BC or British Cycling (known as the BCF or British Cycling Federation back when I were a lad) is the “official” governing body for all cycle sport in the UK. And by that I mean that BC is the body recognised by the Sports Council, it’s the body that is affiliate to the UCI (official international cycling body) and to the IOC (International Olympic Committee). There are BC sanctioned events for all age categories from aged 8 to 88 (and beyond if you fancy it) for both men and women.
Unlike LVRC and TLI events which are run purely on an age categorisation basis, BC events (for over 18 year olds at least) are run categorised by ability. When you first take out a racing licence, you will be given a 4th Category license. Placing well in races wins you BC points which you accumulate over the course of any given season. Once you have accumulated 12 points racing as a 4th Cat you will be automatically promoted to a 3rd Cat (BC will then issue you with a new race license to reflect this). Then, once you have accumulated 40 points racing as a 3rd Cat you will be promoted to a 2nd Cat. And so it goes, with promotions to 1st Cat and finally Elite which is the top of the tree. More info at http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roadst_Road-Categories_Classifications
Races are run by ability category. So there will be some races open to only 4th Cat riders or only 3rd Cat riders. Others maybe 2nd & 3rd Cats or often Elite, 1, 2 & 3. The higher the race category and longer the event, the more licence promotion points are on offer. So some smaller regional events (BC calls these “Regional C” events) offer 10 points for first down to 1 point for tenth whereas some top events (BC calls these “National A” events) will offer 100 points for first place down to 2 points for 20th place. For a more in depth explanation of that see http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roadst_National_Regional_Rankings_Explained
The take away message is that some races are a lot harder and faster than others! If you are just starting out, then you should be looking for some 4th Cat only events so that you will be competing against riders of your own ability (i.e. relative novices) and where (hopefully) you won’t be outrageously out of your depth. As you progress and improve fitness and skills, then you will progress through the BC categories all the while being able to compete against people of similar abilities. Of course, as a 3rd Cat you can enter and ride an E123 event which will pitch you against some top riders. This can be great for experience and to stretch you physically – but I definitely don’t recommend it for your first few events at least!
Over 40 years old
Vets (us over 40s) compete in BC events in just the same way as anyone over 18; winning points and moving through the BC categories. Frighteningly, there are some Elite vets out there. In addition BC do promote a few “Masters” races which are open only to the over 40s, but generally if you want age categorised racing then you need to be doing LVRC events.
Women racers operate a points system along the same lines as the men and are promoted through the categories from 4th to Elite in the same way. There are a number of women only races – but not as many events as for the men (although I am pleased to report that there are more of these than there used to be and the women’s racing scene does seem to be on the up at the moment). In addition, women are allowed to ride against the men in most events. So for example a “Regional B” open to 3rd and 4th Cat men is also open to women of any race category. I’ll refer you to http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roadst_Road-Categories_Classifications for full details – I’ll only make a mistake if I try to cover here!
As with advice for 4th Cats starting out, I would recommend any aspiring women racers out there to seek out some women’s only events as your first events. I believe that Maddy Lee-Smith has been racing the Tuesday evening events at Crystal Palace with some success. That’s a pretty tough baptism around an unforgiving circuit that requires some nifty corning skills. There are some ladies only events at Hillingdon on Wednesday evenings during the summer and that circuit is somewhat less challenging and may therefore be less daunting a prospect. Obviously a lot depends on the quality of your competition and I really don’t know how typical fields at respective circuits compare!
Under 18 years old
OK, so what about under 18s? There are Youth categories E to A (E is under 8, D is under 10 up to Youth A which is under 16) before becoming a Junior which BC defines as “from 1st Jan of year in which 17th birthday falls to 31st December of year in which 18th birthday falls”. More detail on these at http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roa2012-Licence-Categories-2012–Road—Track-0 . Youth races are run purely on an age category basis. Juniors have a ranking system similar to the seniors allowing promotion from 4th Cat to 1st Cat (there is no Elite Junior category).
Youth riders only get to ride against other Youth riders and I believe that all events are held away from open roads and only on closed circuits. Juniors may race in Junior only races but as with the women, Juniors may race against senior men in most race categories if they so wish. So for example a top “Regional A” event open to E123 seniors is only open to 1st and 2nd category Juniors, while a Regional B event open to 3rd and 4th Cat seniors is open to any category of Junior rider (even 1st Cat Juniors!). See http://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roadst_Road-Categories_Classifications for more detail on how these categories work.