Back in January this year I made my racing resolutions. I decided that 2018 was going to be the year I gave criterium and road racing a go. Yesterday, my cycle racing resolutions turned into cycle racing realities as I did my first race of the year.
Crit on the campus was the event, organised by Stirling Bike Club. We made it a family day out with kids and husband coming along to cheer (kids and husband), pin race numbers (husband), and generally wreak havoc around the Stirling University campus (kids). Amazingly, the weather was great. I don’t know what deal the organisers managed to do with whom, but it looks like Easter Sunday is going to prove to be one day of spring in an eternal winter. One day later and I am writing this while watching the snow falling yet again!
We arrived early, mostly because I am a bit neurotic about time. This actually worked out well as it gave me time to walk around the course while the first of the category 4 (cat 4) races was on. All the races on the day involved laps of a fairly twisty course for a set amount of time. The start is on an incline so there is obviously also a descent in the course. Walking the course made me panic slightly about getting around the corners. However, watching the cat 4 race going round it allowed me to see the line the riders were taking. There were a similar number of riders in the race I watched to the number in the women’s race so I also found it reassuring that it did not look like a big, unmanageable, terrifying bunch.
A Note on Categories:
Road bike racing, with it’s talk of ‘cat 4’ and ‘cat 2’, can be a bit of a mystery when you are just starting out. It is actually not all that complicated. You gain points for getting placed in races (road races, criteriums and track races all gain you points – time trials do not). Depending on the kind of race you are in, points are awarded from the first to the tenth placed riders, or the first to the twentieth placed rider. The higher placed you are, the more points you get.
Riders are classified into one of five categories: elite, cat (category) 1, cat 2, cat 3 and cat 4 according to how many points they have gained. When you first start racing, you have no points and are therefore cat 4. To move from cat 4 up to cat 3, you need to gain at least 12 points in one season (by finishing on the top ten or so). Once you have reached the heady heights of cat 3, you are never moved back down to cat 4. Either you gain another 40 points (in one season) to become cat 2, or you gain less than 40 points and remain cat 3.
By the time you reach this stage, you have probably got the hang of the system and do not need me to explain it to you. Suffice to say, the more races you do well in, the more points you earn, and the higher up the system you climb.
If you are at my level of just starting out and trying to understand the system, you actually do not really need to understand the whole system. What you should know is that anyone who is cat 3 or higher has experience in racing and has been placed well in races (this could be road or track races). If they are cat 1 or 2 then they are consistently doing well in races. If they are elite, they are really good. To be honest, if they are elite level, they are probably not in the race you are doing, or if they are, you will not see them for dust! You should also bear in mind that being cat 4 does not necessarily mean that a rider has not raced before. Remember that you need to gain 12 or more points in one season in order to move up to cat 3. A cat 4 rider could well have been racing for years, just not finished high enough or done enough races, to move up. Not everyone is capable of, or interested in, winning.
Men’s Races vs Women’s Races
I should make the point here that in what follows I am talking about men’s races vs women’s races in Scotland. The situation may well be different in England and beyond.
In men’s racing, there are often different races for different category riders. For example, yesterday, there were two races for cat 4 men, one for cat 3 and 4 men and one for all the categories together. Realistically, if you were starting out in men’s racing, you would probably enter one of the two cat 4 races so you can race with those who are likely to be of similar experience and ability to you.
In women’s races, there is usually one race for all the categories together. This means that you can sit on the start line of your very first race, with a commonwealth games level rider sitting next to you. There are a number of consequence to this:
a) You are unlikely to win (but were you really expecting to win anyway?)
b) The race often breaks up fairly quickly into groups (or individuals)
c) There is no shame in being lapped!
It is worth noting that women can enter what are sometimes seen (because they are full of men) as ‘men’s races’. Not all races have a separate women’s race. This does not mean that women are excluded from racing, it just means that they are racing with the men. Some women regularly do just this and do very well. However, from a beginners point of view, this is not terribly appealing. Mixed races tend to involve big fields and can be somewhat aggressive. Fine if you know what you are doing and are confident that you can hold your own. Not ideal if you are just starting out.
There are more dedicated women’s races now than there were even 5 years ago, but there are still not all that many (at least not in Scotland). Often, when there is a separate women’s race, the prize money is a fraction of that offered to the men. There are many reasons why this is so and it is not as simple as race organisers not wanting to put on a separate race for women or not wanting to offer the same prize money. It comes down to numbers. Putting on races costs money and is a lot of work. There has to be enough riders to make all this work and expense worth while. Races have to break even at the very least. There is something of a catch 22 in this. More women need to race before organisers will put on more women’s races and begin to think about splitting the categories into different races. But the lack of races and the prospect of racing against riders who are so much more experienced, puts many women off racing.
I should also point out that the organisers of Crit on the Campus make a point of offering equal prize money for the men’s and women’s races. This is one of my main reasons for entering this particular race. I knew fine well that I was not going to be anywhere near any of that prize money, but I wanted to support the principle. When we are offered exactly what we are asking for, we have to support it.
