Road Bike Racing 101

Bikewagon - BWCC

Road bike racing has been around a long time, and there's a lot of heritage behind the sport. The Tour de France is in it's 100th year for 2013, and cycling's popularity seems to be on the rise lately with bigger fields across the board and more races popping up.

Actually, there are several styles of road races; ironically, one style is just called a road race. The broader spectrum is pretty much anything that involves racing on paved and/or public transportation roadways. This could include gravel roads, cobblestone roads, raceways like those used for car racing and similar surfaces.

The bike

Road racing bike

Road race bikes are characterized by aggressive frame geometries, quick handling and typically stiffer, less compliant ride qualities. The stiffness aspect is important because racers tend to want maximum efficiency for power transfer, and they're willing to give up some comfort for the ability to go faster when needed.

Carbon fiber is by far the most common frame material used in the mid to upper ranks of the sport due to it's low weight, stiffness, ability to be formed into various shapes, and vibration dampening characteristics. Aluminum is often considered entry level since the cost of carbon fiber has come down considerably lately, but aluminum is still widely used and still effective. Steel and titanium are less used -- steel because it tends to weigh a little more, and titanium because the cost of the metal is high enough that carbon looks much more enticing at those price points.

Time trial bike

Road race bikes generally have shorter head tubes that allow the rider to get into a lower riding position for improved aerodynamics and power transfer. The ride of racing road bikes tends to be a little less stable than other types of bikes since the they are designed to handle well in fast corners, have quick, sharp handling, and because of their narrower tires (Many race frames are limited to 700c x 25mm or smaller tires).

Time trial (TT) bikes are entirely different, as they are designed purely for straight line speed, giving up handling and sometimes riding stability. TT bikes are the drag racer of the cycling world. They are solely designed around going as fast as possible. This is accomplished with improved aerodynamics through the bike's shape and, more importantly, the rider's position, since the rider creates the most drag in the overall wind resistance equation.

>> See the Bikes 101 guide for more information on the kinds of road bikes available.

Race Styles

In America, there are three primary styles of road racing: road races, time trials, and criteriums (crits). There are also circuit races, which are an in-between of crits and road races, and team time trials, which are time trials with a team of riders working together. Races can be part of a set of races that will be scored for an overall victory, like the Tour de France, called stage races. There are also omniums which are similar to stage races but are scored differently.

Road race

Road bike race on city streets

A typical road race is classified by a mass start, typically on public roads. It is not uncommon for the roads to remain open to traffic, as well. The race group is often escorted by a lead and follow vehicles to help protect the racers from unknowing drivers. In road races, the first person to cross the finish line is the winner of the race. There are also sometimes King of the Mountain (KOM) points for the first racer up a hill and/or sprint points along a route for the sprinters to get in some extra excitement during the races as well.

Circuit race

A circuit race is a road race on a shorter course, but still over 5km in length, where laps on the same course are performed. These are common for racing on raceways or closed circuits and are great for riders just getting into racing. Since you get to know the course well, there are no surprises along a route, and usually there is no traffic to contend with because you're on a closed course. Not all circuit races have closed courses, but the race description should let you know if it's a closed course or not.


Crits are hugely popular in the US because they are short, fast and exciting to watch. They are on a short (usually around 1 mile), closed course so spectators get to watch the racers go by many times during a race. Courses are usually characterized by many turns, which typically creates good race dynamics as well, increasing spectator appeal. Crits are often located in the middle of a city or town on the city streets and allow viewing from local shops, helping bring customers to the surrounding businesses (making the community happy with racing is good for racing). Criteriums are mass start races, as well.

Criteriums work differently than standard road races in that they are timed races, as opposed to having a set distance. This means that the final distance raced depends on the speed of the group racing. It's quite common for race organizers to have a set race time and then add laps on top of that, such as 35 minutes of racing and then two laps (you'll see "35 min +2" on race flyers). The first rider across the line is the winner. There are also primes -- which are like mini-finishes -- during the race, where riders can win prizes for crossing the line first. The race continues after the prime.

Time trial

Time trials

Like the name implies, a time trial is a race against the clock. Riders make a solo effort around the course, and the finisher with the lowest time wins. Time trials are not mass start races; riders are sent off individually and race individually. It is illegal to get draft off of a caught rider. One exception is team time trials, where a team of riders work together to get the best time possible.

Stage races

A combination of the above styles of races -- an individual race being called a stage -- over multiple days with an overall winner for the entire set is a stage race. The overall win is referred to as the "General Classification" (GC). Stage races are scored by time, and the rider with the overall lowest time wins the GC. This means that a racer could win the GC while never winning any of the stages during the series.


These are just like stage races, but they are scored differently. Instead of using time to score, omniums use a point system to determine a GC winner. This means the better you place in an individual stage, the more points you accumulate. The winner is the person with the most points at the end.

Basic skills needed

Time trials require the fewest bike handling skills, and as such are often the safest choice for beginning racers. The courses tend to be less technical, as well, so there are fewer corners, hills and other things to complicate the ride, though this is not always the case. Being able to pace yourself, having an efficient pedal stroke and good body position are things that a time trialist will benefit from during a time trial.

Road bike races require group riding skills.

Road races require more handling skills since there are more turns, and the races are usually longer. The biggest skill needed here is the ability to ride in close proximity with a group of riders. Drafting is a huge element of road racing, and if you aren't comfortable riding close to others you suffer a significant disadvantage since you are likely to do more work than other riders. Try and find a local group ride before entering your first road race; it will help immensely. Usually there are more experienced riders at the group rides who are willing to help you out if you have questions, so ask away.

Crits take group riding to an extreme because you add a large element of technicality and handling into the equation. Criteriums have more corners and generally are faster paced than road races, so it is extremely important to be able to ride well in a group.

The biggest additional skill needed here is the ability to take corners in a group. This means that you especially need to be able to hold a predictable race line through the corner. In road races there's a little more forgiveness if you aren't sure footed in corners, but in crits that‘s not the case; There are too many corners and the pace is too fast.

You also need to be comfortable pedaling through corners to maintain speed so you don't need to accelerate so hard at the corner exit. DO NOT pedal through all corners! Some will require you to corner too sharply for pedaling without striking your pedals on the ground, which is not good. Get comfortable with your bike and know when you can and can't pedal through corners.

How to get started

This could be you!.

Make sure you have a reliable bike. After that, getting started in road racing is mostly a matter finding a local race and signing up. The national sanctioning racing body is USA Cycling, but there are many smaller organizers and sanctioning bodies around that have races, as well. The local bike club or bike shop should be able to point you in the right direction.

Your first race can be intimidating, but you have to get through the first to get to the rest and gain experience. Make sure you know how to ride a bike, be generous of other riders and enjoy. It's a great pastime, and like many others, after a few races you may become a road racing junky and need to start finding supplemental incomes to get your racing fix. Give it a shot and see if it's for you.