Guide to road racing
A huge thank you to Rob Powell who has written a very useful introduction for those new to discipline, and it explains how to enter events, as well as tips for riding.
What is road racing?
Road-racing is the biggest discipline of cycle sport, with a following in most countries around the world and the most famous events, including the Tour de France. Road-racing is a simple concept: a big group of riders start together, ride over a road course and the winner is the first over the line...but somehow it's always far more complicated than that! There are some variations, for example handicap events, where some riders are given a head start, and criteriums, which take place over many laps of short (1-2km) circuits usually around motor racing circuits.
What events are there?
There is a full calendar of races in Wales, with a road-race on the highways every couple of weeks through the spring and summer plus criteriums at Llandow and Pembrey on midweek summer evenings. The events are listed on www.britishcyling.org.uk and in a handbook that is sent quarterly to British Cycling members.
Some of the main events through the year are:
-Betty Pharaoh memorial, late March around the Vale of Glamorgan
-Noel Jones memorial, late April near Hay-on-Wye
-L'Etape de la Defonse (Cowbridge 2-Day), July
-Welsh RR champs, last Sunday of May, location changes every year
-Tour of Carmarthenshire, June in west Wales
-Ras De Cymru (Tour of South Wales), last week of June, locations across
What do I need to get started?
Road-races are ridden on standard road bikes, just like people ride on club runs. No tri-bars are permitted, only standard 'drop' handlebars. Helmets are required, and you must wear a jersey in at least the correct club colours (yellow, black, white) - preferably the official club design. It is advisable to become a member of British Cycling and take out a racing license. This gives you a wide range of legal protection and accident insurance whenever you are riding, not just in races. It's worth remembering that your license will be sent to the club secretary not directly to you; this ensures that people are actually members of the clubs they say they are. Alternatively you can purchase a 'day license' for £10, which will cover your insurance only for the duration of the race.
Who can ride which event?
There is a ranking system for riders, to enable most people to have a fair go at racing.
The categories are:
-Elite: usually full-time or pro riders on big racing teams
-1st Cat: the very best club riders or amateur racing-team riders
-2nd Cat: high-standard club riders with a fair amount of experience
-3rd Cat: most club riders that race quite often
-4th Cat: beginner-level riders or those that don't race much
Every rider starts out as a 4th Cat when they take out a racing license and moves up as soon as they have scored 10 points. Once you achieve 3rd Cat status you can't be relegated back down to 4th Cat. Going from 3rd Cat to 2nd Cat requires a further 40 points. Promotion is instant, and you stay at the new category until the end of the season (unless you get another 160 points and go up to 1st Cat). You start the following season in your highest achieved category, but with zero points, and need to score a minimum amount of points or you will be relegated back at the end of that season. So promotions can happen at any time; relegations are only at the end of the following season. Many decent club riders spend their racing "careers" bouncing up and down between 2nd and 3rd Cat. Luckily British Cycling take care of all the points and send out a letter to notify you when your category changes. You can keep a track of your ranking on their website if you like.
Different races are open to different categories of riders. It's unusual to find events on the road that are open to individual categories, although this happens sometimes in criteriums; usually a range of categories will race together.
Made it so the finish – now what?
Very often the finish will be located some way from the HQ. This is for a few reasons:
finishing up a big hill will make sure that there are big gaps between the riders to give a clear result; and finding a quiet road will enable the finishing area to be more safely managed.
Unfortunately it means a little extra riding to get back to the HQ, but don't head straight home because you need to hand your number in and collect your racing license.
There is almost always food and drink to buy at the HQ afterwards as well. It sometimes takes a little while for the organiser and commissaire to announce the official result, but please stay if you can to applaud the winners even if you haven't won a prize yourself. The official results will be available on the British Cycling website within a day or two, although they may only record the riders who finished in the points; organisers don't usually send out a result sheet. If you have scored points then these will be automatically added to your individual tally and to the
club's ranking position.
