Getting Started - A Parent's Guide to Junior Bike Racing
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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Getting Started - A Parent's Guide to Junior Bike Racing

by Ad Bax at 8:21 PM EST   comments
Categories: Getting Started

Junior cycling is making a real come-back in the USA, with certain regions offering many opportunities for competitive road racing in the 10-18 age bracket. Results of this revival can be seen, for example, in the 2007 road racing World Championships, where for the first time ever the entire USA squad finished in the top 20. Many efforts are made to stimulate bike racing in this junior age category. There is, for example, the Lance Armstrong Junior Olympics road series (LAJORS) of races, spread across the country, on the basis of which riders are ranked nationally. A few pointers specific to Jr road racing are presented below.

Age brackets: For national level races such as the National Championships, rider age groups are 10-12, 13-14, 15-16, and 17-18, where not the true age but the racing age is what determines the bracket. Racing age is defined as the age of a rider on Dec 31 of any given calendar year. Often, Jr riders race in wider age brackets, 10-14, and 15-18, where the sub categories may be scored separately. The physiological development difference within any age group tends to be large, and it will for example be very challenging for a 10 year old rider to compete with riders that are a full two years older, let alone four years older. This should not discourage the younger riders from competing; it simply gives them an edge in experience when reaching the top of their age bracket.

Boys and girls: At the national level, boys and girls race separately. At the local level, often they race combined but are scored separately as the number of girls is usually too small to support a separate race. Girls over the age of 14 frequently switch to Cat 4 women (open age group) where many of them prove to be highly competitive and earn upgrades to higher categories quickly.

Expectations: Road racing is not for the faint of heart. It ranks among the toughest sports out there, both physically and mentally. Juniors with a tenacious attitude and competitive instinct are likely to succeed. Having witnessed the development of many of the local Jr riders in the Mid-Atlantic region, it is 100% clear that success in the first year is not what determines how well a rider will develop a few years down the road. Younger riders that got “shelled off the back” race after race, with loyal parents still cheering them on, have advanced to finish in the top 20 or better at National Championships only a few years later.

Training and racing: Reaching top Jr status will require a serious investment in terms of training hours and effort. Races themselves are usually quite short, in the 10-30 mile range, but practice rides typically are in the 20-70 mile range, depending on rider age and level. It is strongly recommended to participate as much as possible in group rides; this improves bike handling skills, makes the training less painful and more interesting, and promotes development of a social bike network and support system. Group rides also tend to offer more variation in terms of speed and dynamics of a ride. In this respect, for younger Juniors it is important to be accompanied by an adult or older rider to ensure a safe return without getting demoralized before having reached a level required to hang with the group for the full distance. Regular workouts (minimum 5 times a week) seems more effective than excessively long weekend rides. Total aim should be ~5-7 h/week for the sub-15 group, gradually increasing to ca 12-20h/week for the top riders in the 17/18 bracket.

Benefits and college recruiting: Riding around in spandex usually does not carry high status at the local Middle or High school, where adulation is mostly reserved for the “heroes” in football, soccer, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, or other school varsity sports. Nevertheless, competitive bike racing provides an aerobic conditioning that has proven to be exceptional preparation for excellence in other endurance sports too, especially cross-country and crew, the latter offering outstanding potential college recruitment opportunities. Most of our local Jr cyclists who also opted to run XC in the Fall season ended up running on their varsity HS team. Ergometer testing seems to prevail over actual rowing skills for college crew recruitment, and on many occasions, a Jr cyclist after just a few practice sessions will outperform many of the HS “crew stars.” Many colleges also participate in organized road racing, but only about a dozen appear to engage in active recruitment of cyclists during the admissions process.

Risks: Road cycling is often viewed as a hazardous sport, with potentially very serious injuries. Although a few crashes each year are inevitable, these mostly result in simple scrapes and bruises, far less severe than what is typically seen on the football, soccer, or lacrosse teams. Although riding in traffic holds potential for catastrophic accidents, these are fortunately exceptionally rare. Moreover, anecdotally, riding in traffic prepares the teenagers for what “life on the road” is really like, and potentially gives them an edge when obtaining their first drivers license, possibly offsetting the risk of riding accidents.

Bike selection: The cost of a light, strong, and safe race-worthy bicycle sets a significant barrier for new entrants to the sport. On the other hand, there is exceptional goodwill towards juniors who want to join the sport. The first step then should be to find out what local teams are interested in attracting junior riders. They frequently will be able to help arrange a used small bike, at a manageable expense. With rapid growth during the teenage years, a rider is likely to require a larger bike every year or two. Investment in a top-of-the-line all-carbon racing machine is not requisite for success in the long term, and even in the short term may offer very little benefit as the range in rider capabilities is orders of magnitude larger than the minute advantage of shaving off the last ounce in weight.

Gear restrictions: Juniors participating in road races, criteriums and time trials are limited to a chaingear ratio of 7.93 meters (26’0”). This means that with the chain in the bike’s tallest gears (biggest front ring and smallest possible rear cog), the bike cannot travel more than 26.0 ft with a single turn of the cranks (see USA Cycling). In practice that means, when using regular 700C wheels, that the ratio of teeth of the large front ring and the smallest rear cog should be at most 52/14 = 3.72. Most standard bikes have a “big ring” of 53 teeth, meaning the smallest rear cog would have to be 15, and is not easily available. Instead, for local races, it is allowed to “block” the smallest cogs by adjustment of the rear derailleur with a small screwdriver. Do this before arriving at the first race, it is usually a reason for disappointment if participation in the first race is denied for failing to pass “rollout”.
A 52-teeth chain ring, and 14-25 teeth cassettes are most easily purchased on-line (for example, Jenson USA).
The use of small gears while training or racing needs to be encouraged, with a cadence preferably over 90 pedal rotations per minute. This reduces the chance of knee injuries, and being able to “spin” is more important for reaching a high level than the power to push a heavy gear.

USAC license: For insurance purposes, participation in most road races requires the rider to have a valid USAC license, see USA Cycling. These can be ordered on-line for adult riders, but require a parent signature for Jr riders, and then must be sent in by regular mail. Easiest is to simply purchase a “day license” ($10), which then can be sent in as the application for a regular one-year license, which expires on Dec 31 of the year in which it is purchased.


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