PSU Cycling 101: Intro to bike races

Hello and welcome back to PSU Cycling 101!  In this edition we'll be covering some of most common types of bike races that the Cycling Club at University Park competes in. To begin with there are four major disciplines in collegiate cycling: ROAD, CYCLO-CROSS, MOUNTAIN, and TRACK. 



A criterium is one of the most common forms of competitive cycling in the United States. Designed for spectators, criteriums are races held on short, typically urban circuits, between 800 meters to five kilometers. These fast-paced events are usually 10-60 miles and last between 30 minutes and two hours. The relatively short, closed course features several corners and gives spectators the opportunity to view the majority of the course and see competitors many times throughout the race. Primes, pronounced “preems” are sprints within a race for all riders in the main field including breakaway riders who have lapped the field. Riders who win the prime are awarded prizes even if they do not win the overall race. Primes are used to create excitement in the middle of the race. A circuit race is a general term used for any road races that are contested over a course that is more than three miles and has at least two laps.

Road Races

 Road races typically take place on public roads and can be point-to-point races or multiple circuits of a loop generally from 5-25 miles in length. Road races are team-oriented, mass start events.  They can be either one-day, or multiple-day stage races.  The American road season usually begins around March and reaches its peak around late July. Road races can be held on closed, partially closed, or open roads with or without controlled traffic safety measures in place as determined by local authorities.
Although the road race is the staple of international events, it can be less spectator friendly than other types of races depending on the course route. Cyclists may not pass the same point for long periods of time and spectators looking for a particular cyclist may miss them if they are in the middle of the race pack (called a peloton).

Time Trials 

A time trial is a timed event completed by an individual or a team. The individual time trial is often called “the race of truth,” as it pits individuals against the clock with riders starting one by-one at specific intervals, usually one minute apart. It’s the most basic form of competitive cycling and the rules are simple: the athlete with the fastest time over a given distance is the winner. Like road races, the time trial usually takes place on public roads and can be a point-to-point, out and back, or a circuit format.
The team time trial is like the individual time trial, but with one slight difference, teams race one at a time and work together to complete the course in the fastest possible time.  Most stage races begin with some form of time trial; this is called “The prelude”. 


Cyclo-cross is a unique, non-Olympic discipline of cycling that can best be described as a cross between road cycling, mountain biking, and steeplechase. Cyclo-cross races generally take place on a closed circuit between 2.5 km and 3.5 km in a park or other open land with competitors racing multiple laps for a set amount of time. Since the cyclo-cross season traditionally takes place from September to February, races are often challenged by adverse weather conditions such as snow, rain, wind, and mud. Riders begin in mass start fashion and must navigate through both paved and off-road terrain, often times dismounting their bikes to hurdle barriers, climb steep hills or stairs, or traverse other man-made obstacles. These events can take place on a closed circuit in an area as small as a moderately sized city park and they are very spectator friendly.

Cyclo-cross is the fastest growing discipline in cycling and because of its festival like atmosphere it is considered by some to also be the most fun.  Because of the season in which cyclo-cross events are held and the cyclists multiple laps per race the course may require maintenance following the event.  Most cyclocross events  also allow for a “pit” where cyclists can pass off a dirty bike to team members who will wash it down and make adjustments to the bike.  Watching the team mechanics can sometimes be half the fun as the try to find the perfect tire pressure or tread to give their riders the advantage.     


While disciplines like cyclo-cross, road, and track can all trace their lineage back to Mediterranean Europe, mountain biking began in the hills of California. In 19++ a small group of tinkerers from San Fransisco equipped old cruiser bikes with knobby tires and pieces from used motor bikes to create the flat handled, and mud flinging two wheelers that we know today as MOUNTAIN BIKES!  In the early 70's all mountain bike races were downhill events that were often referred to as "repack"  This is because the bearings in the hubs would become so hot that the grease would actually boil away and need re-packed.  It is said that the first official mountain bike race took place in 1976 and was won by the only rider who didn't crash.  It was soon after in 1983 that one in twenty of all bikes in the US were mountain bikes.  In 1993 nearly 90% of new bikes sold in the US were mountain bikes.

Mountain bike racing is often happens in one of three disciplines, either Cross Country(XC), Downhill, or Enduro. Cross Country racing is the most popular mountain biking discipline and also the least extreme of the three. XC racing is also an Olympic discipline which involves competitors racing from point-to-point through defined trail sections in the fastest time possible. XC trails can range from open fire roads to winding narrow single-tracks that will test the rider’s endurance and technical handling skills.  Downhill races are for more advanced riders whose love for speed brings them blazing down the roughest descents and root sections. Downhill races are very intense and exciting to watch, with either one or more races competing at the same time. Enduro (sometimes known as all-mountain) are more technical than XC and can involve even bigger drops and jump sections to fuel the riders adrenaline thirst. Enduro competitions tend to be staged races that can involve steep climbs and timed descents.



Although it may be more popular outside of the US, many of worlds greatest cyclists got their start on the track. Track is one of the oldest disciplines in cycling, taking place in a special type of arena known as a velodrome. Velodromes feature steeply banked oval tracks, consisting of two 180-degree circular bends connected by two straights. The straights transition to the circular turn through a moderate easement curve.  Although some older velodromes use pine boards for the race surface, many modern outdoor tracks have moved to cement.  One of the oldest arenas in the entire US, Madison Square Gardens, actually got its start as a velodrome. The nearest velodrome to State College is the Valley Preffered Cycling Center outside of Allentown Pennsylvania.Bicycles for velodromes have no brakes. They employ a single fixed rear gear, or cog, that does not freewheel. This helps maximize speed, reduces weight, and avoids sudden braking while nevertheless allowing the rider to slow by pushing back against the pedals. Track cyclists tend to be very specialized in their discipline even though nearly all forms of track racing cover a course even shorter than that of a criterium.  There are a ton of different race formats is track cycling.  Below are listed some of the most common types of races.

    *A scratch race is a mass start event in which riders compete over a specified distance and the order of finish determines the winners.

   *Elimination is another mass start race which removes the last place rider from each lap until only two riders remain. The final standings are then determined by a sprint over the last two laps.

   *Madison races (sound familiar?) are team events in which pairs of riders compete in a sort of tag-team format. Riders "sling" their teammate forward to facilitate alternating sprints that keep the pace very high during typically long races.

   *Keirin races involve pacing 6 to 9 riders with a motorcycle known as a Derny. The Derny gradually accelerates until the last lap and a half when it pulls off the track and a sprint for the finish determines the winner.

Alright everyone.... that's more than enough from me.  Please feel free to comment below with anything I may have missed and remember:  The Penn State Cycling Club meets Wednesday nights at 8:30 in Willard Building.