If the race is a stage race then you'll be back for more racing, maybe straight away afterwards. A stage race consists of a number of road-races, and maybe also some time-trials and criteriums over a few days. It's normal to have, eg, a road-race on a Saturday morning, then a time-trial that afternoon, and then another road-race on the Sunday. There are winners for each individual stage, but also an overall winner based on the lowest aggregate time across all the stages (sometimes with time deductions for winning primes or stages). In a stage race you need to finish every stage to stay in the race, and it is a considerable achievement just to finish a long stage race. Tired from a few days' racing weaker riders will be more susceptible to being dropped early in stages so often join up together in a 'laughing group' purely to make sure that they all get to the end of the stage and are able to join their team-mates in the bar after the race with their heads held high!
Finally, what is a ‘chipper?’
The word comes from 'fish and chips', suggesting that that will be the prize for the race winner. The definition of the word chipper will vary for each rider depending on what category that rider happens to be at that particular time. The basic rule is that any race which a rider deems below themselves is a chipper, but as soon as they move up or down a category
then their definition will change. Also used as a post-race excuse to explain why you didn't do very well, eg, "I wasn't bothered, it was only a chipper."
Inevitably things don't always go the right way, and many riders will be dropped out of the back of the bunch. In fact, in your first few races you will probably measure your achievement by how long you're able to stay with the bunch.
The most usual time to be dropped is on a climb when the differences in rider ability are most exaggerated, but it can happen at any time if riders are tired or the speed gets very high. Even if you don't feel in danger yourself you could still be dropped if a rider in front of you lets a gap open up - you'll need to expend a lot of energy to go past him and may not be able to make it – so if you're at the back you need to be observant about what's happening a few wheels further up the line. Experienced riders know if the pace will soon drop back down again so may well not waste energy quickly closing a gap, but this is a risky strategy for a beginner - it's better to close the gap yourself quickly and make sure that you stay with the bunch.
If you get dropped on a climb then it's best not to panic. Usually other riders have been dropped at the same time, so you may be able to work together and get back to the bunch. The riders at the front may have been testing each other out on the climb and will relax again once the climb is over, meaning that others can catch back up. There is no motivation for the front riders to descend at full speed, so riders behind can catch up if they are good descenders. Very often there is a prime (pronounced 'preem' - an intermediate sprint for a cash prize) at the top of a climb which will encourage riders to attack on the climb and once the prime is over then
there's no motivation for them to keep going so they will sit up and relax again.
Also, keep in mind that if you are chasing to get back to the bunch there is a line of cars behind the race - all the official vehicles plus any normal traffic that is stuck behind the race - so you don't need to catch the bunch back up immediately but catch up to the line of cars and then save energy by drafting behind each car as you work your way back into the race. It is normal for race cars to try to help out the dropped riders by timing their overtaking to allow them to get back into the cars' slipstreams. This is especially the case if you have a mechanical problem and are helped out by the neutral service car - the commissaire will usually turn a blind eye to a rider getting a 'tow' behind a car as long as he's not actually holding on to the back of the vehicle!
Each race has a nominal last vehicle, traditionally displaying a broom, which represents the back of the race convoy. Officially if you're behind this vehicle then you are outside the protection of the race and if you chose to continue then you are riding as a solo rider without assistance from the marshals.
How does riding in a bunch work?
Bunch riding is an important skill of road-racing. You save a massive amount of energy by riding closely to the riders in front of you and beside you, but you need to be confident to move quickly in close proximity to other riders. The basic skills are best learnt on a club ride: learning to behave predictably so that the rider behind know what you are doing; holding a straight line and not swerving suddenly; calling out hazards in the road to help keep everyone safe. Things are more complicated in a race bunch because there is less 'discipline' - riders are permitted to be spread across the whole lane and to move up and down the bunch as they see fit - but the basic skills learnt on a club run will see you through.
