Sanctioned racing in the USA: Disciplines, Equipment, and Categories

Me and my beloved road bike after finishing dead last and having a damn good time doing so!

There are so many different kinds of bikes, and they are all wonderful! In racing you've got options, for the purposes of what I know, I will discuss Track Racing, Road Racing, and Cyclocross Racing. I will also highlight what (in my opinion) is the appropriate equipment, and how the racing categories work. 


Track Racing: As the name implies, all sanctioned track racing happens on a track. A bike track is called a Velodrome. There are several different kinds of races that can happen on the track which all have their different rules for starting, scoring, and often elimination. In NYC we race at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens. The heart of the season runs from April- August. 

Equipment: To participate in a race on the velodrome, you absolutely positively must be riding a track bike. A track bike is a single speed bicycle without a freewheel which means you are not able to coast. Track bikes also do not have brakes. This is a major factor of intimidation for a lot of people. I assure you, if you're racing on a track, the last thing you'll want is brakes.  So now you know, single speed, no freewheel, no brakes. All track bikes are not created equal, and "fixies" on the track make me die a little inside, but that's just my personal opinion. 

Road Racing: There are three main categories of road racing. Endurance races, Criteriums, and Time Trials. (More details on Thursday). These races are typically held on roads in reasonably good condition, with the distance varying drastically for each style of racing. The heart of the season runs from March- August overlapping with a bit of cyclocross in September. 

Equipment: For endurance races and criteriums, one would generally use a road bike. It is very beneficial to have a fairly modern bike in great condition with index shifting. That doesn't mean you need the top of the line carbon anything, but i'd leave my vintage steel with downtube shifting for joy rides. For Time Trials, you can opt to use a fancy more aerodynamic style of bike and helmet, but it's not required. 

Cyclocross racing: From what I understand is a cross between mountain biking and road racing. The course is a circuit (loop) with obstacles and often on non paved terrain. If you see pictures from cross races, the very happy competitors are usually covered in mud. Cross racing is the most rapidly growing cycling discipline in the states, and it seems to be due to the incredible of amounts of fun and spirit that participants have. The heart of the season runs from September-December. 

Equipment: Cylcocross bikes are very similar to road bikes, except they have knobby tires and more clearance for the dirt and mud to pass through. They also have cantilever or or disc brakes for more effectiveness in the extreme conditions. 

For all styles of racing, clipless pedals are the way to go. Once you get the hang of it, you'll wonder why you didn't go clipless sooner!


All adult women start at Category 4. Due to lack of numbers in women's cycling, this could mean any given race will offer a race with just cat 4 riders, Cat 3/4 combined, or an open race with category 1-4. This means as a beginner you could find yourself riding with the elite women. Mark my words when I say, open races were the most fun I had on a bike last year. 

As you compete, and hopefully succeed you'll earn points. When you have earned enough points you can apply for your category upgrade. With each level, the upgrade requirements get more and more difficult. The requirements are also different depending on the discipline. Elite women (in my opinion) are category 1 & 2, but you'll see races listed as 1-4 elite women, which seeing as how I participated in a few of those in my first season, makes me feel like they should say 1-4 featuring elite women. Nevertheless, if you're really successful, you can work your tail off all the way to category 1.  

The categories work the same way for Men, except their races tend to be longer, and they have to start at category 5. After participating in ten sanctioned races, they can apply for their upgrade to category 4 and follow the same process as the women. Category 5 points don't really count for anything, but it's still nice to win. 

You can also get into Mountain Biking, BMX, and Para-cycling (Paralympics) all of which I hear are a ton of fun if that's what you're into. More detailed information on all of this can be found at

I assume this has led to even more questions. Ask away in the comments below, or using the "Ask Ayesha" form. 

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Ayesha McGowan2 Comments