When a race is in full flight, no sport can provide the mix of drama, speed, human endeavour, teamwork and fanatical crowds as Professional Cycle Racing. At other times, no sport has done as much to shoot itself in the foot.
The basic idea for a cycle race is to complete a set course in the shortest time possible. These races can be short time trials lasting an hour or so, one-day races or even three-week tours.
Riders compete in teams where each rider has a different role - some are there to win, whereas some riders are there to help.
Types of Races
These make up the bulk of the season and are simple affairs in which the aim is to get from the start town to the end town a hundred or so miles away before anybody else. Unlike stage races where there is an overall leader whose team is expected to hold the race together, classics are liable to split apart and leave groups of riders spread across the countryside.
Most classics are called the Grand Prix of So-and-So. Some, which have more established routes, such as the Paris Tours and the Liège-Bastogne-Liège are known by their start and end points. One or two single-day races, such as the Tour of Flanders, call themselves tours in order to try and pretend they are big.
A lot of the major classics take place in the spring. Some of the biggest are now referred to as Monuments. These are the Paris-Roubaix, the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, The Tour of Flanders1, the Tour of Lombardy and the Milan San-Remo.
The Paris-Roubaix, or The Hell of the North, is the classic with the highest profile. Its route across Northern France into Belgium is designed to try and use every single stretch of cobbles in that region. Uneven road surfaces with their increased incidents of punctures and crashes, mixed with loads of mud mean this is always spectacular. Well, you try and work out how to get 150 riders travelling down a wide stretch of tarmac at 30mph (50km/h) onto a cobbled path - only about seven feet (two metres) wide (2m) and lined by puddles and potholes - without there being accidents.
Some of the riders who are believe they are potential winners of the Grand Tours do not compete in many of these races per season, partly because they want to peak at the right time, but mostly because they want to avoid injury.
The Grand Tours
There are three Grand Tours, which are the big stage races. To win a stage race you do not have to cross the line first; you have to have completed every stage in the least accumulated time.
The three Grand Tours are The Tour De France (TdF), The Giro D'Italia and the Vuelta a España2. The Tour De France, lasts for three weeks and is seen as the highlight of the racing year. The other two only last for two weeks each, though unlike The Tour they don't have rest days. In the past, many of the top riders competed in all three, or perhaps tried to win at least two in one season, but recently where riders have concentrated their entire seasons' efforts on one race, it makes it difficult to hold peak form for both races and the time in-between.
Grand Tours have a mixture of flat stages, mountain stages and time trials. A winner has to be able to hold his own in the latter two and manage to get through the flat stages without injuring themselves. There are normally a few other competitions going on in a grand tour, such as the most consistent finisher (the sprinter's competition) or the King of the Mountains (the climber's competition).
It should be noted that Giro and Vuelta are translations of the French Tour, which means 'lap'. Most other stage races call themselves 'Tours' in reference to the Tour de France.
Most stage races have at least one, probably two3 time trials. Known as the Race of Truth, these set one man against the clock. There is no hiding in the bunch and no team-mates to help you out. It will make or break a race.
Riders wearing aerodynamic, skin-tight clothing start a set time, normally three minutes apart. Traditionally, the leading rider or defending champion starts last. If a rider is caught up and overtaken by somebody who started behind them, they have to drop back to a distance where they aren't gaining any aerodynamic/physiological help by following the quicker rider. This has led to penalties incurred by passed riders when the rider catching them misreads the stage without gathering the power to ride away. If they haven't got the energy to re-overtake, the rider behind has to keep dropping back, which further ruins their time.
Lots of stage races start with a short prologue time-trial so as to put a few time-gaps into the field to begin with.
