Whether you're a complete beginner to the start line, or hoping to branch out into a new discipline, we're here to help.
This is what it's all about. The skills. The endurance. The experience. The race.
Maybe you've always wanted to test your mettle on the open road, or navigate your way along a mountain. Maybe you want to zoom around a velodrome or get dirty on the track. Whatever style intrigues you, whatever your experience level, this page has all the information to get you ready for the race.
If you’re looking to take your riding to the next level, but aren’t quite ready to put it all out on the line, consider searching the event calendar for gran fondos or fun rides. Typically these rides are mass start (everyone takes off together), or are divided by age group.
Fondos and fun rides are a bit different than racing in pacing, route, and organization. At USA Cycling races, riders typically start at the beginner level (category 5) and work their way up the ranks with upgrade points. Sometimes multiple categories are toe the line together but are ranked separately. Check each event flyer or website for more information, regardless of the event type.
So what do you say? Are you all in? If so, you’ll want to:
Consider what type of riding you like to do, or what you want to try. Each type of bike has a multitude of sports – road bikes alone have criteriums, road races, time trials, hills climbs, and more.
Remember that you’re not limited to the types of riding at which you’re most skilled! Racing is meant to broaden your horizons and realize your potential. Check out the various racing disciplines below to learn about the types of races, and basic pointers to get you started.
Once you know what type of riding you're most interested in, you should...
If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty, or learn better with hands-on experience, consider reaching out to your USA Cycling Local Association (LA). Click here to find your local LA. They have the ins and outs of everything bike racing in your area. Your LA can answer your questions about how to get involved and can even recommend area cycling clubs for you to contact. Clubs typically host group rides and offer loads of local know-how. Click here to find clubs in your area, and be sure to discuss your level of cycling with them to ensure a good fit.
After you've gathered info on the local scene and found people to train with, you're ready to...
USA Cycling sanctions nearly 3,000 competitive and non-competitive cycling events each year in the United States. Your LA should have advice on and insight into the best local events for newcomers, whether that’s low entry fees, a vibrant social scene, or specific distances or technical details. You can also explore the events in your area and nationwide using the event calendar here.
But before you can toe the start line, you'll need to...
USA Cycling exists in part to provide excellent event support, from national results and rankings to event insurance coverage. Any USA Cycling-sanctioned event you plan on racing in will require a race license. There are two ways to obtain race license coverage:
To purchase a license and learn about the numerous benefits of an annual membership, visit the Race License page, or contact our membership department: 719-434-4200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you're planning to race outside of the United States, you may need an international license and a Foreign Permission Letter. Check with the event organizer for more information.
Now that you're official, it's time to...
You have a race in mind, so now it’s time to make sure your gear is sorted. Make sure to pay attention to the weather and dress, hydrate, and protect yourself from the sun appropriately. As you gain race experience, you’ll learn more about the tools you want in your toolkit, your personal nutritional needs, and “nice to have’s.” The following are essentials for any race (or ride), but check the sections below for race-specific gear ideas.
Making sure your equipment is up to the rigors of racing is a very important aspect of racing and often one of the more overlooked areas for new racers. The last thing you want is to have a mechanical during a race due to something that could’ve been easily spotted and fixed. In criteriums, you’ll get a free lap if you get a flat tire, but usually not within the last 3 to 5 laps of the race, but won’t get a free lap if you have a mechanical that resulted from something that could’ve been caught before the race. It’s a good idea to have your trusted local bike shop or mechanic do a once-over on your bike at least a week before your race. Be sure to check everything from your helmet to the cleats on your shoes to ensure nothing is cracked or on the verge of breaking.
The passion of the open road. The speed and unbridled power. Rolling hills, endless climbs, and winding descents. Maybe you’ve done some group rides or a century, and now you want to test yourself against others of your ability and age. Or you’ve seen the Tour de France and felt inspired to get moving. An Olympic sport since 1896, road cycling has the deepest roots of all disciplines. While road racing typically happens during spring and summer months, the occasional race pops up in fall and winter in warmer states.
Regardless of your age or ability, there is a place for you to challenge yourself and compete!
