How to start bike racing (in Sydney and Australia)

Sign reads "Cycling Race in Progress" with racers going past behind it

UPDATED 20 FEBRUARY 2019

Perhaps you’ve watched pro cycling for years. You’ve spent many a late night watching Le Tour on SBS.  You’re inspired by the pros; how they dance up mountains and rocket down descents, how they battle through rain and snow and scorching sun. You love the tactics; how domestiques sacrifice themselves, breakaways struggle for survival, and the strongest launch their decisive attacks. You’re enamoured by the beauty, the glory, the sheer drama of bike racing.

And you’ve thought to yourself, “I want to do that!”

If you want to try racing for the first time, you’ve come to the right place. This is a beginner’s guide on how to enter your first road bicycle race. While the principles apply all across Australia, this guide will refer to examples from the Sydney cycling scene.

Just follow these 5 simple steps to start bike racing:

  1. Learn to ride in a group
  2. Buy a race licence
  3. Choose a race
  4. Pack the essentials
  5. Show up and race!

Step 1: Learn to ride safely in a group

Group of bicycle riders racing in a group at Heffron Park in a line
Bicycle racing involves riding in close proximity with other cyclists.

Before we think about racing, let’s get our priorities thing straight: safety comes first. Forget bumping elbows, bunnyhopping curbs and diving for gaps in the bunch. At a local club race, everybody’s number one goal is not to win; it’s to go home to their families with their bones (and earning capacity) fully intact.

Bike racing involves high-speed, handlebar-to-handlebar action, so before you enter your first race, you must be comfortable with fast bunch riding. To get comfortable, you should practise riding in a group. Grab some more experienced cycling friends, and ride with them. If you don’t have any cycling buddies to ride with, ask your local cycling club about beginner-friendly group rides. To find a NSW cycling club near you , click here.

You should be able to do the following before entering your first race:

  1. Hold your line – you can confidently ride in a straight line without weaving back and forth, potentially colliding with riders behind and beside you;
  2. Draft – you can comfortably ride behind another cyclist, ideally with no more than one wheel-length separating your front wheel from their back wheel; and
  3. Look ahead – you can comfortably ride in a group with your head up, scanning for hazards up the road.

It may take you several rides before you get the hang of it. Take your time to master these fundamental skills before taking them into a race situation.

Once you’re comfortable with riding in a bunch, you’re ready to sign up for your first race.

Step 2: Buy a race licence

SUVelo rider signing in at Heffron Park registration desk
You need a Cycling Australia racing licence in order to register for a race.

In order to race, you must hold a racing licence from Cycling Australia.

You can sign up for a full annual race licence at the Cycling Australia website. If you’re not already a member of a cycling club, you should join one when purchasing your licence. The cost of a licence depends on your age category. The “Elite” category, for adults aged 19 to 29 years inclusive, costs $330. Prices start going down once you hit “Masters” category at age 30. Prices are also lower for juniors.

However, if you’re just dipping your toes into racing, there are cheaper options. You can obtain a one-week race licence here. This allows you to enter an unlimited number of club races in a seven-day period for $38. That’s a far more reasonable price for a beginner. If, after your first few races, you decide to continue with bike racing (and hopefully you will!), you can step up to the full licence.

As of January 2019, there’s also a ‘Race Starter Kit‘, which gives you two months of unlimited club racing for $50, provided you’ve never held a race licence before.

Please note that a Race Starter Kit and one-week licence only allow you to enter local club events. In order to enter the NSW State Championships or other “open” category events, you’ll need a full licence. However, if you’re new to racing, your first few races should be smaller local races anyway, where you can safely learn bunch racing skills and pick up valuable experience.

Once armed with your licence, it’s time to enter your first race.

Step 3: Find a suitable race

Bicycle riders in a line racing at Heffron Park.
Heffron Park is a good place for beginners to try bike racing on a Saturday afternoon.

In a metropolitan area like Sydney, races are held on most weekends and some weeknights. For a list of upcoming races in Sydney, albeit an incomplete one, browse cabici.net or the Mega Watt Machine Racing Calendar. Outside Sydney, check your local cycling club’s website or Facebook page for information about upcoming races.

What sort of race should you be signing up for? It’s recommended that you start with a shorter race. Look for a road race no longer than 30 kilometres or a criterium no longer than fifty minutes. It’d be foolish to enter a 200-kilometre epic like the Grafton to Inverell as your first event.

While shorter races can be quicker and more intense, they are better for beginners because they are logistically simpler. In your first race, you have enough to think about without worrying about food, hydration, and how to get back to your car after you left it five townships away at the start line.

