You’ve done the prep: got the bike, practiced the skills, and actually signed up for a race! But, how do you prepare for race day? And what do you need to do once you get to the course? Race day does take some prep, and navigating the registration table can be a bit daunting if you’ve never done it before, but it quickly becomes routine.
Cyclocross can seem intimidating, what with all the jumping on and off the bike, navigating uneven terrain, etc. But with practice and some on-course experience, you can become comfortable tackling any course. There are a lot of ‘cross-specific skills to learn that you will continue to work on and refine as you keep racing.
This post will give you an overview of some of the core cyclocross skills and which of those skills you may want to work on first as you’re getting into racing.
What skills do I need to learn?
There are a number of skills that are unique to cyclocross racing:
Dismounting (getting off your bike at speed)
Remounting (getting back on your bike at speed)
Running over barriers (planks mounted in pairs)
riding off-camber (riding perpendicular on a steep hill or slope)
riding in sand
carrying/shouldering your bike
There are also a number of skills that you might not think of as being unique to cyclocross, but in fact they are among some of the most fundamental to the sport:
Climbing and descending (on particularly loose or steep terrain)
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.)
You’ve heard about cross, learned about cross, been to some cross races and have decided you want to join in the madness! But… where to start? It’s all so overwhelming! How do you know what kind of bike to get? How do you learn the skills needed? What are even the skills you need to learn?? Not to mention, how do you even find races in your area to sign up for?? Never fear, Anna is here! There is a lot to learn, but I’ve broken it down to make it easy to digest. The first step is The Bike. In subsequent articles, I’ll address cyclocross skills are needed (and how/where to practice them!), how to sign up for races, and what you should do on race day. Continue reading “Cyclocross and You: The Bike”→
Once you’ve worked up the nerve to walk into a bike shop, you face your next challenge- actually making a decision. Some decisions are small- bike lights, saddle bags, gloves. Others are big- bikes, bike shorts, pedals, shoes. If you’re starting out from scratch, then you’re faced with the biggest decision of all- which bike to buy! First, it is important to understand that you can’t buy a bike online. I mean, you can, but I would imagine that only the most experienced cyclists can order a bike online and get exactly what they want. If you’re just starting out, you need to touch, feel, ride the bike. In my opinion, there’s not really even a reason to research bike brands online, because you don’t know what your bike shop is going to have. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do research on different bike brands, but it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the choices and varieties- and if you’re like me, all those choices will make you want to give up. Most bike shops only carry certain brands anyway, but if you know what brands your store carries, you can do some research on those. However, I suggest just going into the store and seeing what they have. Bike stores don’t carry bad bike brands. Any bike shop worth it’s salt is only going to have bikes it’s proud to sell, which means no matter what you buy, you’re getting a good bike. Hopefully the shop will have a few choices in your size for you to ride, because I do think you should ride more than one bike before you decide.
Before you go into the store, though, you do need to decide why you want a bike, so you can get the right style.
There are quite a few sub categories of bikes, but I think most of them can be put into 4 categories: road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, and cruiser.
If you want to go fast or race, if you plan on doing most of your riding on paved roads, if you want to do longer charity or century rides, if you’re riding for fitness, then a road bike is a good choice. It will go fast on smooth road, but it’s thin frame and thin tires aren’t ideal for anything less than a smooth road or path. They’re usually very light, which means faster riding and climbing, but that means they can’t really take a beating. A road bike can be too much bike for many people and the bent over, forward position can be uncomfortable and intimidating at first. These feelings quickly fad, however, and even road bikes come in simple designs and it’s easy to find one that is just enough bike for you. And, in my opinion, they look sexy as hell. One thing to keep in mind- there is very little reason for you to buy an all carbon bike unless you plan to race or if money is no object. An all carbon frame can offer more comfort on really long rides, as it absorbs road noise better than other materials, and it’s lighter weight might help you go a bit faster, but generally it is not worth the extra money for casual cyclists.
A subset of road bikes that is also very popular are touring bikes. They look very similar to a road bike, but usually have a less extreme position, wheels that are a bit wider and places to attach bags to the bike. They are designed to carry heavy loads, over long distances, with a slow and steady pace. They’re great if you want to do long, multi-day rides, and rides where you carry everything you need with you on your bike or for commuting.
Best for: off road riding, rugged terrain, really crappy street riding
Mountain bikes are pretty self explanatory. They have big, fat tires, so they’re awesome at helping you avoid flats and giving a cushier ride on rough terrain. But those fat tires really slow you down on smooth roads. In my opinion, unless you plan on doing some serious off roading, a mountain bike isn’t very practical for everyday life.
