When you’re ready to sign up for a race, the first challenge is finding races in your areas and the second challenge is figuring out which race to sign up for! While the way race categories are organized and set up is complicated and convoluted, you do not need to understand the nuances of race categories to sign up for your first race. Below, I discuss both the basics of signing up for races and the specifics of how race categories work.
Signing up for races
How do I find races in my area to sign up for?
The best place to find cyclocross races in your area is at BikeReg.com. This is the website (almost) all races in the mid-Atlantic use to facilitate registration. You can search for races near your zip code, by type (“Cyclocross”), and all the cyclocross races that are using BikeReg for registration will show up in the search results, sorted by date by default, with the earliest race appearing first in the list. (Though, just a heads-up: the search function on the website is a bit clunky, and might return events that start in January on the first page, so just flip through the pages until you get to the weekends that you are interested in.)
How do I sign up for a race?
As mentioned above, most races use BikeReg.com as their registration site, so looking for races to do and signing up for them in advance of race day is a bit like one-stop-shopping:
- Search for events near you.
- When you find an event that you are interested in doing, click on the event page, and you will have the option to register for that race.
- Select the category or categories for which you would like to register (either by cycling category, age-group, or both), and follow the instructions.
- You’re on your way!
It’s also worth noting that promoters connect with racers through BikeReg. If you sign up for a race, you will receive emails from the race promoter before race day that contain important information (directions to the site, parking details, etc.) as well as fun facts about what might be available at the race venue (beer, coffee, food trucks, etc.) . Registering through BikeReg, and maybe also checking the event’s Facebook page if available, are probably the best ways to find up-to-date information about race day and directions to the venue.
For my first (or first few) races, which category should I sign up for?
Race categories, and who can race in them, are complicated. I tackle race categories in depth below, but to get your started
For your first race, you want to look on the registration page for the Cat 4 (women’s) or Cat 5 (men’s) category races (there is no Cat 5 for women). In some series there will be a Cat 4 or 5 “True Beginner” or “Beginner” race. Men must start with the Cat 5 races, but women can sign up for either the Cat 4 Beginner race or the Women’s 3/4 race. As a woman, once you gain confidence, skill, and speed, you are also eligible to race in the Women’s 3/4 category races. These are excellent opportunities to get a little more time on course, and to be able to toe the line with, and ride alongside, women who are a bit more experienced.
How do race categories work?
To answer this question, it’s important to know something about who is eligible to participate in each category AND know that if you’re unsure you can also speak with registration on race day!
Cyclocross race categories are either “Open”, meaning anyone of any skill level can participate, or they are restricted to participation by riders of a particular skill level (designated by Racing Category) and/or age group (e.g., 35+, 45+, 55+, etc.). Depending on your age and your skill level, you may be eligible to race in multiple categories on race day.
For women racing cyclocross, skill-based Racing Categories range from Category 4 (Beginner) to Category 1 (Pro/Elite). For men, the skill-based Racing Categories go from Category 5 (Beginner) to Category 1 (Pro/Elite). Some race series will offer a Beginner Cat 4, for women who are brand new to cyclocross, since women don’t have a Cat 5 option. It is important to note that these categories are not self-determined, but rather they are designations that are officially made by USAC (USA Cycling), and your category will appear on your racing license. When you first sign up, you will be a Category 4 (or 5, depending on your gender) racer.
Age-graded races are also sometimes available, and you may race in 35+, 45+, or 55+ races as available. These are collectively referred to as “Master’s Races,” and they are open to anyone whose racing age is at or above 35, 45, or 55 respectively (more on racing age below). It is worth noting that even if you are eligible to race in these races, unless otherwise noted these master’s races are frequently age-graded but “Open” in terms of skill. This means that if you enter into an age-graded race, you’re going to be toeing the line with women with a wide range of skill and experience. The mid-Atlantic is home to some truly incredible women in cyclocross, and in these Master’s races you’re going to be starting with and riding alongside women who have stood on the podium at Nationals! (Awesome, right?!)
So, what about all those men’s races? Women can race with men. The men’s fields are typically much bigger than women’s fields in cyclocross races, but if there is space you can absolutely sign up. Women can sign up for men’s races that are one skill-level category below their racing category (so a Category 4 woman can sign up for a Category 5 men’s race) OR age-graded up 10 years higher than the woman’s racing age (a woman eligible to race in the 35+ category can sign up for the men’s 45+ race).
What is my racing age?
Your racing age is not just the age you are when you sign up for a race. Your racing age is based on the cyclocross season and how old you will be at the end of the season. USAC defines a season end by when the national championships occur and since cyclocross national championships are generally in January, the season ends in the next calendar year. That means, even though you might race in November of 2016, your race age is how old you’ll be on December 31st, 2017.
How do I move up to the next Racing Category?
The more races you ride, you can “cat up” to the next category. Men are automatically cat’ed up to Cat 4 after 10 races raced at Cat 5. However, once you reach Cat 4, there is no automatic upgrade, unless you finish top 6 and earn points. This is good news of those who will always be slow (like me!). Just be sure not to stay too long in a category that you’re clearly to fast for. This annoys the slower/less experienced riders and is called sandbagging.
What is a race series?
In cyclocross, races within a region are organized into race series. A series is a set of races that are organized by the same group and, on race day, follow the same schedule all season long. Each series also has “Points Jerseys,” which are awarded to the racers who perform the best within their racing category in that series. This can be really fun, and watching from week to week each series has its share of rivalries that can sometimes go right down to the wire!
Within the mid-Atlantic region where I am, we have the Super 8 Series (MD/DC/VA, the larger series in terms of participation), the Sportif Cup (MD/DC/VA, the smaller series), VACX (Virginia), MAC (Pennsylvania and Delaware, the larger series for that area), and PACX (Pennsylvania, the smaller series for the area).
There is no obligation or requirement to race ONLY races in a certain series, or to race ALL the races in a particular series. You can race in any race that fits your schedule, regardless of the series it might be a part of. Of course, focusing on the races in a particular series might be important to you if you hope to earn points in your category and win the series overall, taking home the series jersey.
Do I need a license to race?
If you race that is sanctioned by USA Cycling (USAC), then yes. If it is a non-USAC race, no. In the mid-Atlantic, all of the races that are part of the series mentioned above are USAC races. Races which are not part of a series may or may not be a USAC race. The registration page on BikeReg will clarify if you need a license.
If you are a beginner racer, don’t have a license, and don’t want to spring for a license for the whole year, you can buy a 1-day license the day of the race. It is important to note, however, that with a 1-day license you may be limited in which categories you are eligible to race. Definitely look on the BikeReg registration page to check this out. Plus, you cannot race on a 1-day license if you have ever held a year long membership in the past (even if your membership is not active now).
Of course, if you do want to purchase a cycling license, licenses for the year can be bought on USA Cycling here. The licenses are good for a calendar year, and they are good for all types of bike racing – cyclocross, mountain, road, BMX, and track.
That wraps up all the particulars of signing up for races, the different race categories, and licenses! Thanks to Shauna for her edits and reviews, to ensure I didn’t miss any important information!