Your First Bike Race

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I can still remember my first bike race.  It was a mountain bike race in Canmore, Canada and I was in the citizen’s class with about 20 other guys.  I could barely tell the difference between the pros and the guys like me in citizen class wearing cotton t-shirts with MEC bike shorts.  To me it was all the same.  I figured I was in way over my head!  I completed the relatively short race and came in 9th place, ecstatic to be in the top 10!  Of course I talked it up and told everyone there were 100 people in the race ;-)

I still get nervous every single time I stand on the start line of a race.   Be it a local club crit or along side some of the best pro riders in the world.    I think once I lose that feeling it’ll be time to hang up my helmet. Until that time comes, bring it on!

As elite bike racers, we often forget that every single one of us had to do this for the first time and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t nervous.   You pull up to the race knowing no-one, everyone looks like they are one big family, you get yelled at in the pack for dropping a wheel, etc.  It’s a daunting experience.

Putting the elitist and arrogant cyclist reputation aside,  here are a few TIPS to help you with your first bike race.


– Before attempting to ride in your first race, be sure you have a good dozen group rides under your belt.  The more the better.  This will accustom you to riding along side dozens of other cyclists at high speeds. You will become familiar with drafting and positioning in the pack.

– Too much focus on specific training may not be of much use at the beginning.  Getting out on the bike and having fun is priority #1.  You could be the fittest rider in the bunch but if you don’t know how to race you can still easily get dropped (I was dropped in my first road race and I was an Elite class mountain biker – yeah…strong and dumb).  Be sure that you’ve ridden similar courses to what you’ll be riding in your first race.  If it’s a crit course, perhaps go there a few days before and understand the profile of the course and where all the turns and danger spots are.  Visualize yourself in the race and prepare for what could be difficult parts of the course.  And if it’s a road race,  definitely know where the climbs are.  Perhaps ride the course with a more experienced rider so you can get an  idea of what speeds you’ll need to be going.

Day Before Race Day

– Make sure your bike maintenance is complete at this point and don’t leave anything untested.   Clean your chain and wipe your bike down with babywipes. A clean bike is a happy bike.

– One of the most frequent questions beginners ask  is "what are you supposed to eat the day before a race ?"  The answer is:  Nothing different that you’d usually eat the day before a ride.  Don’t go and eat a mountain of pasta the night before if you’re not used to it.   That’s the biggest wives tale in sports. If you’re going to carb load, do it right.

– Make sure you have all your water bottles filled, your energy foods organized and your equipment laid out, etc.  Get absolutely everything ready the night before so that you’re not stressing about it on race day.

– What do you eat and drink while racing you ask?  Well, if it’s a 1hr crit, I wouldn’t recommend having anything more than a bottle of energy drink and maybe a gel.  If you’re doing a long event, you might want to read this post .  Anything more than 70-90km for your first race is highly unlikely. Basically, try to eat and drink about 500 calories per hour after the first hour.  For example, a bottle of energy drink has ~200 calories, a gel has ~90 calories, and a powerbar has ~250-300 calories.  Mix and match based on preference and the length of the race.

– Don’t take a full rest day on the day directly before a race.  Do a race preparation ride to get the body used to recruiting those specific muscles that you’ll be using tomorrow.

– Hydrate!

– Get all the start times, directions and maps for the race printed out.  Know where the start line is and be there 100% ready to race 1/2hr before you need to.

– The preparation is the best part of the race.  All of the stuff above may seem overwhelming, but in my opinion it’s the most fun part of the process. Savor it!

Race Day

– Since this is your first race, it’ll probably begin very early in the morning (most of the lower categories do).  Have a good breakfast about 3hrs before the race start if possible.     Eat either some toast, oatmeal or muesli along with some fruit, and juice and coffee.  Also have a small amount of protein (maybe an egg, yogurt,  or some peanut butter on your toast).  The protein will slow down the absorption of sugars into your bloodstream.  Nothing too massive or out of your ordinary routine.

– Before the race make sure you have your race license.  Double and triple check this!  You won’t be able to race without it.

– Check the forecast and make sure you’ve prepared the proper clothing.  Take a look at some of the A-grade or Cat1/2 riders and look at what they’re wearing.  Wear what most of them are wearing.

– Once you get to the race, get signed in, and have your number pinned on your jersey, go and check out the stretch before the finish line.  If it’s a road race, check out the final kilometer.   See if there are any turns or round-abouts in the road, and get familiar with this stretch of the road. This is when things will really pick up and you need to be prepared for that.  You don’t want to be near the back of the bunch in the last km or lap.

– Positioning plays a massive part of road racing.  Being at different places in the pack will require different amounts of energy to stay there.  Its not a good idea to be at the back of the bunch nor directly at the front (unless it’s 100m from the finish).   If you’re not a strong climber, make sure you’re one of the first people to start the climb so that you can slowly drift back and still be in the bunch by the time you’ve hit the top.  If you’re not good at accelerating, don’t be at the back of the bunch in a criterium.   There’s no better way to get the hang of this than experience. I could write for days on positioning.

– try to drink one bottle of fluids every hour. If the race is a crit, eat your gel in the last 20 minutes of the race.  It’ll perk you up and give you some more energy for the finish.  It’s amazing what a little bit of sugar can do.

– The goal for your first race should not be to win.   I would not recommend trying to take part in the final sprint at this stage of your career.  These can be extremely dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.  You are also likely to be a danger to everyone else out there if you’re too eager.  Watch and learn.  The goal should be to gain the experience you need to eventually win.

There’s a great write-up by Groover on her experiences when she starting out cycling and eventually bike racing.   Find it here.

Maybe all you experienced roadies have something to contribute that I missed?

You are now well on your way to being a bike snob.  Good luck in your first race!

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