Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bike Racing... and You Can Too

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Forward: This is actually a post I stole from my bike blog. But I figure it's a pretty introductory post to cycling so it'd be suited to the runners!

If you're anyone who has spent any time around me talking about cycling, triathlon, running, etc., you'll probably know that I really like to encourage people to give some sort of organized racing a shot.  I do this because I think that a little competition is a great way to meet new people, challenge yourself, and push yourself a little outside your comfort zone and have great fun in the process.

When it comes to cycling, there isn't a whole lot of info out there to show new entrants to the sport what the options are.  I've often had conversations with ladies and gentlmen who own road bikes but are wondering where the race scene is and how they can get involved in some organized, friendly competition.  So the purpose of this blog post is to provide a little direction as to what sort of organized competition is available for cycling in Calgary and Alberta, and how you can get involved.  Note, that the prerequisite for all these types of racing is in fact a road bike with drop bars (ie; no triathlon or time trial bikes, no mountain bikes or hybrids, and fixies/single speeds only if you're completely badass and have the engine of Fabian Cancellara).

Gran Fondo

Gran Fondo is literally Italian for "big ride".  Typically this non-competitive form of racing is where road cyclists can get together and celebrate their passion for the bicycle in a friendly but structured way.  Gran Fondos are large supported rides complete with aid stations similar to what you'd find at charity rides like the Ride to Conquer Cancer, or the MS Bike Tour.  The difference is that you don't have any fundraising goal to meet and the the reason the riders are there is to simply enjoy riding in the company of other cyclists.  

Gran Fondo is probably the best type of cycling for someone looking to bridge the gap between charity rides and actual cycling.  The distances are similar in that most Gran Fondo rides are between 80km and 160km, and its not as competitive an envionment as road races or crits.  If you're looking to measure up to the top riders, often Gran Fondos will have a small purse for the winning riders, but these really are "rides" more than "races".   These types of rides are a great place to introduce yourself to riding in a peloton, meet other cyclists, and find new routes.  In Alberta we're lucky enough to have three Gran Fondos across some truly extraordinary terrain;Gran Fondo RockiesGran Fondo Highwood Pass, and Gran Fondo Banff.

Road Racing

Traditional road racing is what's most commonly associated with big races like the Tour de France.  Alberta in fact has many multi-day road races throughout the season starting in late April/early May.  Often a multi-day "stage race" may include several types of racing which I'll talk about in seperate sections including; time trial, road race, crit, and hill climb time trial.  Some races like the Pigeon Lake Road Race are just a single day road race, while others like the Banff Bike Fest will take place over four days and include all of the previously mentioned races.  In a multi stage race there will be one or two types of racing on each day, each with its own winners, and an overall winner with the best total time or "General Classification" time awarded at the end.

Traditional road racing is draft legal complete with teams, tactics, and strategy.  The majority of the field races along in the "peloton" which is the large pack of riders you see flying through the countryside every July in the Tour de France.  Occasionally you'll have some try and break off from the group, or you'll have a team try and work together to make a break and give their top guy a chance at the win.  Depending on what level of race you compete in, these races may range from 60km on the short end to 150km or more at the top local levels.

For this type of racing it's important that you be confident riding among a pack of riders and have a solid base level of fitness.  I'd say for this type of riding, at the entry level you be able to ride for at least 2 hours and be familiar with concepts such as drafting, and communication with fellow riders.  Before you show up at a road race I'd encourage you to think about joining a local bicycling club.  More information on this type of racing and a schedule for the season is available from the Alberta Bicycling Association.

Crit Racing

Crit racing is Fast and Furious meets the cycling.  Crit races are short, fast races of multiple laps often on a 2-3km loop with several corners.  Races will usually last 20-30 minutes, after which a bell will be rung signalling how many laps remain.  Crit races are full of close quarter riding in the peloton, with sprints, attacks, and breakaways.

If I had to liken the intensity of this type of riding to anything I'd say it would be like 30 minute all out a spin class with the meanest spin instructor you'll ever meet.  Crit racing provides a fantastic high intensity workout and a great place to sharpen your group riding skills.  The great thing is that since they're so short, they're held quite often, Midweek Mayhem organizes them every Tuesday night through the summer in fact at the U of C Research Park.  For anyone looking to get involved in road racing, I'd strongly encourage they give crit a shot.  The nice thing with crit is that at the lower levels, if you get dropped out of the pack usually for the first little while they'll let you rejoin the group on the next level (you just won't be competing for the win), so in that sense its actually quite beginner friendly.

I'll put a word of caution into this one though, in such close quarter racing, communication and bike handling skills are crucial.  Thats why its important to start this type of racing at the beginning of the season, when everyone is still coming out of hibernation.  There are always newcomers to the sport and its safest when everyone is on the same level.  If you take a beginner and start them with a bunch of other beginners doing crit in May, then by July they'll all be way up the learning curve and you won't want to join in the fray when they're all on another level and you're still trying to figure out how to clip into your pedals.

Track Cycling

My old high school teacher CP Walsh wouldn't be too happy with me if I left Track Racing off the list.  Taking place at the Calgary Velodrome, this type of racing is the bicycling equivalent of track and field.   Velodrome racing is among the most exciting bicycle racing around, for both riders and spectators. Riders start from a stand still, on fixed gear bikes, in a velodrome with banked turns.  Track racing can be very physical, with riders going shoulder to shoulder in full sprints to the finish! This makes for exciting and spectator-friendly racing, because everyone can see all of the action.

To many cyclists, track racing is still considered the purest form of cycling and has certainly been around for as long as road cycling. With the steep banked walls of the modern velodrome offering excellent close-ups of the action, it is a fantastic spectator sport and particularly popular in Europe and Australia, with a recent resurgence in the UK.Now, this type of riding sounds intimidating, but I've got to hand it to the Calgary Bicycle Track League, they do an amazing job of making it a beginner friendly sport.  Throughout the season they hold clinics for beginners getting into the sport, and to boot they also provide bicycle rentals.

I'm not going to lie here though, this is the one type of riding I actually haven't tried out yet.  So I can't speak a whole lot to it.  But there's a pretty wicked video that can do the talking for me available here on Vimeo talking about Aussie track cyclist Shane Perkins.

Women in cycling

I've talked to a lot of women who have been looking to get involved in cycling.  With the popularity of spin classes lately I really do encourage individuals interested in cycling, especially women, to give it a shot.  Spin classes provide excellent conditioning for cyclists and I'd love to see some of those huge aerobic engines crafted through the winter out at the races in the summer.  Several races in Alberta often provide free entry for women in an effort to get more of them involved in cycling and deepen the ranks of ladies in the sport from the local to professional level.

The success of the Specialized Lululemon team with speed skating legend Clara Hughes last year is just one example of how women are starting to make a name for themselves in cycling.  If you're a woman interested in cycling I'd strongly encourage you to contact your local bike shop and ask them about shop rides, or no drop rides that they may host through the summer or even contact me directly on Twitter or through Ridleys as I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.


I'm passionate about cycling and I love to share this sport with others.  One of the best decisions I ever made was to take the leap and get involved in triathlon and racing at an organized level.  It certainly seems scary, and its intimidating to not know where you stack up against the field when you're just getting into a sport.  But nothing is worth trying out if it's not a little scary, and the only way to become a faster cyclist is to ride with faster cyclists.  So take the plunge now, find a local club, or sign of for a Gran Fondo, or even just go into your local bike shop and ask about shop rides, you won't regret it.

You can follow me on Twitter @raflopez or visit my other blog at Keep Calm and Ride On.