Preparing for your first Bike Race? Eight things you should know.

Around this time last year – I began to think about entering a race for the first time. It’s fair to say that I was pretty clueless about how to prepare, paying the price in my first few events! After much thought, I’ve come up with some pieces of advice that I believe would have really helped. Here we go – eight tips to help you prepare for that first race.

1) Work on technique

Improved technique will make you faster. It’s surprising how much of a difference allocating one hour or so during the week to working on a technical weakness can make. Common areas to work on include skills such as bunch riding, cornering and descending – in addition to others, for example pedalling technique and gear selection.

In the first two races I completed, I was dropped virtually on the start line – for the simple reason that I was riding overgeared, leaving me unable to accelerate quickly enough to stay with the bunch. A month of sessions focusing on increasing my cadence and riding in an easier gear was all it took, I haven’t been dropped early on in a race since. Trust me – it’s really worth it.

2) Follow a plan

I’m no coach, to that end I’m not going to give out highly detailed training advice. However, I can say with absolute conviction that introducing some structure to your training makes a massive difference. Prioritise two or three races in which you’d like to do well – build your training plan around them. Set some intermediate goals along the way, such as trying to take a local KOM. You’ll be far more motivated, particularly in the winter, if you give yourself something tough to aim for.

3) Don’t overtrain

Remember, adaptation to exercise occurs during rest – it is in recovery that your fitness will increase. If you end up feeling demotivated, tired and depressed then it’s probably time to take a break. Missing one session is better than pushing ahead, making yourself ill and having to take two weeks off. Be sure to include rest weeks in your training plan, a good rule of thumb is to halve the volume and reduce the intensity every third or fourth week (for example, if you normally train eight hours per week – drop it to four and leave out any hard sessions).

Use the prospect of an upcoming rest week to get through hard training sessions. Having an end of-sorts in site can make it that bit easier to get out the door. I often use rest weeks in order to taper for an event, that way training isn’t disrupted but I can still race on fresh legs.

4) Think holistically

It isn’t just what you do on the bike that equates to increased performance. If you are training hard, it’s essential that you eat healthily and get enough sleep in order to maximise the results. If you can, avoid alcohol and save caffeine for race day. You don’t have to turn into a complete puritan, moderation is key. I’m still not one to turn down a slice of cake or a doughnut if offered – I just make sure to not have that type of thing in the house, knowing it won’t last the night.

Off bike training can also come in useful, especially during the winter when you may be short on time to ride. Improving core and leg strength – coupled with stretching in order to increase flexibility and aid recovery can lead to serious gains on the bike. That said, if your time in which to train is very limited (say under 6 hours per week) and it comes down to a choice, prioritise riding over anything else.

5) Join a Club

If you aren’t already part of a club, now is the time to give it a try. Your local club can be a good source of advice and may even offer group training sessions designed to prepare members for racing. If you haven’t ridden much in a group before, the Sunday ride is the perfect place to start. I’ll stress that you need to be confident when it comes to riding in a bunch before entering a race, regardless of your level of fitness – your competitors will be thankful.
6) Invest wisely

It can be tempting to believe the claims laid down by manufacturers and to try and buy your way faster. If you have money to spend, invest it in yourself before your bike. For example, spend a little more in the supermarket – buying good quality, healthy food. The single best item of equipment you can buy if your budget will stretch to it, is a power meter – this will allow you to train with more accuracy and more easily gauge your progress. I’d also recommend a bike fit, especially if you have any niggling injuries.
7) Make sure your bike is mechanically sound

This might sound obvious, but it’s something many of us (myself included) have been caught out on. Before taking it racing, give your bike some attention, especially the drivetrain components. If you’ve ridden your chosen bike over the winter, now is the time to have it serviced. Equipment failure during a race can be dangerous, for both yourself and others. I was forced to pull out of my first ever race after four laps, oweing to a slipping chain – lucky to avoid being crashed into in the process. This scenario could, of course, have been very easily avoided.

8) Remember to enjoy it

It can be easy to lose sight of the real reason why you ride a bike – to have fun. If missing out on a weekly social ride for the sake of sticking to a training zone is making you miserable, it isn’t worth it. Last season, I obsessed for months about moving up to 3rd Category – ultimately feeling no different once I’d managed it, after the initial elation. Race results are never a matter of life or death.
There we have it. Hopefully, you will have found the above useful. As always, any feedback would be much appreciated. I wish you a successful winter followed by some good results. Stay tuned.

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