Placement in the bunch is also important, some key things to think about:
-Being near the front of the bunch is safer and allows you to play more of a part in the activity of the race - but it uses up more energy and you have to be confident to hold your position when other riders try to move forward
-The pace is more variable at the back and you will have less warning of upcoming hazards or climbs - but it uses much less energy and you can concentrate on riding your own race much more rather than holding your position against the others
-Especially on climbs you are at much more risk of being dropped if you are at the back: even if you climb well then you'll have much more work to do overtaking slower climbers in front of you; if you climb badly then you can go straight 'out the back', but if you start the climb at the front then you can drop back a few places during the climb and still stay in the bunch.
-Positioning in the carriage-way is also important: if you're way over on the left then you will struggle to overtake slower riders if you need to; if you're over on the right then you can briefly move into the opposite carriage-way if you suddenly need to overtake. You will also usually be able to see further down the road in front.
What do the tactics work out?
Tactics vary across the different categories of races, with experienced riders obviously able to try different techniques compared to inexperienced riders.
The most basic tactic is that riders don't chase other riders from their own team. This has a big impact on whether a breakaway will be successful or not: if the best teams in a race are represented in the break, then their team-mates won't chase so the break is more likely to succeed. This compounds the difficulty for a lone rider because all the other teams will be trying to chase him down. More experienced riders might try to 'block' if their team-mates have gone away in a break; this involves riding at the head of the bunch and trying to slow down the speed of the chase.
Riders from the same club will often agree a set of race tactics before the start, to try to work out a strategy that suits the balance of skills in the team. For example if you have a rider that would be strong in a sprint at the end of the race, then the team might decide to work together to chase down all breakaways to increase the chances of there being a bunch sprint. A team with good breakaway riders might try to cover every move, trying to ensure that they have at least one rider in every breakaway that forms.
So, what happens on the day?
It is usually best to arrive at the race headquarters about an hour before the race is due to start.
The first job is to sign-on and collect your race number in exchange for handing in your racing license for the duration of the event. Pin your race number across the pockets on the back of your jersey, where it can be seen clearly from behind when you are in a racing position.
Junior riders must have their bikes checked because they are subject to a gear restriction (this is an some-what antiquated method of preventing young riders damaging their muscles by pushing too big a gear - usually the checker will tighten the rear derailleur screws to stop the chain going into the top few gears).
Most races start from the car-park of the race HQ but it's always worth checking because they may require a start from a nearby lay-by or similar where the riders can gather safely. Shortly before the start the riders will be called for a race briefing, which may happen on the bike at the start line or may be in a room in the HQ. You will be introduced to the commissaire, who is the race referee and will be in a following car watching out for rule infringements, helped by his assistant commissaire in another car and the motorbike marshals who are all also trained commissaires. The race briefing will remind the riders of the basic safety requirements, and let you know of any specific safety warnings relevant to that specific race.
The race will always start with a neutralised section which takes the bunch away from the HQ for a few miles. During this period the lead car will proceed slowly with the riders following behind. It is always forbidden to overtake the lead car, but this especially applies during the neutralised zone. The lead car will hold a flag out of the window and when the flag is pulled in (and the car accelerates away) then the race is officially underway.
The race types are:
-National A: open to Elite, 1st and 2nd Cats, usually on the very top UK events
-National B: open to Elite, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cats
-Regional A: open to 2nd, 3rd and 4th Cats
-Regional B: open to 3rd and 4th Cats
-Regional C/C+: open to all categories, but in a handicap format where the lower category riders are given a head start by the higher category riders
Often there will be two races at the same event, for example a National B and a Regional B race starting a few minutes apart on the same circuit. Most single-race events tend to be Reg A, because this gives the opportunity for almost all club-level riders to take part; Elite and 1st Cat riders are usually expected to be more serious and willing to travel further for races, so there may only be one race open to them in the whole of the UK on a particular weekend.
The higher the category of event then the more license points are available. In Reg B the top 10 receive points (from 15 down to 1), in Reg A the top 15 receive points (from 30 down to 1), and in Nat B the top 20 receive points (from 60 down to 1). The points also count for the club's position in national and regional ranking tables.
