How to get into women’s road racing

... and why it's unashamedly different to the men's game

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Words: Jane Wilson

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Photo: Getty

Join a cycling club

If you’re not already riding with a club, this is the first step and it’s really important, because it’s the best way to learn the group-riding skills that are so critical to keeping our racing safe. Bike racing involves riding in close proximity to other riders, as fast as you dare and then very fast as the finish line approaches. We do it because we’ve learned to love riding in a fast bunch, but it is an acquired taste and frankly, it’s not for everybody.

Never underestimate the value of advice from the club elders. And on the subject of age, take no notice of anyone who claims he/she is too old for racing. There are plenty of women who only start in their thirties and forties and some of us go on and on!

Learn to ride close to others and how to keep up with stronger, more experienced riders. Hold your line. Understand the risk of overlapping wheels. Practice drafting, learn the arts of chain gang and pace line – your club mates will teach you – and it will become obvious that good teamwork is essential if you want to get faster and avoid causing a crash when you race.

Take every opportunity to practise these techniques and they will become second nature, so when you find yourself in a small group that’s chasing the lead group in a race, you’ll start working automatically with riders you’ve never met before. If you’re lucky, you’ll collaborate well and catch the lead group. If you fail to catch them, you will at least have had a fantastic training stimulus and probably have made some new friends in the process.

Do I have to buy a full race licence?

The race licence and points system is a bit complicated, but the short answer is ‘No’. This is at the discretion of the race organiser, so check with them beforehand that you will be allowed to enter without a full race licence. If permitted, you would simply buy a day licence at the start of the race (‘on the line’) where you sign in and pick up your race number.

If you are already committed to racing several times this season, then it is worth investing in a full race licence at the beginning. This is only available to Silver or Gold members of British Cycling and it is the only way to collect points, such that you can progress beyond 4th category (which is where everyone starts). Note that race licences expire at the end of the year, regardless of the purchase date and any points you have accumulated will expire too.

It’s just the same as men’s racing, right?

Not really! Men start in 4thcategory races and generally speaking they will do their utmost to win enough points to get to 3rdcategory as quickly as possible, because that gives them access to a better standard of racing.

Women might well race alongside some very talented and experienced riders as soon as they start racing. These races are ‘E/1/2/3/4’ which means they are open to women of any standard from novice right up to Elite (professional) level. It means the standard of riding is high and much tidier than a men’s 4th category race. You learn from the masters, which is inspiring, but it also means you may have very stiff competition from the beginning.

In this respect, it is tougher for women when they start racing than it is for men. There is also less imperative to collect points, because for women, progressing to the next category will not earn you access to better racing. So spend your first season learning the art of bike racing, rather than worrying about how many points you have (or haven’t) won.

The other big difference is that women tend to communicate more than men during a race. You will get shouted at for riding like a rookie, for example if you don’t hold your line through a bend. Take it as useful feedback and be grateful that a certain standard of riding is expected by the group (and enforced!). Don’t be afraid to talk after the race or even during it, because there is a lot to learn and everybody wants to keep the bunch safe. Yes we want to be fast too and yes, we want to win, but nobody wants to cause a crash or get caught up in one. It is in everyone’s interests to bring new riders into racing and to do it safely, for the future of our sport.

Take a look at ‘Racesmart’ from British Cycling, which gives good advice about how to race safely and remember that this is not only for your benefit, but also for the women who race alongside you.

I got dropped in the first lap! Am I really strong enough to race?

First, understand that everybody gets dropped when they start racing and women more so than men. Men’s races tend to have bigger bunches and the range of ability and strength is narrower, which means there is more scope to sit in the wheels and conserve energy.

You will get stronger the more races you do and more importantly, you can start to work out when and why you are getting dropped. So don’t give up and don’t beat yourself up about it. Keep turning up, keep working at it and you should find that you can hang on to the bunch for longer and longer each time. Concentrate on learning as much as you can about  how to race. So, when you get dropped, keep on riding, join up with others and learn how to work in a chasing group.

Get serious about your training. That might mean putting in more hours or more effort, but probably you just need to get smarter. Do some on-line research. British Cycling is a very good place to start. It provides detailed training sessions for indoors and outdoors, as well as training plans that are structured to help you achieve various objectives.

Pick your races carefully. In a race that is open to elite, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th category riders, you may be up against some much more experienced competition, whereas the pace should feel more manageable in a race that is restricted to 3rd and 4th category women. You can see all the women’s races on British Cycling’s website and filter them for travelling distance, categories of rider and so on. Women’s 3/4 races are still not very common, so try to plan well ahead.

Finally, find riding buddies who can give you the support you need to progress. Everybody needs help in different ways and some need it more than others. If your cycling club no longer provides the best environment for you, don’t be afraid to try other clubs in search of better opportunities for training, for honing your group-riding skills like chain gang, and for mentoring-type support or simple friendly encouragement.

Build some friendships further afield as well. Racing women will freely offer kind words of support via social media or email. There are some great communicators who are passionate about their bike racing and simply want to spread that happiness. It really is a great sport. Why not give it a try?

Jane Wilson’s race report: Islington CC Road Race, Sunday 13 August 2017

This was a cat 2/3/4 race on a gloriously sunny day and unusually short at 37 miles and I was humming ‘Easy like Sunday morning’ as I rumbled up a track into the stubble field that was our HQ. The rational side of my brain quietly pointed out that the quality of the start list suggested it was going to be anything but easy.

As we waited for the Commissaire’s briefing, the chatter was about Nicole Oh (just behind me on the start line) having won the National Masters Circuit Race yesterday. And on my left, a 4th cat, eyes wide at the calibre of riders assembled, was longing for one more point to reach 3rd cat.

We rolled up a narrow, twisting lane onto the course and then the race was on. The pace was good and lively as three teams tried separately to assert themselves. I held my own. Attacks were frequent, but neutralised quickly and it became clear that a lot of riders were very serious about their chances – and on a mission to make this hard.

The big attack came only halfway into the race. The bunch exploded, creating a lead group of fifteen to twenty with the rest of us chasing, somewhat broken and never to rejoin. In the end, Lowden (HSS Aprire) won the bunch sprint and in doing so clinched the last few points to reach 1st cat. Oh (Les Filles RT) took 2nd and Nordin (Sunsport Velo) 3rd.

For my chase group, I had a plan for how our race would end. The approach to the finish was a 90o left turn, down to a pinch-point of a bridge with some gravel and then a 300m climb that eased off for another 200m and steepened again for the last 100m. 800m in all, it was a long way out to attack, but I wanted the element of surprise, so that’s what I did. Taking the corner wide and fast, I drove hard into the descent and paced the climbs just right, but Corbett (Les Filles RT) finally showed her class and slid across the line before me. Two big grins. Both of us feeling like heroes. It was a fitting end to a hard race.

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