Bike racing is not an easy sport to become a part of. But for those that do find the sport and give it a go, it would be nice to see a few more succeed and stay with the sport. The following are my tips to help aspiring Cat 5 racers prosper and succeed. Keep in mind that I only advanced as far as Category 3 and never ever won a race myself. You should probably consult a real coach for real advice but, for what it's worth, here are my top 5 free tips for aspiring bike racers:
1 Racing a bike is supposed to hurt. Deep down inside, that is. Specific pains in specific places that you can point to with just one finger aren't supposed to happen and indicate a need to change something (saddle height, clothing, piercings). But that deep down all-over hurt is what the sport is all about. If your skin and everything inside it don't hurt during a race, either you are so good that you won the race, or you just didn't work hard enough trying.
But it's not all misery. The first couple of hundred yards of a race usually aren't too bad while your various nerve endings and your bike both get up to speed. Then there is usually a blissful minute or two between the time you reach full speed and when the pain messages reach the brain. But after that, plan on hurting to varying degrees until you have finished losing the race. This pain is often confused with suffering but I don't see it that way. Suffering is hurting while doing something you don't want to do, like being water boarded. Cycling is self inflicted masochistic hurting and you always have the option to stop, therefore it is just hurting, not suffering.
2 Start every race in the big ring, especially criteriums. The only exceptions are uphill time trials where you aren't going to be using the big ring for a while. Before your race starts, take a lap at close to racing speed and take note of the gear you are in. Racing speed in a flat short Cat 5 race is probably going to be around 26 mph. When you head for the start line, put your bike in a gear one or two gears easier than the gear you used at top speed (but still in the big ring). A gearing of 52 (or 53) in the front and 15-17 in the back should allow you to get up to speed without the rest of the field spinning away from you and it prevents you from having to switch chain rings from small to big when you are getting up to speed. That is always a risky shift under stress and could result in dropping the chain on the outside of the big chain ring. It would be a shame to have paid all that money for gas and entry fees just to drop your chain and lose the race in the first 50 meters.
3 If you hear the sound of scraping metal (or carbon fiber) on pavement behind you, don't look back. A bike race is not a freeway and gawking at carnage is not allowed. Just keep pedaling and looking up the road ahead. If you hear the sound of scraping metal in front of you, don't look at the source, look for the route that you can take to get around it. With or without the sound of scraping bicycles on pavement, you should always be looking past the rider in front of you, not at his/her back. That way you have extra time to react to any obstacles that the riders further in front have already encountered.
4 Don't ride further during each of the two days before a race than the distance of the race itself. But ride. Just take it easy. So if the race on Saturday is 15 miles long, Thursday and Friday's rides should be no longer than 15 miles each if you care at all about peaking for Saturday's race. A couple of quick intervals or sprints won't hurt, but you want your legs to be fresh for the race and you can't improve your fitness in two days, you can only maintain and maybe fine tune what you already have.
5. Arrive at each race not less than one hour before the posted start time. You are going to need the full hour, probably more, to get prepared. Make sure you get a good warm up. Start with some spinning, then stretch a bit, then get back on the bike and do a couple of tough intervals. Go anaerobic once or twice while warming up because the first time is the worst (see item 1 above about pain) and you don't want that to be during the race. A good warm up will make the race feel easier. Real coaches may or may not agree, but I always felt that this warm up routine helped me.
Bonus: For someone with no real qualifications as a coach, I seem to have a lot of advice. Since I never was much good at racing, I have no idea if the advice is any good or not. Take it with a grain of salt or use the Costanza Principle and do exactly the opposite if you want to. But anyway, here's one more:
The more you make it hurt during training, the more speed and power you will be able to generate at the same pain level during racing. Don't make the mistake of thinking that really good high intensity training will make racing any less painful, it will just make it possible to generate more power and speed for the same pain level. I suspect quite a few first time racers are not prepared for the variability of the effort required. Racing is not a steady state activity, there are times of super high peak intensity and times of just regular high intensity and you need to be able to keep up with both. So, simply touring for miles and miles at a comfortable level of intensity won't prepare you for Cat 5 racing. The best preparation for racing, especially criteriums, is high intensity riding - intervals, hill repeats, and sprints. Do a few of each every week and you will improve quickly. The good news is you don't have to spend countless hours on the bike (unless you want to).