When I were a lad millions of people rode bikes every day. There were only a million cars on the road, and the Mini hadn’t yet been invented. When it came it would bring affordable motoring within the reach of millions more. Ten years after the end of the Second World War the bicycle was still, for many people, their principal means of transport. They were primarily utility cyclists. This meant that there was a huge base of cyclists for whom it was only a single step from riding to work to going out on the recreational club-run. This got you into a club, and then there was a fair chance that sooner or later you’d get into some kind of competition.
The weekend and midweek rides offered a basic introduction to the mechanics of cycling. You had to be fairly fit, able to sit on a saddle for six hours or so in the day, and able to handle the limited range of gears then available. Some club-runs were very strictly policed by the club captain – he would blow a whistle if you passed him. But many could develop into a free-for-all at any time – sprints for 30 signs and town boundaries, eyeballs-out efforts up big hills, a long line doing bit-and-bit over any stretch of rolling road.
When you came to enter and ride a race, therefore, you had some idea of what to expect. You were used to making an effort, used to riding close to other riders in a group, able to ride steadily for many miles, or to accelerate to twice your cruising speed in a few seconds.
I suspect that the route into cycle sport is rather different nowadays, and that relatively few new riders, of any age, serve this kind of basic apprenticeship. For a good many a mountain bike race may be their first competition. You can turn up for your first evening criterium at a special off-road circuit, or airfield, without having much idea what to expect.
It goes without saying that you need to be fairly fit. To get fit you have to train. The amount of training you need varies according to your natural ability and your age. If you’re 16, then you might manage on three or four one-hour rides a week for starters. If you’re forty, you’ll probably need two or three times as much. You’ll also need a certain amount of basic skill. You’ve got to get round bends quickly, accelerate and brake safely, climb a bit, change gear at the right moment, be comfortable riding in a group with other riders. Practice it all on your training rides. Let’s assume that you’ve got fit enough to ride a 30-minute, or 1-hour circuit race on a course of around a mile in length. Cyclists usually call these events ‘criteriums’: most of the language of cycle racing is French in origin.
Prepare your bike thoroughly. Wash it and clean it. Polish it if necessary. Lubricate the chain and points like the brake pivots. Check the tyres for wear and cuts. If they’re damaged, replace them. Changing a tyre is painless; falling off isn’t. Check that the wheels are true and that there are no loose spokes. Make sure all the nuts and bolts are as tight as they need to be, but don’t overtighten them.
Eat a light pre-race meal high in carbohydrate (three pieces of toast and jam or honey, for instance, and a mug of tea) two to three hours before the event. Take a bottle of sports drink and/or water with you. Avoiding dehydration is important – take a swig of water every half hour or so.
Turn up at least an hour before the start with everything you need. Don’t forget your shoes, helmet and licence. And your bike, of course. Take a few basic tools and spare inner tubes. If you go by car take a spare pair of wheels and your track pump. Pump up your tyres to optimum riding pressure, probably around 100 psi, 7 bar.
Your first events will be a learning experience, but there’s one basic principle you can’t avoid: you can’t race at the back of the field. You have to be near the front. Watch the more experienced riders. Among the things you should learn: how to ride safely in a line, fairly close to the wheel in front and slightly to one side; how to shelter from the wind, and how to use it to your advantage; how to share the effort of the group; how to take part in a breakaway of a small group; and how and when to make your own effort – to attack or sprint.
The chances are that all this will take time. But by taking care over your training and preparation, by paying attention to detail, and by learning from your experience, you’ll get there. Good luck.