by Kelly Clarke

So, you want to race your bike? That’s great! There are a bunch of us who race and we LOVE to talk about it, so ask us all of your questions. We were all in your place not too long ago. I’m only a few years into racing and don’t know everything, but here’s some information about how races are run to get you started.


There are different governing bodies that ‘sanction’ bike races. Bike races need insurance, officials, rules to make them safe – and these all come from the sanctioning body. There are two of those in Illinois and in the Chicagoland area: USAC and ABR.

USA Cycling is the most common governing body in Illinois, and in the nation. They drive the rules about racing categories and upgrades.

American Bicycle Racing is another governing body that actively puts on races in Illinois. They are more of a grass roots organization. They are a member of the FIAC (Federation of Independent Associations for Cycling).

Sometimes racers focus on USAC, but both organizations support great races.

And just to be clear, the sanctioning organization is not the same thing as the race promoter. The race promoter is actually putting on the race, finding funding for it, gathering volunteers, getting permits to host the race, ect. And if you think your entry fee is expensive, trust me, it’s REALLY expensive to put on a race. But where else do you get to ride that fast on a closed course with great competition?


USAC and ABR races require different licenses. These licenses are used for insurance purposes, and to help pay for the upkeep of these organizations. It’s not a bad thing. Remember, we want well run, safe races!

USAC licenses are $70. They used to separate Mountain and Road licenses, but for the first time – this year, all disciplines are combined. They do offer one-day licenses. So if you’re not sure you want to race a lot, you can buy a one-day for $15.

An ABR license is $25 for one year. I am pretty sure they do not do one-day licenses. But they do put on some pretty great practice crits!

When applying for a license, make sure you put your team name on there, and that it’s spelled correctly!


Racing categories are levels for racing. Levels, or ‘cats’, ensure you’re racing against people of a similar ability. 1 or PRO is the highest you can achieve. In road,track and cyclocross, men start as a Cat 5, and women start as a Cat 4. But you upgrade in each discipline separately. For example, right now I am a Cat 4 on the road, but a Cat 3 in cyclocross.

You earn points to upgrade to a higher cat (closer to 1) by being successful in races. You don’t necessarily have to win a race, but it does help. The rules are outlined here:

One thing for the men to remember: to go from Cat 5 to 4 only requires 10 mass starts. You don’t need results. Usually we like to encourage a fast upgrade to 4, because Cat 5 racers are all inexperienced, and Cat 4 races usually offer a better race experience. Since women’s fields are typically smaller, this is less of an issue.

You might be tempted to stay in a lower cat longer than you need to. This is generally looked down upon, because you’re not making yourself a better racer, and you’re taking away the opportunity for other racers to earn upgrade points. People that stay in lower cats so they can try to win more races are known as sandbaggers. You don’t want your teammates calling you that!


Most of the time, you can show up to a race – day of – and register to race. But that’s not ideal for several reasons. It makes the registration lines slower, and takes longer for you to get your number. Throwing a race is stressful, and it’s good for promoters to be able to see people registered ahead of time. They might even up the prize money if the numbers look good prior to a race. So it’s good practice to register ahead of time. It’s also almost always cheaper to preregister. Most registrations are on, but some use Make sure you register for your correct category. And make sure you put your team name in the ‘Team Name’ field, spelling it correctly. I have worked registration at races where people get upset that their team name or information is incorrect, but the people at registration can’t change it – it’s up to you to have the correct information for both your racing license and on the form when you register to race.


The Illinois Cycling Association ( administers bicycle racing for USA Cycling in Illinois. Most areas that have races sanctioned by USAC have a local association. They help administer upgrades and a portion of the money from the licenses we buy goes to them. They allocate this money to help make our racing scene better. They help fund racing clinics, provide the state championship jerseys, and do things to make Illinois bike racing more accessible to more people in an unbiased manner.


There’s a lot to learn when you first start racing. We’ve all been there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.