Best for: commuting, casual city riding, running errands, those who prefer a more upright riding position, light off roading
Hybrids offer a bit of both worlds- with fatter tires than road bikes, they’re better able handle unpaved trails and with skinner tires than mountain bikes, they allow for more speed on the roads. The fatter tires are better at avoiding flats than a road bike. They also have the more upright position of the mountain bike. A hybrid is another commuting alternative for those who prefer a more upright position to the touring/road bike forward position. However, because it’s a bit of both worlds, it’s not great at either. But it’s great for running errands, moderate trail riding, and commuting. If you plan to do long rides, train intensively, or get really serious about cycling, then a hybrid is probably not the best choice.
Best for: beach rides, flat trails, basic errands, cruisin’
With it’s oversized tires, totally upright position and single gear, a cruiser is perfect for those who just want to ride short distances in comfort. Because cruisers usually only have one gear, they’re best on flat, smooth roads (paved trails). They’re heavy bikes, but that means they’re durable and can handle a beating. Don’t expect to go fast or far on these bikes, but they make riding on the beach very fashionable.
So, that’s a very basic overview of the types of bikes out there. Once you can narrow down what type of riding you want to do, then you can narrow down what type of bike you’re looking for. If you just want a bike to run to the grocery store or take weekend picnics on the trails, a cruiser or a hybrid is probably the right choice. If you want to commute, a hybrid, touring or road bike is best. It’s important to think about the future as well. If you imagine yourself doing century rides, a road or touring bike is best, even if the drop handle bars and more forward position scare you. If you seriously want to loose weight, a road bike is also a better beat than a cruiser or hybrid. But if you don’t imagine yourself doing anything more strenuous that getting groceries or riding to work, a hybrid or mountain bike will work for you! Even though I was a beginner cyclist, I decided I wanted a road bike because I planned to do RAGBRAI and I was going to ride for fitness and fun. And I liked how road bikes looked 😉
Now you gotta get into that shop, talk to the sales person about what you want, ride a bunch of bikes and see what works for you. If you’re just getting back into cycling after an absence, don’t let the drop bars and more aggressive position of the road bikes scare you off- you quickly get over that and learn to love it.
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This is the first part of a three part series where I share what my experiences and observations have been in the bike world.
Bike shops are intimidating. They seem more exclusive than regular stores, where you are only welcome with open arms if you speak the secret bike language. Someone less prone to intimidation than me would have no problem walking into a bike shop cold turkey and walk out with what they needed. Not me. I really have to work up courage to walk into a shop! It can only take one rude or condescending sales person to make the trip miserable. In addition, the people who work at bike shops are often very passionate about what they do (because with they kind of money they (don’t) make, they’re the only one’s who will work there). And sometimes that zeal can be seen as condescension, or it can make it hard to relate to a person who is not an expert like them. In general, I think those in bike shops are awesome people, but it doesn’t always seem that way at first glance.
So the key is to find a shop that you can be comfortable in. And that can be difficult. If you’re lucky, the local bike shop (LBS) near you will be able to offer that comfort. I can’t tell you what will make you comfortable- it’s a gut instinct you’ll have once you get inside and talk to someone. If you’re fortunate to live in an area with more than one LBS, hopefully you can find one that speaks to your needs and has a staff that can make you feel comfortable. Don’t be afraid to admit you have no idea what you’re doing! I’m terrible at taking my own advice in this area- I hate admitting a knowledge gap. But admitting when you have no idea what the shop person is talking about is better than buying something you’re not comfortable with! In that vein, don’t feel pressured to buy anything. Many people (me!) like to research purchases before committing, especially if it’s a lot of money. Do that if it makes you feel better! Get prices, brands, their recommendations, then go home and sit on it if you feel like it. Go online and compare prices and look at reviews, but I would recommend buying directly from the LBS if at all possible- unless there is a huge price difference or there is something specific you want that the shop doesn’t carry, spending a few extra dollars at your local LBS is totally worth it. Plus, instant gratification!
Now, for the second type of intimidation: other cyclists! It’s so easy to be intimidated by other cyclists, especially those consider themselves to be serious cyclists. I suffer from severe intimidation from other cyclists. I’m always worried that my gear will not “fit in” or will be looked down upon by others. BUT, that’s mostly because of my personality, more than actual reality. Yes, there are some who will judge you for not having the highest end, most expensive gear. But you probably won’t end up riding with those types much anyway. If riding RAGBRAI taught me one thing, it was that there is no wrong way to be a cyclist- if you’re comfortable and having fun, then it doesn’t matter what you wear or what you ride. I’m a huge fan of group rides and think those are a great way to have this point illustrated. I encounter so many different types of cyclists on those rides.Overall, on those rides, and elsewhere, I’ve found other cyclist to be friendly and accepting. I enthusiastically encourage group ride participation- it’s a great motivator and a great way to meet like minded folks. However, most groups rides tend to be heavily populated with males, and for women, that thought can be scary- for myself, when there are males around, I usually feel as though I’m trying to prove myself. Plus, I’m easily intimidated by cute boys 😉 If you are like me, then I would suggest searching out all female group rides. I find I am more at ease going into an all female group rides, as I know there won’t be any cute boys. Even besides that, many women’s groups offer introductions to group rides, introductions to bike maintenance, etc. So, if you’re new to cycling, women’s groups can offer a lot of resources. Meetup.com and your local bike shops are great places to start to find group rides. In addition, there is probably a local cycling scene forum online where you could ask for recommendations and find suggestions.
