Unfortunately, I know I'll be at a disadvantage in racing because I haven't been able to find or create a team, as all of the other people I know who are into cycling are men. I weigh 146 lbs, and my bike weighs 19 lbs. I can sustain 18 mph on my solo rides, some stats on some recent notable efforts of mine: on a -3.8 incline I averaged 36 mph for 0,4 miles, about 325 watts in-the saddle, and another sprint, at 0% incline, I averaged 480 watts in the saddle for 0,2 miles. How might I measure up in a cat 4 peloton, especially without the help of a team?
9You don't state it explicitly, but "all of the other people I know who are into cycling are men" implies you're not - do you think you could clarify?– Chris HJul 22, 2020 at 8:21
8Get a power meter, Watts/kg are the only way to properly measure performance and progress. Be aware that a typical road race is about much more than just raw power. A lot of it is tactics, risk taking (crashes are common) and being an “asshole”.– MichaelJul 22, 2020 at 9:37
6@ChrisH I would second that. I was writing under the assumption that the OP was male, then I realized that they hadn’t explicitly stated that. However, it actually makes no substantive difference to my answer.– Weiwen NgJul 22, 2020 at 10:13
1How will you measure up? Against the winner or against your expectations? Against the winner, you won't (unless you're racing some 8 year olds), but you may obliterate your own expectations. As a lifetime cyclist, I took up running a few years ago. I decided to run a local 1/2 marathon as my first ever foot race. I set my target at 2:00 full well knowing the winner would be done in under 1:00. I blew my expectations out of the water by finishing at 1:46 and feeling that I could have gone faster.– FreeManJul 22, 2020 at 18:14
4Is your only goal to win?– Captain ManJul 22, 2020 at 20:06
Answer: reset your expectations and give it a go.
The first race I entered, my only goal was to finish. Second time I did it, the goal was to pace better and finish with a better time than my first effort.
After that, personal improvement is really the goal, developing racecraft and strategy.
When riding in a group/bunch/peloton/paceline of cyclists, you won't believe the amount of boost received from the draught. Simply watch and learn, parrot what others do, and listen to any advise offered.
It would be good if you could do some group riding before a proper race. Look for a publicised group ride and try to join. It can be hard to ride close enough behind someone to benefit from the aero gains, and it can be unnerving to be followed closely by someone. Practice will help.
Even if you fall off the back of a group in short order, you'll experience what group riding is like. It can be addictive!
If you possibly can, ride the race route beforehand. Even some of it is better than going into it cold. Use an app like Strava etc to log a time, and expect that a bunch ride will drop your time by about 20% assuming similar weather.
Gender is relatively irrelevant in a race - different categories are all run at the same time, perhaps with a few minutes gap between the start times. IE the full length race might start at 0800 with the half-length version leaving at 0810. So there's always some mixing between classifications whether they're age, distance, gender, or whatever the race organisers chose.
As a large middle age man, I'm able to descent faster than a lighter rider, but I have to work to maintain and carry that momentum up the next climb. And then those lightweight little weeds pass me at triple my climbing speed. Knowing what kind of road is coming up, whether its a long straight descent or a 20 minute climb helps you anticipate and pre-react.
Upshot life's too short . Get out and give it a go. I've seen a guy in his 70's win his age group on a 1960s three-speed city bike.
You can't finish unless you start.
1Positive thinking helps a lot. Not of the kind: do I even stand a chance? You won't know unless you try.– CarelJul 22, 2020 at 13:52
2Second this. You won't stand a chance in any race you don't enter. And you won't stand a chance in the first race you enter. But then you can figure out how you do, and how to improve. Jul 22, 2020 at 14:09
6"Gender" may be irrelevant, but sex is not as men have more muscles per same body weight. A 60 kg woman has no real chance to compete with a 60 kg man.– DavorJul 22, 2020 at 15:47
2Like you I've really noticed the difference on climbs and descents - I'm heavy and so's my bike. On an audax a couple of years ago I seemed not to be moving up the hills, the rider I was with was so quick. Then I'd catch her up downhill into a headwind. She did get the women's Everesting record the next month though Jul 22, 2020 at 18:04
7@Davor hogwash! If you look at all male riders, there's a huge variation in speed and power. If you look at all not-male riders, there's also huge variation. In a race between a woman on the Women's World Tour and an average male, my money is on the woman. It may be fair to say that an average 60 kg woman has no chance against an average 60 kg man, but to say that a 60 kg woman has no chance against a 60 kg man is sexist, because some 60 kg women can beat some 60 kg men. Please don't discourage anyone here. Everyone deserves a chance to race and find out for themselves. Jul 22, 2020 at 18:58
I doubt it - at the moment - but we don't know how trained you are, and proper training will work wonders. This is likely to mean finding either a club or a coach.
