How to Start Road Racing
The common factor in all road races is that they are bunch races - you'll be starting off in a group and, unless you're sufficiently strong to ride off the front on your own, much of the art of road racing is knowing how to ride safely in a fast group. So, a basic requirement is being confident in a bunch, even when surrounded by other riders and with your wheel only inches from the one in front. The only way to get this confidence is to ride in a fast group - the Saturday training rides and the Tuesday night chain gangs are ideal preparation. They will also - especially the chain gang - give you a good idea of whether you're up to the level of fitness required to stay in the bunch and not get dropped.
Pretty much all road races are organised such that riders are competing against others who are of a vaguely similar standard. You won't get out there and find yourself sat next to Roger Hammond waiting for the start. This is because races are either organised by categories (either ability or age) or are handicapped, so that while the race is open to all abilities, riders are set off in ability groups, with the fastest starting last. Exactly how all of this works isn't simple, but here's an outline of it all.
There are various sorts of races, and they'll be organised according to the rules of one of three organisations. Races are organised by clubs just like ours, and although the efficiency of organisation might vary a bit from club to club, the basic character of the race is down to which set of rules are used.
So, let's look at the organisations and their rules.
British Cycling (BC) is the biggest national body promoting cycle sport in the UK. For road racing, BC issue race licences which state a rider's category - as a novice you start off as 4th category ("4th cat") and if you get good results you get points. Get enough in one season and you move up to 3rd cat or beyond. The licence allows you to enter races open to your category. BC rules provide for different levels of race, which vary according to which categories are allowed. Events open to newcomers are Regional B races for 3rd and 4th cats, or Regional A races for 2nd, 3rd and 4th cats. BC also organise "Go Race" events open to 4th cats only, but no points are awarded so they're very much just a chance to try it out.
The League International
The League International (TLI) coordinate road races based upon handicapping to ensure that riders are among fellow competitors of an appropriate level of ability. Event organisation is lower-key, and riders don't get the same benefits of insurance cover that come with BC racing. Events are handicapped and will either be organised by age/ability category, or on an informal basis where the race organiser will try to put you in an appropriate group depending on your experience and past results.
Locally, there's an evening league run during the summer, sponsored by Chevin Cycles (website) which many club members ride
The League of Veteran Racing Cyclists
The League of Veteran Racing Cyclists (LVRC) promote racing for riders aged 40 or over, based upon age groups. In a LVRC (or "vets") race, you'll be racing against riders of a similar age. This provides some levelling of the playing field, but cycling is one of those sports in which increasing age has relatively little impact on performance; so as a newcomer you might find yourself up against ex regional or national champions who just happen to be a similar age to you. Races are normally open to two or three five-year age groups, so an event may include a 40-49's race, a 50-59's race, and an over 60's race. Within each one, places and prizes will be awarded to the top finishers in each five-year age band.
So what are the different sorts of races?
In its simplest form, a road race will be a bunch start race over a set distance - normally a number of laps of a road circuit which includes only left turns at junctions. As a beginner, races will normally be between 30 and 60 miles. If it's a BC or LVRC race, the composition of the field will depend on the categories or age groups. You won't usually have more than 60 riders starting together. Roads are still open to the public, so there will be a lead car in front of the race, and a following car behind the main bunch. There will be marshals at junctions and danger-spots, but they are there just to offer warnings - not to stop oncoming traffic. You'll be expected to follow the rules of the road at all times - such as keeping to the left of central markings - and if you drop out of the main bunch then you're on your own.
As already noted, TLI races are usually handicapped, with riders setting off in age/ability-related groups with time gaps between; the slowest riders first, leading up to the fastest ("scratch") group setting off last. The race organiser will try to set the time gaps - taking into account rider abilities, size of groups, length and difficulty of race - so that all of the groups come together before the end. Where this is done with the aim of the race all coming together at the finish, it's called an Australian (or Aussie) Pursuit. Both BC and LVRC also promote handicapped events. With BC they are called Regional C or C+ events and the riders categories are used to decide on grouping. LVRC handicapping is done by age group.
In addition to races held on public roads, all of the above bodies promote events on non-road circuits. These tend to be either motor-racing circuits (such as Croft or Mallory Park) or other safe circuits - Hetton Lyons uses a track around a country park. These have the advantage that you're not worrying about oncoming cars or running off the road into someone's garden wall, but the racing can often be very close and frantic, as they're shorter - races will be something like an hour plus one lap, or similar.
What do you need?
For any road racing, you need to be fairly happy that you're something like on the pace. Going out on the training ride and the chain gang will soon show if you are. Bear in mind that even though 4th cat races will often average 23-25mph, it's because most riders are spending most of the time riding in a tight bunch.
You need a suitable bike, but whatever you're riding on training rides will do. Some people spend a fortune on lightweight kit and carbon wheels, but not everybody does, and you certainly don't need it in order to start in racing. Oh and you'll also need a helmet - they're compulsory in all races.
To race in BC races you'll need BC membership (either Silver or Gold) and a BC race licence. To race in TLI events you need TLI membership, and for LVRC events you need to have made it to your 40th birthday, and be an LVRC member.
With some events, you can enter on the line (EOL) but in most cases it's better to enter in advance - it gives race organisers a better idea of numbers and with popular events (and many BC 3rd/4th cat races are oversubscribed) it means you're more certain to get your entry accepted. To enter, you download the relevant entry form from the net, fill it in, send it off with a cheque. There, you've done it.
So I entered; what happens then?
Some time before the event - often only a week or so - you'll get sent (or emailed) the start sheet. This will list all the entrants, give details of the circuit and any special instructions, tell you where the race HQ is, and list the prizes. Your name and race number will be on the list, or if you didn't enter early enough you'll be listed as a reserve (most reserves will get a ride as there's a good chance that other entrants won't show on the day).
When you turn up on the day, head to the HQ. You need to sign on and hand in your race licence. In return you'll be given your race numbers. Check where they're meant to go, pin 'em on, stick essentials in your pockets and bottles on your bike, and you're ready to go.
Always allow time to warm up before a race. Often the first lap will be the fastest, and you don't want to be coping with that while trying to get up to working temperature. It's often worth allowing time to do a lap of the circuit if you don't already know it. A few minutes before the start time riders will gather at the start line. You'll get a lecture from the race commissaire about safety on the circuit, keeping to the left etc, and then you'll be off. Some races are "neutralised" until a set point - you'll just ride at steady pace in a bunch behind the lead car - whereas with others the starter says "off ya go" and, well. off ya go. You've started.