Race Day (Pre-Race):
For a criterium you’ll want to arrive about an hour early. You’ll need to check in and get your number, get changed, get your bike prepared (if you had to stuff it into the back of your car), and get warmed up. I don’t worry too much about arriving too early, since most of the time there are races before you, and watching them is both fun and informative. However, arriving late can be very stressful and start you off without proper warmup or course recon time, so try hard to avoid that.
For a road race you’ll want to arrive one to two hours early. If you’ve never ridden the course then you’ll at least want to ride the first and last few miles to get a feel for it. It’s extremely common to find advice online to pre-ride the last half mile or so of the course, so that you can scout the finish. However, if this is your first race there is a good chance that you will have been dropped by that point! Don’t take it personally, (almost) everyone gets dropped in the first (and second, and third…) race! So in my opinion, it’s more important to ride the first few miles. This way you can be physically prepared, but also mentally prepared. You need to know if a big hill is coming, or if there are technical or dirty corners that you need to be positioned precisely for. Note that none of this applies to criteriums, since most crit courses are only around a mile long, so pre-riding the whole thing is easy.
For many years the conventional wisdom was that your warmup time should be inversely proportional to the length of your event, so long road races need a short warmup, and short crits need a long warmup. However, this view is changing. Even Team SKY warm up (YouTube) for only about 20 minutes. I won’t delve deeply into this in this post, but I find that this type of short warmup works very well. For convenience I’ve copied their warmup protocol below:
5 min light
8 min progressive to Zone 5 (near-maximal effort)
2 min easy
2 min, which will include 3 x 6 sec accelerations
3 min easy
As you can see, this warmup is extremely simple. Research suggests that you should not do maximal efforts in your warmup, and hard sub-maximal efforts are beneficial. If you have a trainer you can bring along this works great, but if not just try to find a flat stretch of road. The key is to “stay in your own head” during your warmup. It’s easy to see riders flying past you or winding up sprints, and feel like you must look like a total wimp during your easy pedaling. It’s also easy to push hard up the hills and coast down them. All of these things are distractions, so block them out.
I tend to give myself 30 to 40 minutes or so to warm up. Even though the warmup is only 20 minutes, it may take a little bit to find an appropriate area to warm up, especially if you don’t have a trainer. Even though I have a trainer I tend to warm up on the road, because I like the feeling of riding naturally, and I like that I can get away from everyone and be on my own for a bit. If this is a criterium, after your warmup try to do one more easy lap of the course to put it into your mind.
Besides warming up physically you also want to warm up mentally, meaning get any distractions out of your head and focus on riding your bike. I like to remind myself that the start will be very hard, but that I’ve been training for months and I’m ready. Without these reminders I can get “shocked” by a hard start and feel discouraged. But if I’ve properly prepared myself mentally then I am better able to stay positive.
You want to finish warming up and be at the start line only 5 to 10 minutes before the start of the race. More than that and your body can “cool down” too much; less than that and you may get a bad starting position or be rushing to make it at the last minute.
A few minutes before the scheduled start time of your race the announcer will probably call for your category to come line up. They may call off names to check who is there, and you will likely get a quick safety talk. Try to keep your body and mind relaxed during this time, and remind yourself that no matter what your result, you will gain something from this race. Even getting dropped on the first lap is something to learn from.
Most of the time you’ll get to line up where you want. For any type of race, being near (but not at) the front is best. Keep one feet clipped in and be ready to roll at the whistle. If you’re anything like I was you’ll be incredible nervous and excited! When the whistle blows, you go!