If your goal is to race, you really do need to find a racing club to train with. Round here there are several; all have mixed or women's fast group training rides, some also have junior sections. However powerful you are, riding in such close proximity to other riders is a very different matter.
To look at some numbers, as you imply you've been riding solo, lets look at time trials. They're simpler because they take out the aspect of peloton dynamics, and generally simplify the tactical side. As results are times, not finishing sequence, the course times are easily found online. They also have a lower barrier to entry at least where I am, and if you want to (or have to) ride solo they may be a good format to aim to compete in; distances tend to be either shorter (10 or 25 miles) or longer (100 miles, or even 12 or 24 hours) than road races, which round here seem to be 50--100 km.
I've been playing on my local TT courses recently. You don't say how long you can sustain 18 mph, but a flattish 25 miles at 18.8 mph would put me 18th out of all 20 riders (on a typical TT that uses some of the same roads). On a 10 mile course I can average 21 mph. I may actually enter a TT on that course, as I'd have a reasonable chance of not being the slowest - again I'd be very near the bottom of the table (including all adult riders). For longer TTs the slowest finishers still seem to average 21 mph - for nearly 5 hours straight.
4Thank you! Recommending looking at time trials was helpful advice. Around me it seems women's cat 4 time trials range from 23mph to 16mph. If I had competed, I'd score around 8th out of 10. I'm slightly above rock bottom, woohoo! Jul 22, 2020 at 16:57
Round here the TTs aren't categorised (it's to do with the legal history of racing and TTs in the UK), and everyone rides the same events. Previous or estimated times may be used to restrict entries if there are too many. Men's and women's winners are listed for each age range, but the results tables put everyone together in time order - so things are much more equal than in racing. Jul 22, 2020 at 17:52
4Also I should thank you @RW98Coppi - after writing this answer I was inspired to ride the 10 mile course and set a PR - my first time under 28½ minutes. Jul 22, 2020 at 17:57
4Joining a club is definitely the easiest way in. For safety reasons you absolutely must get some experience riding in a group. If you find a club that has an interest in racing there will be a club coach who can get you ready to race safely. Some races might not even let you enter if you can't show you are safe eg surreyleague.co.uk/race-preparation-training– QwerkyJul 23, 2020 at 12:45
Racing on a bicycle is HARD.
In your first race, you'll be lucky if you don't get dropped. You have no experience managing your efforts and recovery during an actual race. It's different - waaay different. One overdone effort will be enough to put you in big enough of a hole that you won't be able to hold on to the pack until you've recovered. The problem is you are going to have to make efforts to stay with the pack, but you don't have any feel for how hard you can really go without blowing yourself up, nor how many times you can do it.
There's really only one way to find out.
And you really don't know what "fast on a bicycle" means until you're trying desperately to hold the wheel of the bike in front of you lest you be gapped and get to watch the pack ride away from you. Once you get dropped from the pack, your race is almost certainly all over - if you're strong enough to catch back up to the pack after being dropped, you're strong enough that you wouldn't have been dropped in the first place.
As @Criggie noted, you won't believe the difference you get drafting in a pack. But that means that, unless you are really strong, once you're outside the pack you have no chance. If you go off the front, you will be caught. If you go off the back, you'll be dropped.
And it's really, really important to know that it's not just "I can hold X watts for 0.2 miles" - it's can you do it again 2 minutes later? Or even just 20 or 30 seconds later. Over and over and over and over.
Hopefully you have a good bit of experience in hard group rides and know how to hold your line.
In your first race, stay away from the front of the pack. You might very well feel like you can ride up there, especially early with the adrenaline of your first race flowing. Yeah, no. You'll likely feel great for a few minutes, and then you'll be hit with, "Uh oh. What have I done?!?!" as you pop and watch the pack ride off in front of you.
Also stay away from the back of the pack in races such as crits or circuit races that have sharp corners. Low-level packs will really bunch up as inexperienced riders take bad lines and brake in corners, which means riders behind them have to brake even harder - and then sprint out of the corner to not get dropped. Those sprint efforts will wear on you, and you'll eventually not be able to stay in the pack. One term used for that is "getting accordianed off the back".
Ideally, you want to be probably 5-10 riders back from the very front of the pack. Work to stay there - it's harder to ride further forward as you'll be in more wind and a lot more likely to find yourself actually on the front (if you do find yourself on the front - get off the front immediately as it takes probably 30-40% more power to ride on the front...) Further back in the pack is harder, too, as you have to deal with larger and frequent changes in speed as you respond to what the riders in front of you are doing. And all those little accelerations can eventually blow you up - and again you wind up waving "Buh-bye" to the pack.
