The biggest road racing organisation is British Cycling*. To take part in their races, you need to become a BC member (gold or silver) and pay for a racing licence: https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/membership
(Edit: actually, if you want to just try it once before making up your mind, you can buy a ‘day licence’ to enter just one race. This is cheaper, but not all race organisers will accept it, so you need to check in advance. Also, if you are lucky enough to finish in the top ten, you won’t score any points (see below) because you don’t have a proper licence)
When you first get a licence you will be a ‘4th cat’ rider. If you manage to finish in the top positions of a 4th cat race, you will gain some points (typically ten for first place, down to one for tenth). Once you have gained at least 12 points in one season you will be promoted to 3rd cat status. Similarly, if you get enough points at 3rd cat level you can move up to 2nd cat and so on.
Races can be held for more than one category to compete in, so for example a 2/3/4 race is open to 2nd, 3rd and 4th cat riders. At the higher levels you need to earn a certain number of points per year to keep your status, otherwise you get relegated down to the category below, but 3rd cats can never be relegated to 4th cat status.
You are most likely to start out by doing ‘crits’ (or ‘criteriums’ to give them their full name) on purpose-built road circuits.
There are three circuits within easy reach which have opened up in recent years.
The Velopark circuit is about one mile long and loops round by the Velodrome in the Olympic Park (near Stratford and Leyton) – this is fairly flat and not terribly technical. Hog Hill (aka Redbridge Cycling Centre) is a bit further afield near Hainault. If the full circuit is used it’s about 1.25 miles long and involves a vicious climb on every lap, but sometimes the races use a shorter version and avoid the hill.
Hog Hill (Redbridge Cycling Centre) is more challenging than the Velopark, both in terms of climbing and in terms of technical cornering (but also more fun!). On one hand, this makes it harder to race – it’s much harder to sit in the bunch than at the velopark and races are often quite attritional at Hog Hill, with the bunch getting thinned out every time it goes up the hill. On the other hand, it’s actually safer with fewer crashes – partly because the bunch gets thinned out and partly because the sprint finish is up a steep climb.
Outside of London, but still easy to get to in less than an hour, the Cyclopark circuit is just off the A2 on the outskirts of Gravesend. This is 1.8 miles long: there are couple of tight bends and a long, draggy climb rather than anything steep. Although most people see the race season as running from March to September/October, you can actually find crits organised on these circuits all through the year.
A typical crit for 4th cats will be over a set time, rather than a set distance. So the race might be described as “40 minutes plus 5 laps”. This kind of racing requires a very different effort to a time trial. Instead of one constant level of exertion, you are constantly having to vary how hard you work: one minute you will be sprinting as hard as you possibly can just to stay in touch, the next minute everyone is free-wheeling and looking at each other.
Initially it’s all about being able to stay with the bunch (it’s so much easier to ride in the pack than on your own, so if you get dropped it’s very difficult to fight your way back to the bunch). As you get better at that, it’s all about learning to maintain a good position or even being able join the right break and stay clear and, of course, being able to sprint at the end of the race.
Races on the open road are longer than crits. While a crit would usually be between 15 and 30 miles, a road would be between 40 and 100 miles or more (depending on the level of riders taking part). These races are based on circuits (usually raced anti-clockwise so that every turn is a left turn) between 5 miles and 15 miles in length.
The roads are not closed, but you ride in a convoy, so up ahead of the bunch there will be at least two cars to warn oncoming traffic of what is coming up behind them, while behind the bunch there will be a commissaire’s car, a first aid car and (if you’re lucky) a car with spare wheels and so on. You must stay on the left hand side of the road when there are white lines down the middle.
You can search for events using the ‘calendar’ on the BC website: https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/events?zuv_bc_discipline_filter_id=21.
We also have a Race Calendar, that includes local races and which Lea Valley CC members are racing, that is accessible through our members only Facebook Page.
It is well worth watching the series ‘Ride Smart’ and ‘Race Smart’ videos to learn about racing safely in a bunch. Here is one of them: britishcycling.org.uk/knowledge/article/izn20141117-Road-How-to-corner-in-a-bunch—Racesmart-0
*There are also races organised by other organisations, such as TLI and LVRC.
(originally written by Jamie Fake)