Anyone who's seen a picture or video of the Tour de France knows what road racing looks like: a mass of cyclists in colorful spandex riding close together, small groups trying to break away off the front, riders “attacking” up hills, a crazed sprint to the finish line. At the amateur level, the races might not be as long or as fast; but the drama, tactics and suffering are the same.
Most local road races start and end at the same point instead of going point to point. For example, the race may be three laps of a 20-mile circuit or eight laps of a six-mile circuit. Races on a shorter course (generally about a mile in length) are called criteriums or crits.
Crits are often raced for a set length of time, rather than revolutions (i.e. 40 minutes instead of 20 laps). Crits are easier to organize than road races and are, therefore, very popular.
Beginning racers start in Category 5. After 10 races – road races or crits – you can upgrade to Category 4. There are fewer women in bike racing, so women start in Category 4.
By doing well in Cat 4 races, you can earn points toward upgrading to Cat 3, and so on. As you gain experience, you'll see the tactics that teams use to control a race and launch their teammates into position for the win. Being part of team not only gives you friends in the pack, it gives you training partners and lots of opportunities to learn necessary skills from experienced teammates.
There are many teams in the Chicago area to check out so you can find the right fit. Visit chicagobikeracing.com to see a list of teams and upcoming races.
What you need to start road racing:
A road bike (no aerobars), helmet, and a jersey with sleeves (sleeveless jerseys are not allowed in mass-start racing).
Recommended: road bike shoes with clipless pedals, experience riding in a group, and a racing license. You will need a specific license depending on the organization that sanctions the race. You can buy a one-day license at the race or purchase an annual USCF racing license at usacycling.org or an annual ABR license at ambikerace.com. Both these organizations sanction races – check the race flyer to see which license you'll need for that race.