Also known as a TT, this race can be done either individually or as a team (depending on the event) in a race against the clock. If you’re not comfortable riding with a large group of other cyclists, or you’re looking for a consistent power outlet this is a great option for you. This race does not allow for drafting and everyone starts on their own in 30 seconds to one minute intervals. Some events come in standard lengths, whereas ultra-endurance events allow riders to ride as far as possible within the time limit.
This is likely the longest of the single day race types, and begins with a staggered mass start – where everyone in a specific category starts together. These races are created based on distance instead of time, and typically range from 30-60 miles in length. Drafting is allowed and team tactics will definitely come into play!
Criteriums (crits) are another mass start event, but are set up on a closed (not open to car traffic) course that is typically a mile or less and may include sharp corners. Racers do repeated laps of the course for a pre-determined amount of time - usually 30 to 90 minutes. The officials will time the first few laps to figure out how fast the field is racing, then hold up laps cards at the start/finish line indicating how many laps remain in the race. These races allow drafting and tend to be quite fast. Racing with a team allows for more strategy and blocking tactics over the course of the race.
A stage race is a combination of the previous events, held over several consecutive days, with one race type on each day. It may include road races, criteriums, a time trial, or a circuit race (which is basically somewhere between a road race and a criterium). Each day, the time it takes you to complete that stage is recorded, and the rider with the lowest total time over the duration of the race wins. Some race stages receive time credits for wins. This favors the rider with the best all-around ability, but you can always shine on the stages that suit your skills and talent!
What is this crazy sport your friends have been talking about? Cyclocross, often referred to as ‘cross or CX, is a sport that has its origins in Europe in the early 1900s and takes place in fall and winter months. ‘Cross is wildly popular in countries like Belgium and Holland and is currently the fastest growing cycling discipline in the U.S.
Cyclocross is kind of like a steeplechase, but on a bike, with courses that can consist of grass, dirt, mud, pavement, short, steep hills, off-camber sections and a few obstacles. Obstacles may include low, wood planks (called barriers), stairs, unrideably steep hills, or logs. These force the rider to get off and remount their bike multiple times a lap. There is a technique to dismounting and re-mounting your bike quickly. This takes some practice and patience.
Cyclocross races begin with a staggered mass start – where everyone in a specific category starts together. Depending on experience level, racers compete for 30-60 minutes by racing multiple laps around a short course (typically 1.5-2 miles). The officials will time the first few laps to figure out how fast the field is racing, then hold up laps cards at the start/finish line indicating how many laps remain in the race. Drafting is not really much of an advantage, so you don’t have to ride very close to other riders. In fact, unlike in road races, the race usually breaks up into individual riders and small groups of one or two racers very quickly, so you don’t have to worry about getting dropped, and speeds are generally slower with rougher terrain.
Track cycling takes place on a velodrome, which is a closed, banked oval. Velodromes vary widely in total distance, shape and degree of banking, giving each velodrome its own personality. In the U.S., we have roughly 29 velodromes.
Riding the velodrome requires a specific type of bicycle. This bike is fixed gear, not singlespeed, and has no brakes, so riders have to slow their cadence to slow down.
There are a variety of lines painted on the velodrome:
Although many people ride velodromes purely for the joy of cycling and don’t race, there are several types of events raced on the velodromes. A typical event will consist of several races of varying distances and structures:
Riders compete over a specified distance and the order of finish determines the winner.
Values are assigned to specific laps throughout a race, e.g. every tenth lap. Generally the leading rider and sometimes the second place rider will be awarded points. The structure and timing of points races varies greatly, but the winner is determined by the accumulation of points and not necessarily the rider crossing the line first at the end of the race.
Also known as "miss and out." This race removes the last place rider from each lap (every second lap on shorter tracks) until only three to five riders remain. The final standings are then determined by a sprint over the last two laps.
Paired riders "sling" their teammate forward to facilitate alternating sprints that keep the pace very high during typically long races (30 km or 19 miles, or more, compared to 3–10 km or 1.9–6.2 mi for most other races). The name is taken from Madison Square Garden where the format was popular in the early 1900s. Since partners can trade as often as they like, this is a very busy race format, with half of the racers racing and half circulating around the track at any time.
