Every year, there are a lot of good races to choose from in Northern California, many of them are pretty exceptional events within 1-2 hours from the SF Bay Area. So, those of us that live here are lucky to have so many options. Most weekends from February to August there are usually at least one crit and one road race on the calendar. But, this can present some challenges as people around here choose which races they want to put on their own schedule, so here’s a rundown of some of the ones I’d most recommend to someone who wanted to try a mix of races across disciplines and throughout the year. This is a selection of popular events and personal favorites.
You can find the road racing calendar for Northern California here.
I’ll also include some notes on the fitness demands of some of the races, to give an idea of what kind of athlete is likely to do well or what kind of fitness you may want to work on while preparing for the race. I’ll refer to pure sprint ability, anaerobic capacity, aerobic capacity, threshold, and endurance fitness on a 5-point scale, with 5 being very demanding, and 0 or 1 being very undemanding of that energy system.
There are many races, but I want to get this posted so people can consult it as needed. I will add more details as I have time. Feel free to ask me about specific races, how to plan a racing season, how to train for specific races, or anything else, any time… email@example.com
My mission is to use my knowledge and experience to help people get more out of their riding.
Cal Aggie and Cherry Pie Crits (Jan/Feb)
These two early season races are favorites among Bay Area residents who want to get the ball rolling early with their racing. Because they’re so early in the season, many people are still building fitness and aren’t looking at the race with as much ambition and intensity as they might if the races happened in May, but they’re a great way to check in on your fitness, remind yourself what riding fast in a group feels like, and to have some fun and boost your motivation as you look towards the coming months of training and racing. Like most crits, the kind of fitness you’d want to do well is going to be mostly sprint and anaerobic. To a lesser extent, your aerobic capacity and threshold fitness may come into play, especially if you ride a breakaway or try to take a flyer late in the race.
Chico Stage Race
This race is a relatively new race that’s been added to the calendar, but has quickly become the premier stage race in Northern California. It’s got an excellent circuit race on the Thunderhill Raceway with some open twisty turns and a couple of good rollers. The Paskenta Hills Road Race on day two is a favorite among those who enjoy a mix of smooth, rough, and unpaved roads. There are dozens of flats and an interesting dynamic with the gravel section, a few rollers, and some wind on that course. Often people get more anxious about the gravel, but I think the flat tires and the wind involved in this race are the key features of the race. The TT and crit on the last day are pretty classic. The TT is dead-flat and relatively fast. You can stay in the sticks the whole time and the winners usually have a pretty high average speed, for the pros it’ll be a little over 30 mph. The crit alternates between being open and tight, but is pretty fast overall, so it gets strung out and is almost certain to end in a sprint between the course and the GC interests involved.
Snelling and Bariani Road Races
These are two early season favorites with mostly flat courses that include some rolling hills and often some wind. They’re good races to go to if you don’t consider yourself a specialist climber, sprinter, or rolleur, because if you ride smartly, you can finish well with a little luck. At the very least, they’re both going to be great workouts and you should be able to get to the finish in the main group coming off of a decent winter of training, even if you aren’t in peak form.
Cal Berkeley Streets Crit
This is a fun race right on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus with a s
light uphill/downhill rectangular course that ends up making the race feel like a VO2-max interval workout. Every lap you hammer up Bancroft and try to recover on the Durant downhill. For people living in the East Bay or even in the city, it’s a very short trip to get to this race and given the timing is usually held with ideal weather conditions.
Santa Cruz Classic Crit
This is one of the very few races that I’ve never done, but it’s a favorite among many local racers. Santa Cruz is a cool town and hosts this crit on relatively narrow roads with a bit of a kicker climb. It’s a course for critters, but road racers with a lot of punchy acceleration for climbs and sprints can do well.