Team Time Trials
These are spectacular feats of teamwork; however, they only appear at most twice in a season. It is run occasionally in The Tour De France and in one other newly-introduced, dedicated event. The idea is that the team of nine riders race in formation along a time trial course. The idea is that at least five riders, including the leader, cross the line together and set a time and the weaker members of the squad having done their job earlier on follow them in, setting their own time. Since the TdF is the only place that it is normally seen (and then in a cut back form where time gaps are limited) most teams rarely practise it. A World Tram Time Trial competition was introduced as an attempt to popularise the discipline; however, it is only likely to be used for a Tour De France Warm Up.
The Other Stage Races
Most countries have their own tours. These generally last between a week and nine days, but they can be shorter. There are tours in South Africa, Asia, Australia and the US at the start of the season where the weather in Europe is not fit for cycling. In the European spring and summer, the roads of Europe are the centre of world cycling.
The Tour of Britain has had a rather patchy existence. It grew out of the Milk Race, which was an amateur event, but had only been run occasionally. The 2004 Tour of Britain was an attempt to try and showcase the sport in a sceptical country. It suffered from two major problems: firstly it was run at the same time as the Giro; secondly the laws in Great Britain are not as effective as some in other European countries for closing off roads, hence riders had to navigate around parked cars. Occasionally, cars ignored the closures and drove along the race route.
Some of the biggest stage races are the ones that take place immediately before the Tour De France. These are the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour of Switzerland. Some riders use them as a warm-up for The TdF and so they attract the biggest names. The Dauphiné is generally seen as what happens when you squeeze all the nasty mountain bits of the Tour De France into one week. The Tour of Switzerland tries to claim that it is the fourth Grand Tour.
The World Championships
The World Championships are single races to decide who will wear the rainbow jerseys dealt out to the world champions of the two different disciplines of road racing and time-trialling. The Road Race is generally a large circuit with enough hills to split up the race a bit, much like a Classic. The Time Trial is very similar to a Time Trial stage in a Stage race.
The World Championships is one of the only places, along with the Olympics, where riders compete in national teams. The winner of the Road Race is allowed to wear the white jersey with rainbow bands on in any road race for the next year. The Time Trial winner can wear it in any time trial. Any previous winner of a world championship, be it on the road or track, can wear the rainbow bands on the arms of their jersey.
If you are going to cycle the distances that are involved in professional cycling, then it is best to ride with the bunch. This bunch is called the Peloton. In most flat races, this is where the majority of the riders will ride and where they will finish. Tucked in behind another rider, you can use less than half the energy of the man at the front because you are sheltered from the wind.
There can be up to 200 people riding in close proximity to each other, where everybody knows their place. The potential race winners stay near the front; the workers roam up and down from the back to the front with water and food; some of the lesser lights hang around the back. There are two main enemies of the Peloton. One is the traffic island: a stationary concrete lump of road engineering that is known for creeping up on an unsuspecting bunch and causing havoc when they have to split to get around it. The other is the nervous, twitchy rider who gets uncomfortably close to other riders and may touch wheels: these are normally Spanish and South American climbers.
If everybody stayed in the Peloton then the only people to win would be the sprinters. So people attack.
The breakaway is when one or more riders zoom off the front of the bunch. A couple of people may choose to join them, but the general reaction is normally to sit back and watch them go up the road.
If a major sprinter or, in a stage race, a potential winner or a person high up on the overall classification joins the breakaway, it will normally fail. When a sprinter joins, the teams of the other sprinters will chase it down, besides the other riders will not want to give them a free ride to the finish. It is a similar circumstance when a high-placed rider joins, all their competitors will have to chase them down. Lance Armstrong used this once to join the break of a man who was a witness in a court case against his friend, thereby wrecking the guy's chance of victory as the break was chased down. Since it was near the end of the Tour De France and the rider was of no threat to Armstrong in the race, it looked like a purely spiteful move from Armstrong.
If a break succeeds in getting clear, the riders working with each other can build up a large lead very quickly. Riders co-operate by taking turns on the front before swinging to the back. In stage races there can be the extra annoyance of the ticket-collector. These are members of the race leaders' team or the team of a sprinter who join the break. They do no work and just sit at the back of the group. They have no interest in seeing the break succeed, but if it does they will be freshest for the final finish.
