Circling—or cycling—the track at F1’s famous Circuit of the Americas

AUSTIN, Texas—As we rolled our road bikes toward the entryway, the friend who convinced me to do this shared a conversation he had earlier in the day: “When I said we were biking at Circuit of the Americas tonight, the first thing Mike asked was if that first turn is as steep as it looks on TV. Time to find out.”

I don’t follow Formula 1. I don’t follow NASCAR. But I do live in Austin, Texas, and I regularly ride a bike. So the concept of Bike Night at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA)—an event series where this famed US racetrack invites local cyclists out on Tuesday nights to try two wheels where four usually roam—seemed cool enough. A June evening in Central Texas easily exceeds 90° F, even before you consider humidity or proximity to asphalt. But what harm could some casual riding on a fancy car circuit do? I could taste the postgame Kölsch before l took my bike off the rack.

Then, of course, came Turn 1. Whoa. Quickly, I learned why COTA’s starting stunner lives in racing infamy. It doesn’t look that bad when you’re peering down from the Observation Deck, but on the ground, this 133-foot climb at the start of the 3.4-mile track really sets a tone for every lap. That tone: COTA will kick your butt. 

This F1 fansite claims that cars can get to around 110 km/h (~70 mph) climbing this thing, which we very much did not achieve. It took me about two minutes. And while F1’s top drivers can push through a lap in almost a minute and a half, my sorry self had an unofficial time closer to 13 minutes. (I ride a Motobecane Vent Noir I bought used five years ago; the guys who loaded up top-end tri bikes likely fared better.)

Still, Bike Night ain’t no competition. An entry price of $10 brings out all sorts of cyclists for a pretty unique riding experience. You’ll see peddlers who look fresh out of training wheels and others who make you murmur something about wanting to be that fit at their age. My road bike was not out of place in a sea of cycles that included fixed gears, recumbent rides, tandem bikes, and a bike with one of those baby trailers attached (only it definitely carried a retriever of some sort). The COTA team builds in some shortcuts for those who would like to not climb Turn 1 four times in an hour or two, and ample break and water stations are strategically placed throughout the course.

By the final time that I approached the grandstands to turn in for the night, navigating the course firsthand had given me a genuine appreciation for those who do it at higher speeds. My friend’s Strava app readings reported that the quickest pace we reached was just over 40 mph, coming off the (literal, physical) high of Turn 1 through a flat stretch leading to Turn 5. F1 cars push 200 mph on this course, yet I felt like I was flying. It took us multiple laps to really get the hang of turns like the hairpin Turn 12, even at those slower speeds. And how pros race two or three cars wide on something like Turn 15 is beyond me; it felt hard to fit even that many bikes with anything resembling genuine momentum.

Bike Night has been a staple around here since 2017, and the event even successfully navigated the pandemic last fall. It has consistently attracted a few hundred riders every night for a reason. So, if you’re in Austin next week or sometime this September, know you don’t get the opportunity for a ride like this very often. If you go, just remember to start the night in your lowest gear available.

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