By now, you’ve probably read about our newest noob columnist, Josh. Why cyclocross and why now? Well, don’t ask us, just check out his first column. But in Josh’s timeline, now that he’s found his new bike and taken a hard look at how the first season of racing went overall, he’s ready to start sharing some of the wisdom he’s learned from his first race attempts.

by Josh Schwiesow

Recently, Cyclocross Magazine asked readers what they’d like to see more of in the off-season. There were some great suggestions, but the one that seemed most appropriate to this column was the request of a “walk-through of what to expect on your first race.” Clearly, of everyone at Cyclocross Magazine, I’m closest to my first race.

I can only comment on the experience in Colorado – I have no idea how things are in other parts of the country, although I expect it is all fairly similar.

For the new racer coming from another bicycle racing discipline, the first race is not likely to be an intimidating experience, or even an experience that has a “new and unusual” feel to it. For those with less of a racing background, there may be some value in reading this walk-through.

What you shouldn’t expect is the hassle associated with a massive production such as your first marathon or charity / century ride or Gran Fondo style experience. There almost certainly won’t be a packet pickup the night before at some running shop filled with coupons, samples, and a t-shirt. Maybe they give out t-shirts at Nationals; I don’t know. They typically won’t at your local weekend series, but play your cards right and you might find something in the way of SWAG (full disclosure: my wife got a sweet “Vini Vidi Vomiti Cx t-shirt as a spectator for a race organized by Cyclocross Magazine’s own Lee Waldman. But no promises: that’s not why you’re here anyway).

Before the day of the race …

Depending on the event and option, you may wish to pre-register online. Also depending on the event, you might need a license if you don’t have one already. This can be obtained from USA Cycling, although depending on your location there may be another governing body that has permitted the race. The race flyer should indicate these requirements and basic rules. If you choose either an unsanctioned or “outlaw” event for your first race, you obviously won’t need a license.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of pre-registration whenever possible as it saves you some time from filling out forms when you’d rather be concentrating on the race. Likewise, if an event is very popular, it ensures your entry. There’s another reason to pre-register I’ll get to shortly!

On the day of the race …

The next thing I’m a fan of is showing up early, very early. In fact, for the US Grand Prix of Cyclocross’ New Belgium Cup, I showed up 60 minutes before the sign-in table (or the sun, for that matter!) was even up. Luckily, my buddy humored this need for punctuality and did not give me any grief despite this completely unnecessary indulgence.

Your first stop is the sign-in table. Chances are good that while you may skip a few forms by pre-registering, you’ll still need to sign in and get your race bib. At this point, do not forget to grab some safety pins, and although your bib has four corners, you aren’t limited to just four pins. Don’t beg for any sort of lucky number. Pay attention to where the race officials would like for you to pin this bib.

You might be able to spot your fellow noobs by their wrinkle-free race numbers. If you’re not ready to give yourself away as a noob just yet, crumple it up before pinning it on to avoid the “sail effect” and it will lay more closely and comfortably against your kit or skinsuit. Some race numbers are stiff and won’t really allow for this as seen in the photos below.

At this point, you’re likely staring out at a beautiful sea of green grass, some dirt or sand, hopefully some stairs or barriers, and a lot of what appears to be “crime scene tape.” All over the course, folks are probably riding, and others watching.

There may be vans, campers, or tents in the parking lot or near a corner of the course for teams or even families to have a “home base” of sorts for their bikes, supplies, and meals. If it is early morning or pre-dawn, it is unlikely the beer garden has opened yet, but later in the day, expect this to be a popular hangout and viewing spot. You may see bacon or beverages or currency or any number of other items as hand-ups from the crowd. Feel free to participate if you’d like. Take in this scene: You only get one first race.

Back out on the course, in some cases, riders may be actually racing, and it would behoove you to find out whether or not you are allowed to join them on the course. If they are racing but you are allowed to pre-ride, keep your head on a swivel and your ears open for racers coming through. Cheer them on, and cheer even more enthusiastically if they are juniors!

Pre-riding the course appropriately and strategically could be a whole article itself, and I’d do you, the noob reader, a great disservice by trying to convince you that I have some great tips! Your goal is to warm up while learning the loop. My best advice is to try several lines around the tricky stuff paying attention to what others are doing as well as what they are not doing. Now is a great chance get your tire pressure dialed in. If you are so inclined, warm up on a trainer afterwards while you wait. Readers and experienced racers, please add comments below on your favorite pre-ride tips!

15 minutes before your race, make your way to the starting line for call-ups. In your first ever race this will be unfamiliar, but call-ups are your placing in proximity to the starting line, and they are typically based upon previous results. Fast folks to the front. Here is where pre-registering may also provide you with a benefit – as you may get a better call-up than a race day registrant. Additionally, you may find that as the season goes on that your call-ups improve via volume of races rather than through results. On the other hand, you may not be gunning for the “hole-shot” in your first race, and that’s probably appropriate.

You’ll soon be given a warning … and you’ll be off! In a sprinting mass mix of beginners, casual racers, and some sandbaggers, you can expect your heart rate to go from “mildly anxious” to “redline” before the second turn. With that, you’ll be putting all your new skills and fitness to work for approximately 45 minutes. Let yourself get lost in the moment, you’re officially a cyclocross racer.

Here’s the Noob Hand-Up:

  • Every single person has a first race. An extremely high percentage of those folks will be nervous, an extremely small percentage will win their first race, and an extremely high percentage will have a great time. In other words, your odds are good, even before you start.
  • There is no need for pre-dawn reconnaissance – a race is not a military operation.
  • Allow yourself enough time to pre-ride the course. Get yourself warmed up and your bike dialed in. Talk to others, try different lines, but watch for possible racers coming up behind you.
  • Take the fun of it very seriously. Ride hard, but take the competition aspect as seriously or as casually as you’d like. Remember: this is just your first race with the locals, not Superprestige with Sven Nys.