Breaks may split up when one rider thinks they are much stronger than the rest and that the group is losing time or not working hard enough.
If a break of two or more riders gets to the final few kilometres, things tend to get stupid. The ideal place to make a sprint for the line is from the back of a small bunch (assuming there are around five or less riders), that way you can take everybody by surprise. The problem is that everyone wants to get into that last position, which means that the break slows down as riders try to out-bluff each other. This is great for the Peloton who are probably trying to catch up at high speed. The rider in front will cycle slowly at one side of the road, hoping to tempt the others to ride past them and to catch their back wheels.
A reasonable breakaway can actually be good for most teams in a stage race Peloton. The teams with riders in the breakaway are under no obligation to chase it down, and can in fact ride near the front and try to disrupt the chase. The teams that are expected to control the race, those of the sprinters and the race leader, may let the break take as much as ten minutes before starting to drag them back. With the break so far ahead, they know nobody else will attack. The chase and catch will be timed as close to the finish as possible. This is because the chasers will tend to relax slightly as they catch a break and it is the ideal opportunity for another break.
The Head of the Peloton
You can tell a lot about the race from the shape of the Peloton.
If the front of the race is level across the road then the Peloton is relaxed and moving slowly. When the race speeds up, an arrowhead forms at the front. This is when one rider takes his turn at the front then swings off and joins in further towards the back, out of the wind. This is often used when one or two teams are chasing a breakaway. Another way to see if the Peloton is moving quickly is to look at the tail of the bunch. If they are all strung out then it is moving at a very high speed and people are struggling to keep up.
If there is an arrowhead and the Peleton are riding in a strong crosswind, then the arrowhead will slant across the road. If the wind is coming from the east, the arrowhead will be on the east side then slant towards the west ride of the road. This is so that nobody who isn't actively involved in chasing gets an easy ride out of the wind.
A Professional Team
Professional cycling teams are all sponsored and take their name and livery from their major sponsors. The sponsors can be anything from supermarkets to national lotteries, charities or regional governments. This set-up can be confusing when a sponsor decides to pull out because they haven't got enough money; change their marketing strategy; the major team member retires; or they discover that all their team are doped up on steroids. The team stays together and reappears the next season under another name.
To a lot of sponsors, victories are unimportant, what actually matters is getting the sponsor's name onto the television as much as possible. This is why when a rider wins he is expected to zip up his jersey, sit up and give a two-handed salute as they cross the line, so that photographers can get the best possible shot of the logo!
In most cases, any prize money that a rider wins is shared equally between the squad since at the end of the day, it is a team race. The average team is split into a leader, a sprinter and the domestiques, who have to do the actual work everyday to ensure the sprinter and leader can have the glory. They occasionally have some other specialists to help out.
The Team leaders are the people who are most likely to win. In most teams this is the person who will perform best over the two or three weeks of a grand tour. Sometimes the role of Team Leader goes to a sprinter, especially when the whole team is built around them. When a team has two outstanding candidates for a stage race victory the team leader is often decided on the road by who is in the best position after a week or two of racing.
A lot of teams have a specialist time-triallist. They are very strong and powerful and as well as possibly winning a time trial and getting the race lead, are very useful on flat stages for doing lots of hard work at the front of the main bunch.
Climbers are lightweight riders who have the ability to ride quickly up mountains. They are often known for being able to change pace quickly on slopes and catch people out, this is because they tend to pedal a large rear-gear very quickly when climbing. Climbers have two major roles in a team. The first is to attack and win mountain stages. The second is to help and protect the team leader in the hills. This can be by pacing him when he has been dropped by a group or it could be by trying to use a change of pace in a group to rattle one the other major threats for the race win.
Just because a rider can get up a hill, does not mean they know how to get down them again. Quite a few top climbers are poor descenders, while some of the bigger riders have got the bulk and nerve to get down hills quickly. The skill involved at being able to keep on the (often damp) tarmac while dropping off a mountain at 60mph4 and around hairpin bends on a slick tyre with a contact patch smaller than a fingernail cannot be underestimated.