A motorcycle known as a Derny paces 6 to 9 riders, gradually accelerating until the last lap and a half when it pulls off the track and a sprint for the finish determines the winner.
competition assigns a point value to final standings of each race and riders accumulate points over the course of an event or series of events. This is not a specific race, but a competition that ties races and events together.
Two or more competitors (or teams) are either chasing after each other or chasing after a lead competitor or team.
There are many non-traditional races including a handicap race, chariot race, point-a-lap, snowball, just to name a few. Each race would be fully explained by the official at your local race.
Modern mountain biking got its start in the late 1970s in Northern California and today serves as a popular form of recreation, as well as competition. Like other disciplines of cycling, mountain biking encompasses many different formats, including cross-country, short track cross-country, ultra-endurance, downhill, dual slalom, four-cross, super D, enduro and observed trials. Oftentimes mountain biking events are grouped together over a weekend, or during festivals or tradeshows. Even if you think you're interested in one type of racing, we encourage you to see other events. The sport is always changing!
This endurance-oriented event is a mass-start competition, divided by category or ability, which typically features 100-150 riders competing over rough terrain including everything from unpaved fire roads to technical singletrack filled with rocks, roots and ruts.
A typical elite-level mountain bike race lasts approximately two hours and ranges from 22-28 miles for men and 16-22 miles for women.
A common cross-country mountain bike course includes significant elevation gain and tricky descents. To accommodate the off-road conditions, competitors’ bikes are equipped with wide, knobby tires for better traction and suspension systems to soften the impact of riding over uneven terrain. Bike-handling skills, a keen sense of awareness and an element of bravery are all vital characteristics of a successful cross-country mountain bike racer.
Similar to a criterium in road cycling, short track cross-county was introduced as a spectator-friendly discipline. It is an endurance-oriented event that features off-road racing on a short circuit. Traversing rough and often steep terrain, a short track cross-country race typically only lasts 20 minutes as competitors start and finish fast. Often times, cross country and short track bikes do not feature rear suspension in an attempt to save weight, though it may be a worthy compromise on some courses.
Ultra-endurance racing comes in many forms, but is best described as off-road racing that covers longer-than-normal distances and/or lasts for several hours or more. Held on cross-country courses, marathons are defined by cycling’s international governing body as races that are 100 kilometers long or more. Ultra-endurance racing also comes in the form of 24-hour and 12-hour competitions in which solo competitors and relay teams attempt to cover the most distance over a given amount of time.
One of the many “gravity” styles of racing, downhill is exactly as it sounds. Competitors ride the lift to the top and descend the face of a mountain in an individual race against the clock, only timed on the way down. The rider with the fastest time is declared the winner. Some of mountain biking’s most advanced technology comes from the discipline of downhill racing. Riders compete on bikes that have full suspension systems which allow them to experience a smooth ride as they descend down rocky trails, jumps and drop-offs.
Typically speaking, a mountain biker specializes in either endurance or gravity-oriented events, but not both. A downhill rider will often cross over into four-cross and dual slalom competitions. The athletes are also easily identifiable at events as the ones with full-face helmets, body armor, and pads.
Considered another “gravity” event, dual slalom features two riders competing head-to-head against each other. Similar to the slalom events in downhill ski racing, competitors must weave themselves in and out of gates while descending the face of a hill. A course will typically have two identical runs – red and blue – with the same features, including berms, rollers, and doubles. After the first heat, riders switch runs and descend the hill a second time. After each rider competes on the red and blue course, his or her times are added together and the rider with the lowest cumulative time advances to the next round, while the other is eliminated.
Also referred to as mountain cross, four-cross replaced dual slalom on the international circuit in 2002. In the four-cross event, gravity riders are seeded into four-person brackets following an individual seeding run. Once seeded into their respective brackets, riders descend a technical, downhill course with tight turns, berms and jumps. Riders start four-wide and descend the course simultaneously after the start gate drops. From there, the idea is simple: the top two riders in each heat advance to the next round while the others are eliminated from contention.
Short for super downhill, this discipline is a hybrid of cross-country and downhill racing. Competitors start one at a time at the top of a mountain and traverse a long, winding, downhill course that also requires riders to climb sections to access additional descents. The rider with the fastest time is declared the winner.
