigle, Switzerland. This governing body was established in 1900 and is responsible for enforcing the rules of the sport and issuing the necessary licenses to competitors. When different races are “officially” classified, both on the amateur and on the professional levels, it’s the UCI that certifies those classifications.
The UCI is the overseer, but there are also smaller groups that together fall under the banner and jurisdiction of the main governing body. In the United States, the national governing body for pro cyclists is USA Cycling, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This is where you’ll go if you want to compete on a professional level.
The website lays out in detail exactly what you need to do to get started. The first step is to find your state or region’s USA Cycling local association (LA). It’s also recommended that you join a local cycling club, so you can pick up the benefit of wisdom from more experienced riders. You’ll eventually need to decide when and where you want to race, but the first step to that is getting your license.
USA Cycling has different types of licenses for different types of race riders and roles, everything from the actual bike-riding competitor to coaches, mechanics, race officials and the like. For riders looking to compete, there are two options: an annual license, which costs $60 for adults and covers your entry into all USA Cycling races for the year, or a one-day license, which can be purchased for $10 at the site of whichever race you’re looking to enter. There are additional hoops to jump through for those who wish to race outside the country, but the USA Cycling license is all you’ll really need — aside from your bike! — for local competitions.
Cover Photo Credit: EEPaul / Flickr.com