The acceleration of a true climber as they launch their attack up a mountain is possibly one of the greatest sights in sport. During the rest of a race they try not to be noticed and generally spend the first week of a Grand Tour having accidents and fetching water. For some unknown reason, The Netherlands have produced many great climbers, quite an achievement for a country almost totally lacking in hills.
These are people who normally end up at the top of the classification at the end of a stage race. They have to be able to get over all the mountains still do well on the time trials. After four or five hours in the saddle, many all-rounders are able to climb a mountain as well as a true climber. Most all-rounders use their power to climb hills, preferring to use a small rear-gear and pedal slowly. This means that they are less able to respond to attacks from other riders.
Sprinters are psychologically a cross between a footballer and a racing sidecar passenger. They are as vain and as flashy as the first and as bonkers as the latter. They only have one job, it is to cross the finish line of a flat stage or one day race before anybody else. Over a short distance of a few hundred meters they are the fastest men in the race, able to pump out more power than anybody else, but they can't do it alone.
A typical sprinter will use all their team to get to the finish first. Some of them will be used to make sure all breaks are chased down, then from 3000 or 4000 meters to go the lead-out starts. This is an arrow of four or five riders from the same team who have to keep the pace high enough to stop any attacks. After their stint on the front, they swing off and back into the pack. By 500 meters to go there should only be two team mates left, the lead-out guy who takes the last stretch before swinging off to allow his sprinter to power the final 200 meters to the line.
This is, of course, a myth. While one team is trying to do that, every other team is doing their best to ruin it for them. Some riders will get mixed up in the lead-out train, other teams will launch their own lead out on the other side of the road, whereas some sprinters and their lead-out man prefer to launch from behind the wheel of another sprinter. There will normally be a massive crash as somebody fails to negotiate the final, surprisingly narrow, corner before the line and will take out half a team. In reality, a bunch sprint is 100 meters of all-out, victory-or-nothing, war. Head-butting, elbowing, bottle-throwing and eye-gouging are illegal, but expect to see some leaning and lots of swerving, very close to both other wheels and metal barriers at high speeds.
Sprints in a stage race can be compared with sex. For most of the day you will wonder if they will take place. Then there are a few minutes of foreplay, followed by ten seconds of real action then somebody comes first, is pleased with himself, everybody else is rather disappointed and it is mostly forgotten about by the morning.
Generally sprinters are big riders and therefore struggle to climb anything other than the steps to the podium. This means that they struggle over mountains and have to calculate how slow they can go without missing the time limit.
Flat Race Men/Rouleurs
There are some people who specialise in flattish races, they can cope with the occasional hill and have a decent fast finish. They occasionally get stage victories but mostly do well at the classics. Some of these guys are used as lead-out men by the big sprinters. Other lead-out men are former sprinters who have come to their senses.
These are the loneliest men in the professional Peloton. Their job, especially on flat stages is to breakaway and win the stage on their own. They will be occasionally joined by other riders, which is a problem cause break-away artists are renowned for their poor finishing. In a normal stage race after being stuck on their own for hours, they are caught twenty or thirty minutes from the end and do not have the strength to hang onto the Peloton and finish on their own many minutes behind the field. After having spent the race alone, very few people outside their team will talk to them after having spent the whole of their race chasing them!
There are two people who actually like breakaway artists. The team's sprinter loves them because all the rival teams have spent their race and energy chasing them. Sponsors love them because with the advent of live coverage, they will have a few hours of their logo being in the middle of everybody's screens.
Breakaway artists are incurable optimists. Almost every break they make will be chased down and they will end up finishing twenty minutes behind the rest of the riders, but they will try exactly the same thing the next day.