Tempus Fugit TT
If you want to test your aerobic fitness, there aren’t a ton of opportunities to do time trials or hill climbs, but this out-and-back test against the clock in Castro Valley is convenient and a great way to test your high end aerobic fitness and maybe your TT position. It’s well worth doing if you want to race without some of the pressures of mass-start events, too. I think that time trials are underrepresented and under-appreciated in the US cycling community. Whether people spend thousands on a fast TT bike, carbon wheels, skinsuits, helmets, and go crazy geeking out over every detail, or people just ride for fun and fitness, it’s always great to have a goal, try to get fitter, and check in on your progress. Runners may only do a handful of races throughout the year, and I think for cyclists who are not interested in the intensity of mass-start racing, time trials afford them the opportunity to have goals and train for something other than the simple routine of training. Obviously, I think there is a huge value in training for the sake of staying fit and enjoying cycling, but for many people, doing Merckx-style time-trials with no pressure is a great way to add focus to your exercise program.
Copperopolis is definitely one of the most famous NorCal races out there. It’s long and tough with climbs, rough roads, wind, and a finish on an uphill roller after a descent on terrible roads. A lot of people consider this one of their favorites, but it’s definitely hard on you and can be hard on your equipment. Most people will race their normal race gear, but some people who have nice carbon race wheels will race with their training wheelset just in case they brake a spoke or pinch-flat on a hard asphalt edge somewhere.
The race laps start with a couple miles of flat through the feed-zone, and then climb for 15-20m on rolling and then steep uphill roads. It’s a little more shallow at the top, but it comes right after the steepest section and it’s really rough all the way up. Many people who naturally climb out of the saddle are forced to stay in the saddle, so their wheels don’t bounce around. When it does start to level off, you’re already pretty gassed and sometimes it’s a struggle to stay with your group if people attack or pick up the pace over the top.
Once you’re on the pleateau above the race-start, there area few rollers and usually abit of a breeze. The lane isn’t terribly wide, so it can quickly become challenging if it’s windy. After a series of short 20-30s rollers, it opens up to some dead-flat land for a few miles on rough roads that can be plagued by crosswinds, so it can be tough through the far-side of the course.
The second half of the lap meanders back and forth for a few miles on essentially all rough pavement. There’s a few rollers, and finally about 5 miles to go, you climb over a few hills, still on really rough roads, and then descend on what seems to be some of the worst pavement on the loop down to the finish. It flattens out for a moment and then kicks up maybe 150-200m up what looks like about a 5% grade to the finish. The Pro 1/2 field does this lap 5 times for a total of close to 110 miles. It’s pretty awesome, and tough. It’s one of the more demanding courses, because there’s really little room to take it easy on any of the laps and the race is about as hard as people want to make it. Anywhere on the loop, people can attack and try to get a breakaway going or try to make a split in the field, whether it’s in the wind, over climbs, or just on rough roads where there’s only one or two good lines to take to minimize all of the bumps.
It’s a classic race that you could call the Paris-Roubaix of NorCal, because it’s long with rough roads and always has dynamic racing.
Sea Otter Classic and the Central Coast Road Series
The rolling hills around Moterey are a great place for the Central Coast Road Series and the Sea Otter Classic events. The Sea Otter Circuit Race on the Mazda Raceway is famous for its corkscrew turn and is a fun, tough course. All of these courses demand some good aerobic fitness as they all have lots of short climbs, but that’s part of the fun. The Sea Otter road race traditionally finishes on a challenging climb after long circuits with a very steep 2 minute climb on the start of each lap. If you want to learn how to race hilly courses well, the CCCX races provide a good venue for practice.
Mike’s Bikes Cat’s Hill Classic
This is one of the most well known crits in the Bay Area and one of the longest running. Greg Lemond won the race back in the late 70s, and a number of famous riders have won it over the years, as well as a bunch of local riders. But it’s always a combination of skill, smarts, and luck that get the win. The course is famous for it’s steep climb up “the wall,” a short climb of maybe 80m up a 20% grade in the middle of each lap. The course is L-shaped and has the one steep uphill, a bit of a roller, and then a long 300m descent back down to the finishing straight-away. The descent and finishing straight away have less than excellent pavement, so you have to pick your line well to get a fast place for your wheels to roll. Every lap it’s hard to sprint up the climb, so you have to be ready to go from the start and need to be prepared mentally for dozens of 20 second sprints up a steep grade.
