I’m a pretty good Cat 1/2 racer, should I do an NRC race?

By Heather Nielson

When I started racing I lived in Southern Utah where there were….zero races. I spent the first half of my first season racing as a Cat 4 traveling to Arizona, Nevada and Southern California to race. The logistics, time and money I spent doing that taught me a lot of lessons that quickly put me in a higher ‘category’ as far as the learning curve for what elite level racing might be like. I spent the rest of that season being a couch bum bike racer in Northern California living the life of a ‘professional cyclist’ as a Cat 4. I got my upgrades pretty quickly and got a real job in Sacramento and decided to move to Northern California to commit to racing. My reasons for choosing NorCal were mainly because of the sheer number and types of races on the NCNCA calendar but also because it’s considered the most competitive region in the United States. Once I was a Cat 2 by the next season, virtually every race I did, I toed the start line with legitimate professionals. The other positive to living and racing in NorCal was relatively easy logistical access to some NRC/National caliber races (some of which don’t exist anymore) like the AToC criterium, Merco stage race, San Dimas and other local races that European and American professionals would race in as they stayed and traveled in California to race before heading East for the remainder of the calendar.

I was inspired as well as deeply humbled by the level of athleticism, bike handling and tactical knowledge that all those professional women had but I felt like my learning curve and experience was going to be pretty steep compared to other women racing in the rest of the country. In a lot of ways, it was but now as I look back I realize that I needed to be more selective and deliberate about what NRC/national caliber races I chose to participate in as a beginning cat 2 racer. Below are some things I wish I knew before &/or had made better decisions regarding:

  • In women’s racing, when compared to men’s, there is a much larger fitness, experience and tactical knowledge gap or jump between amateur/local elite level racing and NRC/professional level of racing. I believe that this is mostly because of numbers. There aren’t as many women racing and so the fitness ability spans a much broader range within a single peloton of Pro/1/2 racers when compared to a men’s field. I didn’t realize how large the gap really was until I was a brand new Cat 2.
  • Racing a bike is already time, energy and resource exhausting. If you really aren’t fit enough or have enough experience to at least hang in and perhaps even be competitive enough to be in moves, then hanging on for deal life at the back of a pack just so you can have the ‘experience’ may not be worth it more than once or twice in a single season.
  • That being said, I do think that participating in that level of racing as a Cat 2 at least once before you decide if you want to commit further resources is absolutely a wise decision. Watching a pro women’s race (or men’s for that matter!) is absolutely nothing like being in one. You really have no idea how hard HARD is until you puke more than once, cross a finish line cross-eyed enough that you’re afraid you’ll run into someone and go through criterium turns 3-4 riders wide at 30 mph smooth as butter, AND finish with the pack. If you have done or can do all of those things then I’d say you’re ready.
  • Make sure your training specificity meets your race demands. Don’t let all that experience and fitness that you gained showing up to an NRC race go to waste! Try to train and race with men and other elite women as much as possible. After having raced in California (and all over the US) then moving to Seattle, I realized how much my overall fitness and race craft was going to be affected as the WSBA calendar and women’s field sizes are a fraction of that of NCNCA’s and so I do as many practice races with pro1/2/3 men’s fields as I can (which very nearly mimic a national women’s field in speed, bike handling and tactical prowess) and so when I do race an NRC/national level women’s race, I’m not shell shocked, my confidence stays up and I can focus on what I love doing most: racing my bike!

If you’re interested in hearing about another topic, feel free to reach out! I’m also available for coaching and guest posts on training, racing and women’s cycling. Twitter & Instagram @ridempowered