These are all the riders who are not the team leader, the sprinter5 or in with a chance of winning the day's race. They basically do all the dirty work. If ordered to, they have to chase down all the breaks and drop back if one of their team-mates, especially a leader or sprinter, crashes or punctures, and they have to carry the water bottles from the team car to their team mates. If a leader punctures or breaks their bike, a nearby domestique will swap bikes and wait for a team car to arrive with a spare for themselves.
The Directeur Sportif/Team Managers
These are the team bosses. On the morning before each race they will plan out the strategy for the day, tell everybody what their duties are for the day. They then spend the rest of the day driving around in cars monitoring the race via the radio and yelling at riders.
A team has a large backroom staff. Most have their own cook, a set of masseurs, doctors, mechanics and car drivers.
The professional racing bike is pretty much like a high-specification racing bike that you can buy over the counter. Most riders have frames custom designed for them. The components such as wheels, gears, brakes and such are all supplied by some of the minor team sponsors. By looking at the route profile before the race, a rider will decide with their mechanics exactly what gears they want on their bike. They will only generally require five or six chain rings on the back and two on the front, to keep weight down. Most riders also have different frames depending on the profiles of stage. On flat races a sprinter's bike will be a bit stronger to cope with their pedal power. On hilly stages, the bikes will be lighter so it is easier to get up a hill.
In the late 1980s Greg Lemond started experimenting with improving the aerodynamics for riding time trials. A number of different handlebar positions were tried to get the best cycling posture. By the mid-1990s time trial bikes had evolved into roadgoing versions of the track bikes that Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree used to break the hour record. These bikes had a thick down-tube6 and no cross-tube7. They were eventually banned from road cycling. Modern time trial bikes look roughly like road bikes but with more aerodynamic frames and aerodynamic handlebars. The rear wheels are normally solid aerodynamic discs while the front wheels only have four or five plastic spokes. These bikes are too unstable, uncomfortable and vulnerable to crosswinds for riding with a bunch of riders but they are ideal for riding solo against the clock for a short period of time.
Other Race Vehicles
In a professional race, cyclists are not the only thing on the road. There are swarms of motorbikes and cars on the road. Normally a lot of the vehicles are supplied by sponsors.
Most teams have a number of cars with mechanics and team managers in them; they carry spare bikes on their roofs. There are also neutral service cars with spare wheels aboard. The race officials and referees also have cars with which they follow the race and occasional give sponsors and guests a close up view of the race. There is normally a car so a race doctor as well. Some motorbikes are ridden my journalists and cameramen, some are official that provide riders with up to date timing information. There is also a van that follows the race to pick up retired riders. The big tours have a publicity caravan of strangely-shaped cars giving away freebees in advance of the race.
Crashes are almost a certainty in cycle racing. They can be caused by spectators, scenery, the road surface, rain, unexpected cliffs, other race vehicles, traffic calming measures such as traffic islands or just by one rider hitting another. Crashes are normally serious and the chances of injury are high. Over the past decade it has become compulsory for riders to wear helmets but that is the only protection they wear. All their clothing is thin and skintight, so hitting the tarmac will lead to cuts and grazes. The most common injury is to the collar bone. In a crash, most riders are launched headfirst and they put their arms out to protect their face; this regularly leads to broken bones.
The Protour is the season-long competition to find out who the best rider is. This used to be the World Cup, which was limited to single day events, but was changed because many of the top World Cup riders avoided the big Tours because they couldn't get any points in it.
The Protour points are as follows.
- 100 points for winning the Tour de France, going down to 2 points for 20th place. A stage win is worth 10 points, 2nd place 5 and 3rd is worth 3.
- 85 points for winning the Giro or Vuelta, going down to 1 point for 20th place. A stage win is worth 8 points, 2nd place 4 and 3rd is worth 2.
- 50 points for winning any other stage race, going down to 2 points for 10th place. A stage win is worth 3 points, 2nd place 2 and 3rd is worth 1.
- 50 points for winning a Monument one day race, going down to 2 points for 10th place.
- 40 points for winning any other one day race, going down to 1 points for 10th place.
How to Watch a Race
Now you know what is happening, its time to watch a race.