In Sydney, there are many great options for your first race. Here are just a few suggestions:

  1. Heffron Park, Maroubra: run year-round on Saturday afternoons by Randwick Botany CC, this is raced on a classic criterium circuit with a relaxed, family-friendly vibe. The flat course has some tight turns and the pavement surface is uneven, but it’s completely off-road so there’s no traffic to worry about. Also, should anything go wrong, you’re never more than a few hundred metres from the clubhouse. If Saturday afternoon doesn’t suit your schedule, other clubs host races at Heffron on other days of the week.
  2. Sydney Motorsport Park, Eastern Creek: North West Sydney CC runs races here on Saturday mornings a few times a year. The full motorsport circuit is ideal for beginners as it’s traffic-free, very wide and very smooth.
  3. West Head, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park: run monthly on Sunday mornings by Manly Warringah CC. It’s a hilly road race, in contrast to the flatter criterium circuits in the rest of this list. If you’re nervous about cornering, this course will suit you as it’s mostly straight. There are only two turns, those being at each end of the 24km circuit. Strongly recommended if you enjoy a bit of a climbing.
  4. Waratah Park, Sutherland: run by Sutherland Shire CC on
    Friday evenings (summer) and Saturday mornings (winter), this is a safe, fun criterium course suitable for beginners who live down south in the Shire. Races tend to be relatively short in the lower grades (25min + 2 laps for D Grade), making Waratah Park a good tester for your first race.

Once you’ve selected a race, find out the entry requirements. Most let you register on the day, at the start line, about 30 minutes before the race start.. Some clubs request that you register online prior to race day. In either case, the entry fee is usually $15-$20.

You’ll be asked to pick a grade to race in. Unless you’re exceptionally strong (ask your riding buddies for their opinion), for your first race you should select the lowest available grade – usually D-Grade. If you somehow find yourself too quick for D-Grade, enjoy that winning feeling while you can, because you can be sure they’ll bump you up next time.

Once you’ve picked your event, get excited! You’re about to ride your first-ever bike race!

Step 4: Pack the essentials

Bicycle, bottle, money, licence, shoes, socks, shorts, jersey, helmet laid out
All you need to enter a bike race: a basic road bike (plus bottle), money, licence, shoes, socks, shorts, jersey and helmet.

The night before your first race, make sure you have everything you need.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need much for a race.  Here are the bare essentials:

  1. Cycling Australia licence – you’ll need to show this at sign-in.
  2. Cash – for the entry fee, if you haven’t prepaid online.
  3. Road bicycle – goes without saying. Make sure the tyres are pumped and the gears and brakes are in working condition.
  4. Helmet – must have the Australian Standard certification sticker.
  5. Shoes – clipless shoes are best, but technically not required.
  6. Jersey – wear your club kit if you have one; otherwise, wear a plain black or white jersey.
  7. Shorts – again, club kit is preferable.
  8. Socks – your choice of length and colour.

Technically, you don’t need anything else to race. However, it’s recommended that you bring one drink bottle. In a one-hour race, you won’t need more than one bottle and you won’t need any food or gels, except perhaps in the height of summer. You should also consider wearing cycling gloves.  While not required, they will help protect your hands in the event of a crash.

You’ll also need to bring whatever you need to get to and from the race. If you’re driving, that’d be your car keys. If you’re riding to the start line, you might need a second drink bottle, food, spare tubes, lights and a mini-pump.

Once you’re all packed, all that’s left to do is to get a good night’s sleep and show up to your first bike race!

Step 5: Show up and race!

A Grade bicycle racers behind the start line at Heffron Park
Riders rolling out from the start line at Heffron Park.

To avoid unnecessary stress before your first race, you should aim to arrive at the venue about an hour early.

Head to the sign-on desk, where you’ll collect your race number, pay the entry fee (if you haven’t already done so), present your race licence and sign the sign-on sheet.

Next, pin your race number to the back of your jersey. The race organisers will provide safety pins. If you don’t have a friend to help with this, take your jersey off, lay it on the ground and pin the number neatly to your jersey’s back pockets. For a secure fit, make sure each pin goes through the fabric twice.

Strip your bike of any saddlebags, lights, bells and other accessories. They’ll only weigh you down. Leave these extra bits in your car or in a safe place near the sign-on desk.

Speaking of things that weigh you down, if you need to use the toilet, do it now.

Do a 15- to 30-minute warm-up to get your legs spinning and your heart pumping. If you’re allowed on the course, ride a lap or two of the circuit to get to know the terrain and the conditions. At the very least, try to ride the last few kilometres before the finish line so you’ll know what to expect at the end.

Once you’re warmed up, make your way to the start line 5 minutes before the start time. This is when the commissaire will give a race briefing, telling you important information like how many laps you’re riding, any hazards to watch out for, and how many placegetters will be awarded prize money.

And with that, the commissaire will count you down and send you off on your very first bicycle race. Stay safe, learn lots, and enjoy the experience!

Not convinced you should start racing? If you’re a road cyclist, read our article on the Reasons Why You Should Start Racing.

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