If watching the pros go for grand tour glory has revved up your competitive spirit, try a criterium. "These simple road races are the perfect way for new competitors to get their feet wet and improve fitness," says Michael Carter, an assistant director at Team Type 1. Crits take place on a loop about a mile long with some tight corners, and last 30 to 60 minutes. You don't need to be a hammer or king of the shop ride—anyone with a road bike and a helmet can enter a Category 5 race. Sign up for a local crit and follow this advice so you finish your first race with a smile—if not a trophy.
Though racers technically shouldn't make contact in the pack, it happens often and a little preparation will help you avoid crashing. Join local group rides to build your pack-riding prowess, says Carter. For more practice, go to a grassy field with a friend and knock shoulders and handlebars at a low speed.
TRAIN FOR SPEED
Successful racers can sprint out of corners lap after lap and still have energy for the finish, says Frank Overton, owner of FasCat Coaching and a Level-1 USA Cycling coach. "Anaerobic intervals develop the power to match accelerations, attacks and sprints," he says. He suggests doing this workout once a week: Warm up for 20 minutes then perform four one-minute intervals with a minute of recovery between each. When done, spin easy for five minutes, then repeat the set.
If possible, preride the course to get acquainted with its turns, rises and descents. Then, if you have a stationary trainer or rollers, complete a 30-minute easy spin 45 minutes before the start, says Overton. Finish the warm-up with three 15-second sprint efforts to prepare your body for race intensity.
"Focus on the curve's exit, not the wheel in front of you," Overton says. Keep your hands in the drops and place your weight on your outside pedal, with your foot in the 6 o'clock position. "This lowers your center of gravity and increases stability," he says. If you feel uneasy, stay outside the pack on turns—you'll have more room to correct your line.
ATTACK THE PACK
There's no surefire way to predict whether a break will be successful, "but attacking when the peloton least expects it, or is just unwilling to chase, helps your odds," Carter says. Take off when another break is pulled back or in a strong headwind. If you're a climber, you can also surprise the bunch by attacking before—not on—a hill. If you're a strong sprinter, try surging ahead on a smaller climb. But, Carter adds, a break can succeed only if you strategize with other strong riders willing to work together; otherwise, you'll be back in the pack before you know it.
"Focus on the last lap," Overton says. "Get yourself into the top 10 and pedal hard through the last two turns." Start your sprint about 200 meters from the line and give it everything you have. Keep your hands in the drops and your head low to reduce wind drag. Don't go for it if you're not at the head of the pack, though. Sprinting for 13th place, Overton says, is how crashes happen.
Crit Gear We Love
CONTINENTAL GRAND PRIX 4000 TIRES, $65
These clinchers eat up sharp corners and double as all-purpose road tires. contionline. com
GU ROCTANE GEL, $2.50 EACH
This gel packs prerace carbs, a caffeine kick and lacticacid-blocking buffers into one small and tasty package. guenergy.com
OAKLEY JAWBONE GLASSES, $200
The interchangable lenses "float" in the frame, staying in place and never distorting your vision. oakley.com
2XU COMPRESSION RECOVERY SOCKS, $49
The socks speed recovery for your legs and reduce next-day soreness. Wear them on your drive home. 2xu.com