First of all, the big divide is between road racing and time trialling. Road racing is where you all start at the same time and the winner is the first rider across the finish line, whereas time trialling is where you ride individually against the clock (usually the riders are set off at one-minute intervals to keep them apart). For historical reasons there are actually two different governing bodies controlling these events: road races are under the control of British Cycling (which used to be known as the BCF – British Cycling Federation) while time trials are controlled by CTT (Cycling Time Trials, previously known as the RTTC).
Doing a road race in a bunch takes a certain amount of bike-handling skill and courage, plus, of course, you have to be strong enough to keep up with everyone else. For this reason, most people trying out racing for the first time start off by doing time trials – you are far less likely to crash and you go at whatever speed you can personally manage. So, we’ll look at time trials before road races.
The majority of time trials are held over a particular fixed distance. The most common distances are 10 miles and 25 miles, though there are also races at 30 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles and (for the masochistic) 12-hour events (where you ride as far as you can in 12 hours). Usually these courses go out and back on the same road: for a typical 10-mile race you would ride in one direction for approximately five miles, do a 180-degree turn at a roundabout, then ride back in the opposite direction to the finish line which is fairly close to the start line.
Broadly speaking there are two types of courses. A ‘dragstrip’ is a course where you can expect to set a fast time – these are usually busy dual carriageways and are fairly flat. A ‘sporting’ course is slower and would usually be on quieter, smaller roads and be a bit more undulating. Time trials are not held on closed roads, so you will constantly have vehicles overtaking you and you may well have to slow down or even stop at roundabouts. There are marshals on the courses, but their job is not to stop the traffic – they simply point you in the right direction.
The CTT splits the country up into about 20 districts. We are in the ‘London East’ district (which extends into Essex and beyond), which means our courses begin with the letter ‘E’. All time trial courses have a code name (a tradition dating back many decades to when cycle racing had to be carried out secretly) which begins with the letter of the district. The courses that we use for our own events are the E1 and the E2 (in fact the names are a bit longer than that as they also include the distance), both up in northern Essex / southern Cambridgeshire. On the CTT website you can find maps of the various courses. Here is the E1/25b: https://cyclingtimetrials.org.uk/course-details/e1-25b . This is a sporting course on B-roads which we use for several of our events. We have our own Race HQ building nearby: https://leavalleycc.microco.sm/conversations/253853/.
Meanwhile, the E2 course is a dragstrip on the A11 dual carriageway near Newmarket: https://cyclingtimetrials.org.uk/course-details/e2-10
To take part in a CTT event you have to be a member of CTT-affiliated club (which Lea Valley CC is). Perhaps a little confusingly, to pay your £25 annual subscription and sign up to the club you actually have to go to the BC website (even if you have no intention of taking part in any BC events). Follow this link and then click on the ‘join our club’ button: https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/club/profile/1376/lea_valley_cc
Time Trials are usually either ‘Open’ events or ‘Club’ events. A club event is intended to be only for members of one club and can be quite a small affair with just a dozen riders or so. An open event is open to members of any CTT-affiliated club and can have a field as large as 120 riders. Riders are seeded according to their ability (when you complete the entry form you give your previous fastest times, if you have any, so that the organiser knows how good you are). The fastest riders are given the numbers finishing with ‘0’, the next fastest riders are given the numbers finishing with ‘5’, and so on. The idea is to minimise the chance of riders of a similar ability ending up riding together – you are not allowed to ride with anyone else. You are set off at one-minute intervals. If a rider catches you and overtakes you, you must not try to sit on their wheel – you have to let them draw clear of you and not take shelter.
The serious time trialists (or ‘testers’ as they are known) scour the country looking for the flattest, fastest dragstrip courses and live in hope of a ‘float day’ when the weather is absolutely perfect and they can set a personal best. Because of this, races on the fastest courses are usually oversubscribed and organisers only let the fastest 120 riders onto the start list. If you are looking to race for the first time, it would be best to enter a race on a slower course like the E2 or the E91 (in The Rodings area of Essex) as these don’t usually fill up – or, of course, enter a club event.
You can find lists of events on the CTT website and nowadays you can enter them online. Follow this link (and then filter the district to ‘London East’): https://cyclingtimetrials.org.uk/find-events
There are some time trials that are a bit different to these. Several are described as ‘hilly’ and follow a course which involves plenty of climbing and a series of left turns instead of just out and back. These are usually over non-standard distances (e.g. the ‘Hainault Hilly’ is about 29 miles long). Also, at the end of the season in October and the start of November there are a series of hill climbs. These are very short and involve just a few minutes of agony racing up the steepest hills in the area.
In terms of equipment, you can race a time trial on a normal road bike, but you will find that the fastest riders are using specialist time trial bikes with aero bars, aero helmets, disc wheels, etc. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, you can spend less than £100 on some clip-on aero bars that will probably make you about 1mph faster – quite a good investment when every second counts.
Now we turn to road racing. 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. Traditionally, the famous circuit in our area was Eastway, but this was bulldozed to make way for the Olympic Park. However, 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 is more challenging than the Velopark, both in terms of climbing and in terms of technical cornering. 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
As mentioned earlier, you’re more likely to have a crash in a crit or road race than in a time trial as you will be riding in very close proximity to dozens of other riders (perhaps even 80 riders in one group). Because of this you need to have experience of group riding before taking part in a race. It’s also 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