At the end of the season a lot of leisure and sportive riders will be mulling over the prospect of racing in Category 4 next season. The challenge is daunting for many and some never take the leap. Others do, but without being ready. In this article Tom Daly of Masters Cycling Coaching offers some useful advice.
The biggest concerns are not being able to manage the pace and the fear associated with a faster, more aggressive and tightly packed bunch.
Managing the pace shouldn’t be a concern. Cat. 4 is intended for beginners to racing and is manageable for anyone with proper preparation. Some get results quickly and progress.
Preparation for the dynamic of the racing environment is another matter. Many come to cycling in adulthood, without the advantages of having messed around much on a bike as a child or having raced in the youth ranks.
However, this shouldn’t stop anyone and, if you want to experience racing, you should go for it. While nothing will beat experience and good one-on-one advice, there are some practical things not related to fitness that you can work on during the winter. Incorporating these into your winter training routine will help you to ease into the more intense racing environment and they will also add variety and interest to your training.
Not stalling when getting out of the saddle
Some riders pause for a second before getting out of the saddle, and again before sitting down. This will cause you to go ‘backwards’ in a line of riders, and into the rider behind if he or she is too close.
Practice getting out of the saddle, and sitting down again on a pedal stroke so that you maintain your pace.
Eating and drinking while under pressure
While Cat. 4 races are relatively short, you still need to eat and drink and many newcomers neglect this initially. They may be too nervous to reach for a bottle or food, or may simply forget about it when under pressure. Some but don’t have full control of the bike and lose pace when drinking or eating, and ‘go backwards’ as I described above, or don’t maintaining their line.
Practice reaching for your bottle without looking, take a quick sip, and replace it again while maintaining pace. Do the same with eating. Practice this especially when you are under pressure and short of breath – for example, on Sunday club spins when the pace gets hot.
Practice drinking from a bottle while on rollers, without looking down or losing cadence, will really help you master this basic skill.
Riding on the drops
Some riders come to racing without being able to ride on the drops. You SHOULD NOT try racing without being able to ride and brake on the drops, particularly on technical descents and in the wet, as you do not have full control over your bike and brakes while on the hoods.
When the bunch is tightly packed you also need to ride on the drops to prevent handlebars getting hooked in each other.
Spend part of every ride on the drops and practice changing gears until it becomes instinctive. Ride all technical descents on the drops, especially in the wet.
Some may need to get their brake positions adjusted to get the right reach. Some may also need to stretch to feel comfortable in the lower position. If this is the case, you need to prioritize stretching anyway.
‘Holding your line’
In some races you may hear a lot of shouting of ‘hold your line’, especially when coming up to fast, tight bends. Some riders don’t ‘hold their line’, especially before bends, and swing out suddenly without looking.
Practice picking out a line before the bends, and ‘hold that line’ going around. Aim for one, smooth movement without any sudden deviations. Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go. Brake early before the bend, and keep your weight on the outside leg going around. Practice it on the drops, with arms bent and body relaxed.
You should always be aware of what is going on around you and give a quick glance behind before changing your line. This is also a key skill to avoid getting hit by cars. However, even some elite riders can’t look behind while holding their line. Others glance as they move, rather than before they move.
Practice doing it in a safe place where there is a line on a road or carpark. Give a quick glance over your shoulder and see if you are still holding your line when you look forward again. Most will initially veer in the direction they are looking. To counter this, some find it useful to put most of their weight on the hand at the side where they are looking.
Practice regularly, on both sides, until you can comfortably look fully behind and still keep in a straight line.
Some ‘incidents’ in racing are caused by riders over-reacting to other incidents or minor obstacles – they swing out much more than necessary, or brake too aggressively. Practice going around obstacles tightly and suddenly. There are numerous ways to do this – but make sure it is safe and build up skill your and speed gradually.
Getting comfortable with contact
Contact isn’t common in racing, but you should be prepared for it, and not panic or over-react if it does.
Contact is really worth getting used to, but you need a trusted partner and a safe place to practice – grass is best initially.
Begin by riding slowly and touching elbows. Progress to shoulders. Always ride on the drops so that handlebars don’t get hooked.
When you get confident, progress to leaning in with elbows and shoulders, rather than just touching. Then move on to bumping as your skill, confidence and speed improves. Get used to leaning into a rider for the stability of both, rather than leaning away which may be difficult to recover from in tight spaces.
Rollers are great for practicing bumping handlebars. Put the rollers close to a wall and, on the drops, bump your hand off the wall. The reaction is much more extreme than on the road and you have only the width of the rollers to recover. Drills like this will help hone your control. You should, of course, do it safely and not be able to fall off on either side.
Did I mention rollers?
I have mentioned rollers a couple of times. They are great for improving bike control and have a lot of other benefits such as improving pedalling efficiency. Basic ones are also relatively cheap as cycling equipment goes, and you can learn the basic skill of riding them pretty easily. However, do take care – check out how to position them safely, how to protect yourself from falling, and how to mount and dismount safely.
I hope that this list of issues doesn’t make racing sound more technically demanding than it really is, and it shouldn’t put you off giving it a go. As I mentioned, with proper training you will be able to manage the pace and practicing these skills will give you confidence. Built into your regular training, they also add interest and variety.
Tom Daly, Masters Cycling Coaching and Elivar Featured Athlete