I think the intimidation factor exists in everyone and it’s up to you to overcome those barriers. Hopefully, I’ve given you a few tools and enough information to help get you started!
Now that we’ve covered all the basics of racing a grand tour, what about how the riders “live” on the bikes? There is food that needs to be eaten, nature that needs answering, water that needs to be refilled, plus clothes layered on and off as the weather changes throughout a race day. All of these things have to happen while riding a bike at speeds many sane people would consider insane. But, for pro cyclists, it’s just part of the game.
Cyclists eat a lot. A lot, a lot. Especially cyclists that are riding in a three week race. They are constantly shoving food in their face to replace all the calories lost through racing. While 3,000 calories a day is recommended for an average man, a pro cyclist can burn up to 5,000 calories a day. To consume enough calories to replenish those lost calories and supplement of the next day’s racing, a racer has to be eating all the time. This means eating on the bike as well as off of it. To replenish a rider in the middle of a long stage, riders pass through a feed zone. In the feed zones, team soigneurs (French for “care giver”) stand by the side of the road with musettes full of food and water bottles. The bag is called a musette because it resembles the type of small bag with a shoulder strap often carried by soldiers or travelers. The soigneur stands at the side of the road with a musette in his/her outstretched arm and as the peloton comes barreling down the road at top speeds, a rider from his/her team will snatch the musette out of the soigneur’s hand. They’ll quickly hold up another bag, and the process is repeated. When the rider gets the bag, he’ll loop it around his neck and carry across his chest and proceed to empty the bag into his jersey pockets. He might not take everything, depending on what he likes to eat when he’s riding. Whatever is specifically in the bag, it will be something that contains lots of carbohydrates, the most magical of all the organic compounds when it comes to refueling the body.
Here’s a good video that Garmin-Transitions (now Garmin-Cervelo) did about how they feed their riders:
They’re allowed to take food outside of feed zones, from team cars.
When nature calls…
Now that we know how they feed themselves on the bike, what about bathroom breaks? They’re on their bikes for 4 or 5 hours a day, drinking tons of water- nature is going to call eventually. There are two options- on the bike or off the bike. Often, after the break has been established and the pace in the peloton has settled down, the leader or another higher placed GC rider will go to the front and indicate that it’s pee break time! Then, anyone with a need pulls over to the side and takes care of business. Those that don’t, continue riding, but at a sedate pace which allows those stopped to catch back up easily. A rider can just stop at the side for a pee break any time, if the pace is sedate enough that it will be easy to catch back up. However, often it is not possible to take the time to stop. So this means peeing on the fly. This usually involves moving to the back of the group and off to the side, usually with a teammate. The teammate will help stabilize the rider in need of a pee break and the rider will do his business. It ain’t easy, and requires some serious bike handling skills, but these guys are pros for a reason.
In general, pee breaks (or “nature breaks” or “comfort breaks” if you’re a Eurosport commentator) are respected as a time when no one attacks or pushes the pace, and if it’s perceived that this is not respected, people can get angry. While it is considered very bad form for the TV crews and photographers to take pictures of these events, it is sometimes caught inadvertently by the TV cameras. This is more likely on Eurosport than any US channel, as Eurosport spends more time on the race and less time on commercials. The strange twist to these pee breaks is that it’s technically against the rules to pee in public. There is at least one or two riders a day that get fined for “public urination.” I’m sure this is very subjective, as urinating in public is really the only option during races. However, I suspect it has something to do with how close to spectators the rider chooses to have his comfort break.
While food is mostly delivered to the peloton during specific points, water is something that needs to be consumed throughout the race, especially on hot days. The riders are surely drinking more than the two bottles that fit on their bikes- this means they need someone to get water for them. During a race, if a rider wants water, he’ll usually go back to the team car and collect some bottles. A team leader will rarely go back for his own bottles- usually a domestique will collect as many bottles as he can carry to distribute to his team leader and teammates. Mostly this involves stuffing as many bottles as possible down his jersey!
So, now you’ve had a three part introduction to how cycling works (Parts 1 and 2: The Teams and The Jerseys) plus learned how The Race Convoy works! Let me know in the comments if there’s something about cycling that still baffles you…