Wente Vineyards RR
This is one of the tougher race courses on the calendar. The whole race is hilly or windy with relatively little time where you can relax. Any time someone in the field wants to make the race hard, they can. At the same time, anyone who wants to get in a break away or split up the field can probably work to do so as long as anyone follows with them, but it makes the timing of those efforts all the more important, because it could be an attack on the first lap or the last lap that gets the winning move going, but it’s hard to tell. It’s a very dynamic race for this reason. I’d say it’s similar to the Berkeley Hills RR, Pescadero RR, and even Winters RR for this reason.
The racing is hard and dynamic. If you’re a strong climber, decent on the flats, and willing to suffer, it’s a great race for you. Within reason, anyone that is a strong racer can finish well in this race, but whoever wins it will have to be a good climber, because it finishes in an intermediate climb that has several minutes of shallow grades and finishes in a few minutes of steep climbing.
Berkeley Hills is the longest running road race in the US, and a favorite. It’s probably the most centrally located course and one that many locals ride dozens of times every year. Unfortunately early this 2017, heavy rains led to significant erosion and a collapse of part of the roads used for the traditional course. The course is usually held around “the Bears” loop just over the hills from Berkeley. For 2017 there may be a new course, which I can’t comment on at the moment, because I don’t know what that may be, but the traditional course will no doubt continue use in the future.
It is a rolling course with a lot of false flat uphill and 2-5 minute climbs. Throughout the loop there are two extended flat sections of road where the field is likely to stick together, but you can’t assume too much, because the riding along San Pablo Dam Road at the beginning of each loop is prone to being windy, and it can be enough of a crosswind to cause some damage to a tired field a few laps into the race. 1/3 of the way through the loop, there’s a descent onto Castro Ranch Road that then goes over a couple of pitchy rollers. They don’t look like much on the course profile, but they’re enough to cause some serious discomfort or allow for splits in the field if people want to attack and get a break going. The second 1/3 of the loop is mostly false-flat uphill and is usually uneventful, but because it’s slightly uphill, nobody gets a free ride. The roads are also narrow here, so if a break is up the road, it can be tough to get a chase going if that’s in your team’s interest. Finally, the last 1/3 of the loop goes over a handful of short to intermediate climbs and a few rollers. You get about
The Pescadero Road Race is great race in coastal California half-way between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. It’s got two sets of hills on either end of the course, and several miles of false-flat uphill and downhill between them. The rollers at the start are short, but hard. The feed-zone and finishing climb is tough and requires great climbing speed or smart tactics ahead of the climb to allow for the win. Everyone who wins this race earns it.
I like this race because it’s very dynamic. There’s enough climbing to make it demanding and requires a good amount of high-end aerobic fitness, but there’s enough flat-land riding that team tactics and durability matters as much as climbing ability. The times I’ve done this race there have been multiple breakaways, but you can see them come back, break apart, or you can see riders or groups bridge up to the break. Even with a minute or two gap between the break and the field on the last lap, you still can’t say what will happen at the end.
Lodi Cycle Fest Crit
This race is a great mid-summer event that usually draws good attendance because it has a good course and good prize purse. It’s a flat figure-8 course with one small loop and one longer rectangle with one overlapping corner. Most of the pavement is good, but there are a few small bumps, and enough turns to keep things interesting. For the most part it’s a pretty fast, wide-open course with room to move around. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to attack, but also room for the field to chase down breaks. Usually it’ll end in a bunch sprint, but small moves that happen late in the race can get away and make it to the finish ahead of the field if they time it right. The heat can be a factor and making sure you stay cool and meter your effort can make a big difference in whether you finish strong and animate the race or whether you end up limping in at the back end of the field.
One year I made a promising move with a few laps to go and got a good gap, but really, it’s a race for the sprinters. As expected, I got caught with about a lap to go and our sprinter won, but for the stronger time-trialists without top-end speed for sprints (like me) you can use your strength a few laps out to help your team’s sprinter by letting them get a free ride as the other teams chase you down. This is a great tactic in any race, and seemingly overlooked as people often bide their time thinking that they have a chance at winning, when they may not have.