Most races are open to riders to enter individually so there can be any number from each club but a few are only open to club-teams: stage races are generally open only to teams of 4 riders who enter together from a club.
What do I enter, and what does it cost?
Entries can be online at the British Cycling website, or on the official British Cycling entry forms (which can be downloaded from their website) and sent to the organiser up to 3 weeks before race day. Each race is limited to 80 riders, and they often fill up, so it's advisable to enter well before the 3 week deadline. Entries for road-races are generally accepted on a first-come-first-served basis, so entering early is the only way to guarantee a spot. Prices vary depending on the scale of the event. A Reg C+ handicap might cost about £10; higher category events up to £20. Stage races, which incorporate several races across a few days, can be much more expensive; the Ras De Cymru tops the list at £125 per rider for 5 days of racing. If a race doesn't fill up or riders withdraw before the event, then the organiser will usually offer entry-on-the-line for an increased entry fee. A normal fee would be £25, with the amount listed in brackets in the handbook. Turn up at least an hour before the race is due to start if you intend to try to enter on the day.
How are these races governed, and are they legal and safe?
In Wales road-races are governed by Welsh Cycling (formerly the Welsh Cycling Union, WCU), which is the equivalent of a region of British Cycling, which itself is affiliated to the Union Cyclisme International (UCI), the world governing body. Racing on public roads is governed by the 1960 legislation Cycle Racing on the Highway, which allows organisers to apply for permission from the local police authority to hold a race. The police can impose any conditions on the organisers they require or refuse permission altogether. In Wales there is a framework agreement with the police to allow events to be run safely using Community Safety Accreditation Scheme (CSAS) marshals, who are civilians with the legal powers to stop traffic.
So are the roads clear of traffic?
Big international events take place on roads entirely closed to traffic, but local events take place with the roads open as normal to vehicles. This is done by creating a 'safety bubble' whereby all the racing takes place between a leading car and a following car; there will be a number of lead and following cars and these will move into place to protect the groups of
riders as the race breaks up. The riders are required to keep to the left-hand carriageway, but can use the full width of the lane. Marshals direct traffic at junctions to allow the race to pass through without stopping. Motorbike marshals warn on-coming traffic and provide flexible support to the cars and static marshals as they can more easily move past the riders. A road race may instinctively seem dangerous but are actually quite safe due to their big visible presence on the road and the number of safety vehicles escorting the riders.
Photo courtesy of Del Delaronde de la JIF.
And we’re racing
Now the fun starts. A road-race is an unusual race because there's not necessarily any benefit in just rushing to get to the finish as soon as possible - you'll just tow the other riders along behind you. Generally all the riders will stay together in a big pack, especially if the road is fairly flat. Riders will try to attack and get away from the pack; but others will chase and try to bring them back. Usually a small 'breakaway' group will form and stay away from the bunch for a while. Depending on the make-up of riders in the break the bunch may be more or less willing to chase; typically a big group sharing the work will always move faster than a small group - but the small group may be more motivated to work together.
It's very difficult for a lone rider to stay away but it does sometimes happen. Marshals or spectators may try to communicate the race situation to the riders in the form of a time-check, ie that the break has passed this point a number of minutes or seconds ahead of the bunch. This means that beginners are often surprised by the variable pace. The speed may go up-and down
very suddenly, from flat-out to a leisurely stroll. The average speed for a race is usually between 22 and 25mph, depending on the terrain, but the main difficulty is coping with the changes of pace. The closer you are to the front of the pack then the more predictable these surges will be, as you see riders trying to break away; if you're stuck at the back then the speed will be changing with no apparent explanation.
You will notice that the race cars change position as the race develops. The commissaire will always stay behind the main bunch and one of the lead cars will always stay just in front the bunch, but once a breakaway has gained at least a 30-second lead then the assistant commissaire and 1st lead car will go ahead and watch the break with the 2nd lead car taking position at the front of the bunch. If further big splits happen then the motorcycle marshals will fill in and escort some of the groups.
Ben Simmons leading the way on Lap 1
Club President Norman James (Left) with the podium finishers