On the surface, road racing may seem like a chance to chat with friends while riding bikes and wearing silly outfits. At its core, road racing is indeed a simple scramble to make it from point A to point B ahead of your rivals, but in actuality it’s a sport full of intrigue, strategy, sacrifice, pain, and glory. When 100 or so super-competitive, ultra-fit athletes are sent out on a ride with the promise of fame and paychecks for the winners, the result is anything but simple.
Enjoying the spectacle of a road race requires knowing what to look for, and why to look for it. Although the recipe for victory may seem as rudimentary as pedaling harder than your competitors until you win—which would actually guarantee an early defeat—there are layers of intricacy to decipher.
First and foremost, cycling is a team sport. Just as an American football team can’t hand the ball to their star running back and stand aside, a cycling team can’t expect their fastest rider to outsprint the entire field from start to finish on their own. Like the running back, the cyclist needs people to block for them, create distractions, and take their turn when the star needs a rest. Each team has their own objectives for every race, which are dictated by the course, personnel, strength of the competition, and goals for the overall season.
One-Day Races vs. Stage Races
In cycling, there are two general types of races: one-day and stage. One day races last a single day, and are often point to point. Some of the famous one-day Spring Classics may sound familiar: Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, and the Tour of Flanders are a few. In one-day races, the primary concern is overall placing: stronger teams look for victory from their star rider—referred to as the leader—while other teams may be satisfied with a spot in the top ten or a high team ranking. One day races tend to favor sprinters and puncheur-type riders. The other common type of race is a multi-day, or stage race.
Stage races usually span three to nine days. The three longest stage races, referred to as the Grand Tours (Giro di Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana) have 21 stages, with two to three rest days of no competition. Starting in May, the Giro di Italia is the first of the Grand Tours on the calendar, followed by the Tour de France in July, and the Vuelta a Espana in August.
In stage races, the strongest riders in the peloton will be riding for General Classification (GC), or overall standing. Like one-day races, shorter stage races are often most compatible with puncheur-style riders. The Grand Tours, with many days of brutal climbs and multiple time trials, favor riders who are strong climbers and adequate to strong time triallists. In addition to GC standing, stage races often feature Secondary Classifications as well, including the top-ranked Sprinter and Climber. Each competition has a jersey associated with it; the Overall/GC jersey is yellow, the Sprinter’s jersey is green or red, the Climber’s Jersey is polka dotted or blue. Earning the right to wear one of the jerseys even once is a notable accomplishment. Each day, the current leaders in each category don their jerseys and head out to defend their standing .
Race tactics are often complicated, but can usually be distilled down to this: allow the team leader to spend as little energy as possible until the finish. As mentioned previously, however, there are different objectives for each team. Some may be looking for an overall GC win, while some teams may be looking for specific stage wins. Others may simply want to place riders in breakaways to gain exposure for their sponsor.
Breakaways (small groups of riders ahead of the main peloton) have to work much harder than the larger peloton; the more riders in a group the more effort is shared and the faster the overall speed of the group. Usually, breakaways are allowed to toil ahead of the energy-saving peloton until the race approaches the finish. Then the peloton, driven by the teams with riders likely to contest for a win, will increase their pace to catch the breakaway. Usually, teams work together to catch breakaways, except the teams who have riders in the break: they want the break to stay away to give their rider(s) a shot at winning. Every once in a while a breakaway sticks, and the rider or riders within are rewarded with a chance at victory. Occasionally, riders will pull off a stage win or maintain a long breakaway without the help of their teammates, but for consistent stage wins or high GC placing, a strong team working together is required to shoulder most of the burden.
Mountain stages are where the GC contenders on the Grand Tours assert themselves. In order to save energy for a strong finish, the team leaders ride behind their teammates, letting them do the hard work of setting pace and chasing down threatening breakaways. One by one, the teammates, known as domestiques, use up their resources in pulling their team leader along and eventually drift to the back of the pack as the race unfolds. Ideally, the team leader will still be fresh and ready to contest the finish by the end of the stage, thanks to the domestiques. Often, the last climb of the day will see only the race leaders together at the front, attacking each other by surging ahead when they sense their opponents tiring.
Sprinters also rely on their teammates to help secure victories. Like the climbers, sprinters will spend the majority of the race conserving energy. At a distance deemed appropriate, the team will attempt to line up and increase the pace of the peloton. One by one, the domestiques will expend themselves and peel off the front of the line. The leader will ride behind their teammates or other riders until they are within optimal distance of the finish line, at which point the leader will launch their sprint. From there, it’s simply a drag race to the finish line among the strongest sprinters left at the front. Sprint finishes tend to be dangerous and closely contested, and are thus the most exciting to watch.
Jersey Competitions of the Grand Tours
In the competition for the Leader’s (GC) Jersey (Maglia Rosa of the Giro, Maillot Jaune of the Tour, and Maillot Rojo of the Vuelta), ranking is determined by elapsed time. The fastest riders are placed first. Time bonuses (which decrease overall time) are sometimes given to stage winners. Often the true race favorites don’t begin wearing the leader’s jersey until after the initial stages of each Tour are complete. This is because the first several stages tend to be flat, allowing the peloton to stay together resulting in a bunch sprint at the finish. This is where the sprint specialists find their glory, while GC hopefuls are sheltered by their teams away from the leading edge of the peloton. When groups of cyclists finish together, they are all given the same time, no matter where they finish within the group. Thus, there is no penalty for a GC contender to finish in 100th place if the peloton has stayed together.
The Sprint Competition (Green Jersey for the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, Red Jersey of the Giro di Italia) aims to reward the most consistent rider. Points are awarded for predetermined stage finishes (ones likely to result in a bunch sprint), and intermediate sprints sprinkled throughout the day’s course. For sprinters, the Sprint Competition is a coveted trophy, as they usually cannot contend for the overall GC competition.
Next, the King of the Mountains Jersey, or Mountains Competition, (Polka Dot Jersey of the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, and Blue Jersey of the Giro di Italia) rewards the most consistent climber. Points are awarded to the first riders to summit pre-designated climbs, with the harder climbs being worth more points. Climbs are ranked by category, from Category 4 to Category 1, with an additional Hors Categorie (Beyond Category) ranking for the toughest climbs. Rank depends on several factors, including steepness, length, and location within the stage.
Finally, the Tour and the Giro, but not the Vuelta, award the Best Young Rider with the White Jersey. This award is bestowed upon the rider with the fastest aggregate time who is under 25 years old.
Although this post is weighted toward the Grand Tours, the tactics described are the same for one-day races. Now it’s time for you to turn your newly discerning eye to the next race on the calendar. Instead of getting lost in the mass of jerseys and helmets, look closer and watch which teams are gathering near the front of the peloton. Figure out who has the best chance of a sprint victory by how big their lead out train is. Cheer for the breakaways as they furiously work to stay separated from the pack in a desperate attempt for glory. Enjoy competitive road cycling for the challenging, dynamic, cerebral sport it is.
Liege-Bastogne-Leige: April 24 in Belgium
Giro di Italia: May 6-May 29 in Italy
Tour of California: May 15-May 22 in California, USA
Tour de France: July 2-July 24 in France