Loyalton Time Trial
I would say that this is the NorCal time trial. It’s the regional championship event, but it’s also classic because it’s dead-flat at 5000 feet of elevation. It’s perfect for laying down fast times on a full 40k course. There have been two courses over recent years. The original course was pancake flat except for one very minor roller that may have had a total of 15 feet of elevation up a 2% grade,
or something close to it. It used to be mediocre pavement with winter-cracked roads, but was then repaved and nearly ideal for the most part. But, a few years ago, the USAC Elite Nationals was held in Tahoe and they started using another course just a few miles down the valley, which is the course they currently use. This course is similar, and even a little flatter. It’s got decent, chip-seal textured pavement, and a few minor turns that you can almost pedal through at full speed. It’s a fast course and good for riding a 40k PR you’re proud of.
Davis 4th of July Crit
This crit is a classic. It’s flat and relatively wide-open, except for a short portion of the back side of the course. The defining characteristic of this race is usually the heat. I’ve seen this race finish in a sprint multiple times, but it’s ripe for the occasional break or solo move. The odds are always against it at the outset, but with the heat and assumption that the race will usually finish in a sprint, it is possible for a late race solo flyer or a breakaway to get a gap on the field at a time that people have lost interest or want to put off bringing it back until it’s too late.
I’ve done this race several times and it’s always been fun. It’s also always been hot. Earlier in my racing career, I don’t think that I really handled the heat very well, and I would recommend that anyone going to this race thinks proactively about how they plan to approach it. I used to take two bottles at the start and was okay, but if you want to do well, for most people it will require more than just getting by and more than doing what works okay.
If you race early in the day, then it shouldn’t be a big deal. If you race in the middle of the day, then you might consider doing a morning spin so that you’re already loose and ready to go. That way before the race you probably won’t need to warm up nearly as long and won’t have to deal with overheating before the race even starts, if it is 95 or 100d, like it often is.
Before the race, get in a good warm-up, but stay cool. Drink cold fluids, and consider taking a cooler with extra bottles and a towel. You can do a lot to stay cool and keep your body comfortable by pouring water over your head and getting your jersey wet. A jersey wet with cool fluids can make a big impact on your body’s need to sweat and the rate at which your body temperature rises. The last few times that I’ve done this race, I warmed up, cooled off with a cool drink and a wet jersey, and then went to the line with 3 bottles: one bottle of mix to drink, one bottle of water to pour over myself, and the third to drink as needed and pour over myself as needed. Plus, I’d take the usual couple of gels of which I would probably take one during the race, but it’s good to have 2 so that you have it if you need it.
The last time I did this race it was hot and I did my cooling routine. I think that I had an iced coffee like 15 minutes before the race. Anyway, it started fast and people were aggressive. By 1/3 of the way through the race, things had settled down a bit, and I waited until later in the race to try to make any major moves. Finally with 10 laps to go, several of us somehow split off the front of the group. At this point in my career I had come to think that for most crits that don’t have a hill or other major feature that defines the course, I would wait at least 10-15 minutes before I cared to look for possible splits or breaks that other people might initiate, and for the most part, I would wait until the last 1/4 of the race to try anything… In any case, we rolled off the front with myself, Ben Jacques-Maynes, and several other strong, motivated riders. We got a good gap, but with 5 laps to go, we were getting caught just as I was taking a pull. I’ll admit that I didn’t see the catch until it was happening and the rest of the break was starting to sit up. Because I saw the confusion and loss of momentum, I attacked with just one rider going with me, Chris Baker from Sacramento. We were able to ride the last 5 laps and finish ahead of the field. At that point there was no point in waiting or trying to regroup for another move. If the field was together with 3 or 4 laps to go, then it was bound to finish in a sprint. Always keep your eyes open and be willing to take risks. I figured that I had a 0% chance of getting any result if I was in the field, so even though the field could no doubt chase, they would have to choose to do so and risk messing up their sprint, so there was a non-zero chance of staying off the front, so it was a risk worth taking.
San Rafael Twilight Crit
Patterson Pass RR
Dunnigan Hills RR
Suisun Harbor Crit
Vacaville Grand Prix [Crit]
Mt Diablo Hill Climb TT
Oakland Grand Prix [Crit]
Everest Challenge Stage Race