This is the one area I’m following the “wait and see” motto. Cycling is a sport that can be as expensive or economical as you make it. For example, right now I’m just going to be using my running shoes rather then invest in clip-less because I'm still learning their advantages and what I need to look for within my tight budget. Thankfully, I invested in a great Schwinn bike last year when I found my perfect frame size (woman’s small – next to impossible to find!) on sale. If you don’t have a bike yet, my best advice to you is to go to your local shop and ask the professionals what exactly you need (basic-no frills) for what you want to do, and if they know of any used bikes available. Last year a friend of mine was shopping around for a new road bike after his was stolen and after looking around the store for a new one, ended up buying one of the mechanics used ones off him for a great deal. Since he was getting it from a bike mechanic, he knew it was in good shape, and got a free tune up.
When you are purchasing a new bike, make sure they include a "bike fit". This is more then just adjusting the height of your seat. I've been told adjusting anything on your bike by centimeters can completely change the feel, and since you'll be booking some serious mileage in the upcoming months, avoiding chronic injuries is a must! The most important thing is that you train on whatever bike you will be racing with. Bikes have very different feels, and you don’t want to be thrown off your game race day by introducing a new piece of equipment.
Helmet is a must, easy to find, and shouldn’t be too much. As for the clothes, tops can be the basic wicking tank paired with bike shorts. I’m still not sure about the padded bike shorts versus not padded. I already had a pair of all-sport capri tights I’ve been using, and I would be lying if I said my derrière was not a tad soar the next day, but I don’t know how much the padding will actually help, and when in doubt hold onto the money and wait.
I'll be attending a couple free bike clinics this next month, so keep posted for updates (read: what they talk me into buying).