And please don't "dive bomb" corners. Do you know how to corner? Do you know what a "late apex" means? Watch higher-level racers corner - they stay wide until late and go through the corner in a sweeping path with no sharp turns - and little if no loss of speed because they never used their brakes. "Dive bombing" a corner means thinking it's a good idea to sneak up on the inside trying to gain an advantage. All you'll do is one, go slower through the turn, and two, cause crashes. Oh, and three: everyone will hate you because you'll be "that one" - the squirrelly rider who causes crashes.
Not an answer as such but I wanted to encourage you to go for it. You probably won't win or come last, although someone has to! And inbetween you are only competing against your own expectations. I always wanted to do a triathlon but put it off for years because I wasn't fast enough (in my opinion). But last year I just look the plunge, signed myself up for a short distance and trained for six weeks. I didn't even have a bike. My aim was to finish. I didn't come last - I came in the top third and had I not done a thoroughly dismal bike leg (100 people passed me 😁) I would have been in the top quarter. I ran the fastest I ever have in my life. As others pointed out your statistics mean little on the day, tactics, strategy and the general behaviour of other competitors changes everything. And the atmosphere is addictive!
I hope you take the plunge and good luck! I am also female - it doesn't weigh much against technique at beginner level. I swam faster than three quarters of the men there 😉.
For other readers’ reference, racing category 4 indicates a beginner cyclist regardless of gender. For interest, in the US, men's races have 5 categories, but the only qualification to advance from cat 5 to 4 is 10 mass start races. Hence, men's cat 4s are still beginners.
At the lower level ranks, team tactics usually don't make a large difference. The differences in strength between riders are fairly wide at the lower levels. Riders are also still developing racecraft, which I would translate as situational awareness and decision making skills under pressure, as well as basic bike handling skills in a pack of riders. The inherent disparity in rider ability makes it harder to achieve good team tactics, even if the riders had learned to execute them. In any case, many riders are looking to upgrade as fast as they can. The entry level men's races at least are full of crashes. In any case, the OP would probably not have been hampered by the lack of a team. In any case, my recollection is that good team tactics are pretty rare in the lowest category.
The OP didn't really give enough detail for us to infer their functional threshold power to weight ratio (power to weight, for short). This might have let us tell how strong the OP was relative to entry level cyclists, if we were also given gender. However, FTP alone doesn't really decide races. Road races often don't go to the strongest person on the road. Many soft skills, as briefly mentioned above, come into play. Also, many lower level races end in bunch sprints. You have to be very considerably stronger than the rest of the field to break away and stay away (and if you have professional-level potential, chances are good that you will do this). Also, the entry level races in the US at least don't typically get challenging enough terrain to force the field to break up. Sprint power and endurance are two separate physical traits, and to some extent you can have one or the other, or a balance of both, but you can't be excellent at both (relative to other riders of similar capability). So, if you aren't a good sprinter, you may get left behind (NB: in this case, you want to get into the breakaways, because you have nothing to lose!!). Also, the local racing circuit is likely to hold at least a few time trials, which tend to riders with endurance (more specifically, riders who can hold a high and steady power, rather than riders who can sprint well or who can do repeated, sub-sprint (VO2max) efforts well).
In any case, if the OP wants to road race, then safety permitting, they should try it! It can be fun. If you don't find it fun, there are other options to cycle competitively, discussed below.
Road racing can be a bit all or nothing
One thing I've heard about road racing is that you have to work really hard just to suck at it, or to finish mid pack, or even not to get dropped. This can be demoralizing. Not everyone will want to stick with road racing, unless they are very talented.
Because of the inherent nature of the sport, in a road race or criterium, we don’t care about your actual finishing time, we only care about relative placing. Specifically, you can draft off the pack. If it's a bunch sprint, you will finish at the same time as the pack unless you got dropped, hence we would only care about your finishing place. Hence, there's no equivalent in road racing to entering a marathon as an amateur, and attempting to set your fastest time.
I suspect that human cognition also plays a role - how many of you remember off the top of your head who placed 5th at the last Tour de France? How about 8th? In professional sports, we only really pay attention to the winners. In amateur road racing, we only really pay attention to high placings.
Again, the OP should try it if they are interested, but if you don't place pretty high, the experience may or may not be rewarding. It's possible to advance a category or two and help your teammates out. When I raced road in the US, I made the men's Cat 3 team, and riders were experienced enough to employ basic team tactics, so the experience became more complex as well. Nevertheless, if you don't derive enough interest from just helping teammates but you can only finish mid-pack, there are other competitive options.
There are other competitive and semi-competitive options apart from road racing!
Many in the wider cycling world are a bit dissatisfied with the inherently winner take all nature of pro and amateur road racing. There have always been other options for people, and new technology or simple cultural change are opening more opportunities up.
Riders have always organized local events, like century rides (which often have sub-100 mile distances). The more generic term is Gran Fondo (originating from the Italian for big ride). You should ride these at whatever pace you feel like - but, realize that many riders do feel like riding these as fast as they can. There will often be a lead group or a few lead groups, if it is a mass start. You will often be able to find a group of people at your preferred pace, whatever that is. With the faster groups, you are likely to see some informal sprints as well. That is, competitive amateur riders can find an outlet here, and needless to say you can be as competitive or non-competitive as you please.