Super D differs from downhill in the sense that it typically doesn’t include the same level of intensity in technical descents, jumps or drop-offs, and it requires more climbing than what’s featured on a single downhill run. Although the course profile is downhill in nature, many endurance athletes regularly contest the super downhill. Super D differs from cross-country in the sense that there is no sustained climbing involved and descending skills are most important. The course is built for consistent speed and to compliment an all-around rider.
The newest form of mountain biking, enduro is like multiple Super D runs, linking technical downhill trails with flat and uphill sections typically found at a cross-country race. Races have more than one stage, and oftentimes riders must climb fireroads or trails to reach later stages. In enduro events, only the downhill sections are timed. A rider's stage times added together to create an overall time. Competitors typically choose bikes that allow for the bike-handling capabilities required of a downhill racer, but also don't prohibit sustained climbing.
Half entertainment, half sport, observed trials feature riders who negotiate an obstacle course on their bike. The goal is to traverse the course on your bike without letting your feet touch the ground. At an observed trials competition, competitors go from station to station where they are scored based on the number of times their feet touch the ground (dabs). The person with the fewest dabs at the end of the competition is declared the winner. Courses usually feature such obstacles as boulders, rocks, stumps and other natural hurdles in addition to man-made obstacles such as picnic tables, cars, and specially built structures.
BMX (which stands for Bicycle Motocross) racing finds its roots starting in the late 1970s in southern California. Today it is an Olympic sport with participants from countries all over the world. BMX Freestyle is the newest addition to Olympic cycling sports, after growing in "underground" popularity in the 1990s and 2000s.
A BMX bike has just a singlespeed gear and typically only a single rear brake (excepting some Freestyle events), with either a 20" or 24" wheel diameter.
USA BMX has over 370 tracks nationwide, and the sanctioned season runs from January into December. Visit the USA BMX website to find a local track near you. You can call a local track director or show up at a local practice or race night and approach the registration booth for guidance on how to get started.
Freestyle BMX can be ridden in a variety of places, though skateparks and indoor parks are the most popular locations. Contact your LA for more information on local resources and riders.
Riders start on a gate and sprint around a track consisting of a variety of jumps and turns. The race is entirely from the start line to the finish line — there are no laps — and the goal is to cross the finish line before your competitors. A typical race only lasts about 30-40 seconds. Typically, qualifying heats are used to determine who will race in a single main event for the victory.
USA BMX, the sanctioning body in the United States, uses four criteria to determine a racer's classification for competition: age, gender, proficiency and wheel size. Age categories range from 5-and-under to 65+, giving plenty of opportunities for anyone interested in starting the sport. Everyone begins in the NOVICE class. In other words—beginners. Upon winning 10 races, Novice boys move into the INTERMEDIATE class, while Novice girls move into the GIRL class. But while Girl is the highest proficiency level in the sport for amateur girls, Intermediate boys—after 20 more wins—move into the EXPERT class; the highest proficiency level in the sport for amateur boys.
Finally, there are two bike categories, based on wheel size/diameter—20” wheel BMX bikes called class bikes, and 24” wheel BMX bikes called cruiser bikes. In BMX racing, the 20” bikes are the required size for all Novice, Intermediate, Girl, and Expert competition, while the 24” bikes are the required size for all Cruiser competition. But while the Cruiser classes, like the 20” classes, are age and gender based, they are not divided into the Novice, Intermediate, or Expert proficiency levels.
Broadly speaking, Freestyle includes Street (urban trick riding), Park, Vert (performed in a half pipe or quarter pipe), Trail (flowy dirt jumping), and Flatland (tricks performed on the bike without using other obstacles).
However, competitive BMX Freestyle takes place on a course full of ramps, bowls, and obstacles, all within a 30m x 50m park (Olympic regulation). The course may include ramps, jumps, bowls, and rails. Each rider has a predetermined amount of time to complete a run individually, and is judged on a 100 point scale based on difficulty, originality, style, flow, risk, height, and execution of tricks during the allotted time. The standard freestyle bike has 20" wheels.
A new sport under the wings of USA Cycling and USA BMX, Freestyle does not yet have established guidelines or ranking systems. 2017 marked the first year of a UCI BMX Freestyle Park World Championships for Freestyle, and the sport is expected to continue its rapid growth!