As the number of bikes currently hanging from the wall in my house continues to grow (we are up to 5 between the two of us!) so, too, does it seem the number of ways to ride my bikes grows! I am an avid cyclist who primarily rides as a triathlete, both on and off road, but the world of cycling is by no means as simple as road or dirt. Whether you’re a seasoned rider or just hitting the road, here’s a great primer on the many ways you can get obsessed with this awesome hobby!
Time Trials – Time trials are exactly what they sound like- a race against time. The events are a set distance (typically 10, 25, 50 miles, etc.) OR a set time (12 or 24 hours). The goal is to go as fast as possible on the set distance, or cover as much distance as possible in the set time. These races also occasionally include a segment called a Hill Climb, or hill sprint, where racers go as fast as possible up a short but steep hill.
A time trial bike will look familiar to triathletes- it’s where triathlon bikes came from! This sport is all about being as aero as possible, so racers typically have specialized helmets, shoe covers, wheels, and incredibly dialed in bike fits.
Road Races & Criteriums – Race distances for road races can be short or long, and either point to point or loops. Courses that cover many small loops, either on dedicated tracks or even through city centers are known as Criteriums (crits). I have raced a crit one time, and it’s a completely different experience from regular road riding or time trial riding! It is all about riding in a pack, hard sustained efforts, and keeping your line (not veering to one side or the other around corners). Road races and crits are broken down into categories, typically Cat 1-5, with 5 being beginner riders and 1 being pro and advanced riders.
Stage Races – Stage races are road races that take place on several different courses, segments, and often over several days. The most famous stage race, of course, is La Tour de France! The competitor with the lowest time each stage wins that stage, and an overall winner is determined by the lowest overall cumulative time. There are also often individual stage winners, sprint segment winners, king or queen of the mountain winners, etc. There may also be team points competitions within the race as well.
Ultra Races – An ultra race is typically anything over a century ride (100 miles) that is completed all at once. Most ultras begin with “double centuries” (200 miles) and go up from there. One of the most famous Ultra races is Race Across America, a 3,000 mile race from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, MD. Racers are typically accompanied by crews of 4-20 people depending on the distance, and race for as long as possible with few breaks. This racing community, obviously due to the time-consuming nature and incredible determination it takes to complete a race, remains small, with the number of women participating being even smaller. However, the women who do ride achieve incredible things, including racers such as Joan Dietchman, who was the first woman to complete RAW (Race Across the West) solo, and who has completed RAAM more than once. I dare you to read her blog and not be inspired to put in some miles!
Triathlons – The road event nearest and dearest to my heart is triathlon, which of course, includes cycling as the second event of the race. Triathlons range from super sprints of as few as 8 miles all the way to Ironman distance 112 mile rides (or even double-Ironmans of 224!) The great thing about triathlon is you don’t have to have a super light, high-tech triathlon bike to complete one. Many racers start off on a simple hybrid or even a mountain bike and gradually upgrade as they decide if they want to stick with the sport. To be competitive in non-draft legal triathlon (where you are not allowed to ride in a pack) you do benefit from a time trial-style bike thanks to the aerodynamic advantages.
Gran Fondo/Charity/Fun Rides/Sportives – A road ride with no competitive arm to it by any other name is a fun ride with snacks along the way! Whether referred to as a gran fondo, charity ride, or sportive, this style of cycling event is simply a designated, marked course of varying distance that riders register to ride on a certain day or time. Often put on by charities as a fundraiser, these rides are not intended to be completed as fast as possible, but are rather a celebration of the cycling community, a chance to ride routes you don’t always ride with hundreds or thousands of others, and yes, excellent snacks at the aid stations along the way. My favorite charity ride is the Shiner GASP Century, which happens every spring and goes from Austin, TX to Shiner, TX. It’s a 100-mile fun ride with beer, pizza, snacks, and thousands of other riders along the way that features a fun party at the Shiner brewery when you’re done!
Mountain Biking- There are MANY different types of mountain biking events, and I may have missed some! These are the main types that many people race.
Downhill- Downhill mountain biking is a challenging, technical course that takes place on a slope and features jumps, tight turns, and other obstacles. These events happen one racer at a time and the winner is the rider who finishes the fastest.
Enduro- Enduro rides are the stage races of mountain biking, where certain segments of downhill track are timed, and the uphill portions are used to recover (but often have time limits to complete) The winner is the rider who has the lowest cumulative time on the timed sections. These races range form 1-2 days to up to a whole week and typically have 3-5 time stages.
Single Track and Cross Country (XC) – These races are done as a mass start and feature a mixture of terrain, from single-track technical trails to open fields, rock gardens, fast descents, and grass. Typically the courses are a closed circuit, and the winner is the rider who completes the prescribed amount of distance the fastest.
XTERRA – Just as with road riding, there is a triathlon race that involved mountain biking rather than road riding (and trail running rather than road running). This series, run and managed by XTERRA include typically 13 mile bike portions, with the world championship race having a 20 mile course. The terrain is varied, Cross Country style racing and this style of event is an excellent opportunity for women! Very few race this type of event currently, meaning your chances of qualifying for nationals and worlds are high. Don’t let the low numbers fool you, though, the women who do participate at the elite and professional level are resilient and incredibly talented, not to mention fast!
Cyclo-cross – One of the fastest growing forms of bike racing is Cyclo-cross. These bikes look like road bikes, but have wider, knobbier tires to grip the mud, grass, and gravel terrain races cover. Races are typically in the fall and winter, and consist of many short laps of 1.5-2 miles. The courses feature different types of terrain and include steep hills and stair-steps, obstacles, and other features that require riders to quickly dismount, maneuver, and re-mount. The events are for a set amount of time, with the distance being determined by the course conditions. The person with the most distance in the prescribed time is the winner. This sport is a growing favorite of many women, including professional triathletes looking for something different during their off-season. Pro triathlete Maggie Rusch is one example- give her Instagram a look if you want a fun view of what she refers to as #TriathletesTryingThings (she also has a super cute dog named Lucy who joins her on the trails!)
Gravel – This form or riding and racing takes place on roads, but roads that are unpaved and often very unkempt. Many people use a Cyclo-cross bike thanks to their wider tires and stability, but there is growing demand for gravel-specific bikes among riders. Often rides and races are 100-200 miles, taking many hours to complete. My fellow riders at Team Moxie Cycling have covered this sport more in-depth on their blog posts!
Track Cycling – There are many different types of track races that happen at indoor venues called Velodromes, which are sloped, round wooden tracks made for doing many laps at high speeds. Racing styles include springs, time trials, pursuit, scratch race, Keirin, Omnium, and Elimination. You can learn all about them here!
I hope this helps you feel inspired and gets you up and out the door, riding a bike! There are so many ways to enjoy life on two wheels, and it’s very hard to choose just one. Cycling takes time, dedication, and desire, but it’s fun and rewarding to see just what your legs and lungs can do. The most important aspect is absolutely to have FUN when you ride! If you’re not doing that, then why bother??
Although I am pretty familiar with most types of riding, much of the information in this article came from this handy website post. Even still, I may have forgotten a few types of racing and events! What are your favorites?
Jenny is a Moxie Cycling Ambassador and blog contributor. Check out her bio here!