Many people have done these rides in groups or solo, and then shared the record on social media (e.g. Strava, Reddit, Facebook). During the pandemic, solo endurance challenges have become increasingly popular. In general, you can even see how well you place in your age and gender group.
Local cycling clubs often hold group rides. Some of these rides will often recreate race-like dynamics in an informal setting. The social engagement and activities are a nice bonus. For female beginner cyclists, there may be the issue that it's physically harder to keep up with more experienced men, and most cyclists are men. However, interest in women's cycling is increasing, and there are often specific clubs or organized rides for women. In my city, one of the bike co-ops holds one or more weekly rides for women only. In a previous city, the local large cycling club hosted one ride exclusive to women. These may offer newer female riders the opportunity to build fitness and soft skills.
It's my understanding that time trials are a popular race format in the UK, and probably in some other countries. Time trials are short solo efforts, perhaps between 10 and 50 kilometers. You are not allowed to draft other rides. This race format may offer people a relatively objective yardstick to measure themselves, and it is less dangerous and less winner-take-all than road racing because of it. There is the potential issue that if you are competitive, equipment can place you at a noticeable disadvantage, and time trials do require specialized equipment to optimize your performance. That said, the lower level amateur categories can be raced successfully on standard road bikes with clip on aero bars.
Randonneur and audax cycling is another alternative format. You attempt to complete a set route in a given time, possibly passing through checkpoints on the way. This format is open to non-competitive or semi-competitive cycling. There may be local randonneuring oriented clubs in your area, and they may be separate from the usual cycling clubs. In my state in the US, one example is the Minnesota Randonneurs. I am not sure if all of these types of rides are referred to as randonneuring or audax rides; the North Star Bicycle Race is an event on paved roads, specifically from St. Paul to the Canadian border and back, but its site doesn't appear to contain either term. Also, many long gravel rides/races are conducted in this format. Speaking of this, while I necessarily don't mean to steer people in the direction of buying more bikes, gravel bikes can often handle rides on both paved and unpaved roads, although you may want to change tires.
Finally, building off the off-road theme, cyclocross races are conducted off-road, and are a combination of a criterium race plus obstacles. Although they are races - in fact, in the US, they're sanctioned under the same body that organizes road racing - they are much more relaxed than road races, and team tactics might only come into play at the very highest levels. As with Gran Fondos, social events are often organized after the race. Crashes are also not that infrequent, but racers typically spread out after the mass start, so they're less common, and the speeds are lower, and the ground is a lot softer, hence injuries seem a lot less common. NB: Learn to roll. In any case, cyclocross and gravel cycling are culturally a lot friendlier to beginners.
1w.r.t the last paragraph: One nice thing about audax is that your pace doesn't matter (the minimum speed is very low), but your ability to keep going is important. There's essentially no competition though - we have AUK points (and AAA climbing points) but some riders accumulate huge totals, but nothing more than kudos for speed. That of course doesn't prevent you from seeing how fast you can go. It overlaps with the long TTs, and plenty of audax riders also race Jul 22, 2020 at 14:06
1My recollection is that good team tactics are pretty rare Understatement of the century. I've actually been in a race where a group of riders all from one team managed to pull the entire pack up to a 3-man break in a circuit race with just a handful of laps to go. They had a team member in that break so they effectively knocked their teammate off the podium with that move. (I also had a team member in the break - I had managed to cover the break for 3-4 laps and screw up their earlier bridge attempts, but I was gassed. I did learn that covering a break is just as hard as riding in one...) Jul 22, 2020 at 15:26
1Thanks for making me feel old, @AndrewHenle... :( I stopped racing before then. I did know that there was a Cat 5...– FreeManJul 22, 2020 at 22:29
1"Historically" means "in the past". It doesn't and shouldn't necessarily imply a very long period of time. Just, a historical one. The 90s and 00s are indeed history. Jul 23, 2020 at 20:34
1@Criggie "Any time I'm in a group ride, it's a race. Whether the others realize it or not." Is that what you meant? ;)– FreeManOct 6, 2020 at 12:32
Why do you want to race?
I've raced in plenty of races with no intention or desire to win. My goals were fitness and enjoyment. In other races, my goal was to win and I trained accordingly.
Without us knowing the stats of the competition, and your degree of training, it is hard to know how good your chances are of winning.
I encourage you to think about why you want to race. If racing can fulfill your goals, go for it!
1Exactly - one's first goals should be to (2) Start the race, (3) Finish the race (4) Not be last, but overwhelmingly (1) Enjoy the experience.– Criggie ♦Jul 24, 2020 at 3:57