It’s not difficult to find lots of “how to start racing” lists on the web. These tend to include training recommendations, day-of preparations, what to expect during the race, and what to do next. However these lists tend to fluctuate between offering advice which is too specific (“eat a good amount of carbs 3-4 hours before, nibble slightly leading up, then take a gel just before…”) to so vague as to be unhelpful (“make sure you train a lot in the month before”). Now to be clear, I don’t mean that these lists are all useless. In fact I quite like the collection of mini-articles at criteriumcoaching.com (I’m not affiliated with them, I just stumbled over them via Google). However that site has a large collection of little articles, and for a new/potential racer, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
With that in mind, I am writing a series of posts in an attempt to distill the most important information new racers need, and nothing more. I won’t give you detailed info about nutrition or a precise peaking period. I won’t tell you to “train hard” or “stay on a wheel” without telling you exactly what I mean by these things, and how to practically implement them.
Finally, you may be wondering if I’m at all qualified to give you this advice, and what you can expect to get if you follow it. I’m sure that I was not unlike many of you, in that when I started racing seriously (last season) my goal was to be involved in the racing (not just spit out the back), and to be successful in category 5. Perhaps one day I’d like to be a cat 2, but at the start all I wanted was to race! Being dropped in the first lap of a crit isn’t racing, and finishing 15/30 every road race is only barely just racing. I feel that I’m qualified to advise people with the same goal (to race!) because I accomplished that goal. I went from being dropped every race, to contesting the podium on every race. I don’t pretend to be an elite racer, or to be a seasoned vet with years of nuanced experience. But I am someone who wanted to race, and after a solid 1.5 seasons or so of work, I achieved that goal. With that, let’s begin Part 1.
The months leading up:
If you’re considering racing bikes for fun, I’m going to assume to you’ve been riding your bike regularly for at least a few months. If you’re like most newer riders who are beginning to take the sport seriously, what you tend to do is pick a distance that you think is challenging, and then go out and ride it as hard as you can. Despite what some books/websites may tell you, this is actually helpful to make you faster. The primary reason for this is that you’re new, and pretty much any hard riding will make you faster. However in terms of preparing to race there are two problems with this “training”: 1) your body will quickly approach its limits with this method, and 2) races are essentially never ridden at anything resembling a constant power-output.
Let’s start with the first point. When you first started doing this, you probably saw your average times begin to creep up. However at some point your progress begins to slow. This is the point of diminishing returns. I am not an exercise physiologist, so I’m not going to make a fool of myself by attempting to explain the precise adaptations that take place when exercising. What I do know is that you must strain your body to improve it. If you’re riding 30 miles at a steady, hard pace, it’s very difficult to strain your body. If you strain it more at the start, then you’ll lose power and slow down for the second half. If you keep your pace for the first half and then strain your body for the second half, you can only strain yourself so much, because you’ll have some fatigue from the first half.
Okay, so what’s the point of all that rambling? Intervals. Do intervals. I’ve written a short post on intervals which has all the details you need, so I’ll link to that. However, the TL;DR version is: once or twice a week (not more) do an ~15 minute warmup, then do one minute as hard as possible, then rest for 3-4 minutes. Repeat this 6-8 times. If you still have 3+ months until your race, also do the following once a week: ~15 minute warmup, then ride at a hard, steady pace for 20 minutes. You want to maintain constant power output, but you also want to be totally spent at the end. This is difficult to do, so it will take some practice. A flat road is best for this, as you can just watch your speed to gauge your effort.
The second thing to do is group riding. You may have some friends who ride, and you and them go ride every once in a while. This is not the same thing! The simple fact is, if you go to an organized group ride where most of the people race, the dynamic is totally different. An important thing to keep in mind when you go to your first group ride is that you will probably be dropped! Certainly there are people who show up the first day and blow everyone out of the water, but like in most aspects of life, these people are the exception. Therefore, it is extremely important to have the right mindset when you do group rides. Firstly, you should be nervous! Most newcomers are nervous about being dropped. The key is to accept that you probably will be dropped, but to give it everything you have to not be dropped! Keep coming back every week, and contribute what you can, when you can. Start out by just trying to hang, then later when you can hang on, try to participate in the pacelines (doing your pulls). Later you can try to mix it up in the sprints/attacks. Finally, you can be the one initiating the attacks. Use this time not only as physical training, but also as mental training. Try to analyze what you did well at, and what you struggled at. Initially you will (probably) struggle so much with the fitness that you can’t learn a lot from the ride. But if you continue your normal training, and include a once-a-week group ride, then within a few weeks I guarantee you will progress. As you gain fitness you can start to gain both physical and mental strength and cunning from group rides. In short, they’re excellent, so do them.