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Competitive Cycling Starter Guide



The Tour de France, the world’s best-known and most prestigious bicycle road race, is ongoing through most of July. In its honor, we recently featured a Bike Racing Starter Guide for aspiring competitive road bikers. Road racing, however, isn’t the only option Adrenalists can pursue from the back of a bike.

Here is a look at some decidedly different flavors of competitive biking — and how you can get involved.

What are your options?

USA Cycling, the national governing body for professional bike racing in the United States, covers a number of different categories of competition.

Track racing is a variation on road racing in which competitors run multiple laps around an enclosed track inside of a velodrome. You’re still dealing with what are, for all intents and purposes, paved roads in track racing, but you’ve got a much more limited set of variable environmental conditions to be concerned about. There’s no chance for inclement weather, of course, and the long, endurance-style multi-stage road races — the Tour de France being one example — don’t have an analog in the track racing world. You also see a lot of variety in the different types of track racing competitions, including both individual and team-based challenges.

Mountain bike races are considerably more challenging, as they move the bulk of the racing action to an offroad environment. There are many different competition variants within this category. Cross-country is one of the more popular options, with all riders typically starting at the same time and racing to finish first along an offroad trail that typically spans upwards of five miles.

Another popular mountain bike competition is downhill. This is a time trial event in which riders compete for the best time as they guide their bike down a steep downhill slope. You’re dealing with higher speeds than you would in cross-country, but also rougher terrain. Cross-country and downhill mountain biking are perhaps the most popular types of offroad competitions; there are a number of others, though many of them are simply variations on cross-country and/or downhill as they’re defined above, introducing longer distances, slalom-like challenges and multi-stage events.

The final competitive category covered by USA Cycling is cyclo-cross, which is a blend of track racing and offroad racing. Cyclo-cross events are multi-lap races in which the terrain is generally a mixture of paved roads and offroad trails with varying degrees of roughness. These events also include obstacles that require riders to dismount and carry their bike until the path is clear enough to ride on again, sometimes as many as 30 times in an hour-long race. Interestingly, cyclo-cross racing has its roots in training programs that bikers would use to keep themselves in shape during the off-season’s cold winter months.

What will you need to compete?

All variations of cycling require very specific types of bicycles.

Competitive Cycling Starter Guide

Even moving from road racing to track racing requires some different equipment, since a track’s controlled environment and always-level surface allows for the use of fixed-gear bikes. Track bicycles also come without brakes and feature narrow, high-pressure tires.

Mountain bikes are essentially the opposite of track bikes. These rides are built for rugged conditions and they come equipped with a gearshift, wider wheels fitted with more durable tires, brakes, front (and typically rear) suspension and a heavier, more durable frame. There are subtle variations at the pro level within this category to account for different types of offroad events, but many of those features mentioned above carry over.

Cyclo-cross requires a very specific type of bike that falls somewhere between a road racing bike and a mountain bike. Visually, they more closely resemble road race bikes, though they stand apart with a different-sized frame and fat, knobby tires of the sort that are more suitable for offroad racing. The difference in the frame design has everything to do with cutting down the weight on the bike, since cyclo-cross riders must frequently dismount and carry their rides past obstacles.

Prices vary wildly for these different types of bikes. You might find one for as little as $400, but even a relatively simple fixed-gear track bike can cost you upwards of $1,000 or more. We’re going to skip specific bike recommendations here. Do some homework. Turn to the great Biking 101 resources that maintains. Just remember that, for the most part, you’re getting a lot less bike when you shop on a restricted budget.

How do you get involved in competitions?

In the previous feature we looked at USA Cycling, the U.S.-based arm of the global governing organization for competitive biking, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). One thing we didn’t touch on, however, is how USA Cycling handles different levels of competitive racers.

Competitive Cycling Starter Guide

Each of the four official USA Cycling competition types — road, track, mountain bike and cyclo-cross — are further broken down into separate skill-dictated categories. Mountain bike racers are measured in categories 1 through 3 while the rest of the event types are broken into five categories, with the lowest-level competitors ranked in higher-number categories.

Advancement through the lower levels is dictated more by experience than purely by skill level. Moving from category 5 to 4 in road racing, for example, requires the racer to complete a total of 10 mass-start races. At higher levels, this becomes a point-based system, where skill level comes into play. Using the road racing example once again, moving from category 4 to 3 requires a racer to compete in at least 25 races in a single year and score a total of ten top 10 finishes in races with 30 or more competitors.

As you might expect, the full set of rules for upgrading from one category to the next in different types of competitions is laid out in full on You’ll want to acquaint yourself with the finer details as you zero in on the type of competitions you’d like to participate in.

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