Back To The Race (or before the race anyway)
So, having walked the course and watched a race. I trooped off back to the car to get my bike and kit sorted. In a fit of indecisiveness, I had brought pretty much every bit of kit and clothing I owned so there was a fair bit of sorting to be done. Then it was back to the race HQ to sign on and get my numbers and timing chip. My family support team helped me with pinning numbers and holding excess kit (thank you husband), whilst also getting just a little bit in the way of others (thank you kids). By that time, there was just half an hour until my race.
The thing is, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do next.
All around me were skinny, youthful looking folk. Some were confidently doing busy stuff with their bikes. Some were competently warming up on rollers.
I didn’t really have any busy stuff to do. I don’t own rollers (and if I did, I would be practising on them in the privacy of my own garage, for fear of falling off and looking a numpty).
I knew I needed to warm up, but I wasn’t entirely sure how or where.
I felt a bit out of place.
Then it occured to me that I was there to ride a bike, so really I should just go and ride the bike. I found a clear (apart from a miffed looking swan) bit of road and rode up and down it. I was over the moon to meet a friendly face from my bike club there (actually, there weren’t any unfriendly faces, it was just that I was intimidated by the general competence of those around me). Thanks again, Mags, for all the advice and for keeping me right.
Cycle Racing Reality
After a practise lap following the rest of the women so I could take note of the line other riders were taking around the corners, it was time to line up for the start.
Considering this was a group of people who were about to set out to try and beat each other, it was a really friendly atmosphere. I was amazed to find that I didn’t really feel nervous, just a little unsure about how this was going to go.
Once the whistle went, there was no hanging about. I didn’t really know where I should aim to be, and I was also terrified of being left behind by everyone on the first lap. This meant that I went out about as hard as I can ride, and rode somewhere towards the back of the field, without finding someone else’s wheel to slipstream for the first few laps. With hindsight, this was a bit daft. I think I should probably have calmed down a bit and found a wheel to follow as soon as I could.
The race was to be 45 minutes long. After 15 minutes I was exhausted and giving serious consideration to just stopping. I could hear my family cheering when I passed but I couldn’t even look up. I had to keep reminding myself that my aim was simply to finish. Surely I could manage that? At that point, a rider came past me and I managed to jump onto her wheel. This saved the race for me. It was still touch and go whether my legs or my lungs were going to explode first, but I no longer felt like stopping. I was pretty sure we were at the back of the race (it’s remarkably hard to tell), but we were still in the race.
Our group of two turned into a group of four. The group didn’t really get organised to work together, but from my point of view, it was all I could do to hang on the back.
I hung on to this little group until about 5 minutes to go. Then I slowly, but surely fell off the back. I knew that I was really going to struggle if I didn’t get back up to them because then I would be back on my own rather than slip streaming, but I just couldn’t do it. I watched the group getting further and further away from me.
Just as I was dreading the prospect of another lap on my own, and with the finish line just around the corner, the race motorbike passed me (again, I was lapped twice). The motorbike rides in front of the lead riders so this meant the race leaders were sprinting for the finish, right behind me. I did my best to get out of the way and I crossed the line not far behind the winners (although 2 laps down). This meant that the race was over and I didn’t have to do a solo lap to finish.
I suspected that I was last. In fact, I was second to last. This does not bother me in the slightest. I had reached the finish line. I had achieved my (admittedly very modest) aim. I was proud of myself. I had enjoyed myself.
A Family Day Out
Crit on the campus was a pretty good family day out. The campus of Stirling University has plenty of green space for a nearly-six year old and a nearly-four year old to run about. The format of the race meant that there was plenty to watch. My husband did a great job of finding spot where they could watch the race and also play with toy cars without being in anyone’s way. It was all very ‘family friendly’. With lots of junior races right down to the under 8’s category, there were plenty of children about (some with some serious quality bikes!).
I was so pleased on the way back to the car, when my almost-four-year-old daughter announced “I LOVE bike racing!”. She still flatly refused to ride her own bike at the park the next day, but it is a start!
A huge thanks to the organisers of Crit on the Campus. The whole day, and the run up to it, was brilliantly organised. I would thoroughly recommend the race to anyone thinking about racing next year.
I have now laid to rest the dnf (did not finish) of my only other crit race. Next up, a road race in two weeks time. Again, my aim is to finish.
Anyone reading this and thinking about giving bike racing a go, my advice is to just try it. It seems more scary than it actually is. In fact, it is great fun. The more women who race, the more women’s races there will be. Trust me, the intimidation you feel and which is putting you off, is in your head. It is not on the start line. You (probably) won’t win, but who cares?
One Year On
I wrote this post just over a year ago and I went on to race throughout the season. I absolutely loved it. I learned loads, I became 3rd cat, I met some fantastic people and I had so much fun. I vowed that I would be back this year for more, but sadly other priorities have taken over so it will be 2020 before I get back racing.
One of the other priorities which has got in the way of racing this year is developing my coaching business, Active Cycle Coaching (another is writing a novel…but more about that some other time!).
If you are considering racing this year, you might be interested in a series of coaching sessions I am running at the Fife Cycle Park in June. You can learn and practise all the skills you will need there. If you are already racing and want to refine your technique without the pressure of an actual race, these sessions are also for you. If you would like more information, please do email me, firstname.lastname@example.org