Since cricket chased cycling off Channel 4, there has been no prime-time terrestrial coverage of the sport in the UK. Currently, the Channel 4 commentary pair of Phil Ligett and Paul Sherwin, the journalist and ex-professional respectively, are found on various digital ITV backwaters for the Tour De France and possibly one or two other minor races. They tend to provide highlights, but on weekends show the later part of a Tour De France stage live. The pair also provide commentary for Ttelevision networks in other countries.
Eurosport provides coverage of the Grand Tours and many of the Classics. They tend to use David Duffield for the English language commentaries, a man who in a previous life organised the naked bike shoot for the cover of the Queen single 'Bicycle Race'. Duffield has spent many years being locked in a small room talking to himself and is prone to heading off on thirty-minute rambles about a garden or statue that he caught a glance off on the television picture. This can come in useful as Eurosport sometimes shows entire seven-hour stages live.
Visiting a Race
When you go to watch a race, get there early. The entire race route will be closed off hours in advance and in many cases people camp overnight to get their spot.
Where to Watch
There are certain places to watch a race that are better than others.
- Going uphill on hills and mountains - The riders are going slower and there is always action. On the bigger races there can be up to half a million people lining a mountain road; this makes it difficult to actually see the riders.
- The finish - This is about the only place where there are PA systems to keep spectators informed of what is happening as people race towards them. On a flat stage, unless you get a breakaway, all you are likely to see is twenty seconds of riders going past at high speed.
- A stage town - If you can find a town that the race passes though, then for major races, especially the Tour De France, it is a great place to watch the race. Most towns will try to catch the camera with local bands, flower displays and acrobats.
There are also places that are not as good.
- Going downhill on hills and mountains - The riders are moving very quickly and so you will only get brief glimpses off them before they plunge off a cliff.
- The first twenty or thirty kilometres - These are often not run as a race so all the riders will be dawdling along waiting for the first attack.
Things Not To Do
- Never forget that cyclists travel much quicker than you think they do. Taking this in mind, do not step into the road to take a photo. There are numerous incidents of crashes where spectators and - in one infamous event - policemen have tried to take photos and knocked down a rider.
- Never run alongside a rider as they go up a hill. It makes them uncomfortable and frankly it doesn't make them feel good about themselves after a hundred miles of racing to see themselves being outrun by a fat bloke in a Spanish flag. The likely outcomes of running next to a rider are being hit in the face by the rider, falling over and causing a crash or being run over by a following motorbike.
- Don't leave things overhanging the road. There are numerous cases of riders falling off or being injured by things such as handbags or large novelty hands getting caught in the bike or hitting the rider.
- Don't pour your bottled water over a rider as they are going up the hill. It comes as a shock and is not helping them. Riders regularly retire from races having caught colds from becoming ill after having water poured over them. They have a team car just behind them to deal out the water.
- Don't try and nick souvenirs off the bike after the race, that is stealing.
No Entry on the sport of cycling can be complete without mentioning the blight of the sport. For decades there have been cyclists who feel they have to cheat to compete. Back in the 1960s, the British Cyclist Tom Simpson died on the climb of a mountain due to dehydration: he was doped up to his eyeballs on amphetamines at the time. Sadly this was a lesson that a lot of people have since ignored.
In theory the doping controls are very strict. Even caffeine is on the banned substance list. This is fairly amusing since over the last few decades Coca-Cola, Gatorade and Café De Columbia Coffee have been big sponsors, yet a rider can be banned for taking some of their products. The problem is that the glory of winning is very tempting and the drug companies are normally one step ahead of the testers.
Recently it has seemed like there is almost always a drug controversy around the Tour de France. This is because it is the highest profile event in the sport, so police forces around Europe will time their cases to get into the headlines when the world is watching. When the TdF has crossed into another country, even more fun can be in store. The Belgian police once stopped a team car finding vast amounts of doping equipment. The Italian Police, never ones to avoid being heavy-handed, have raided hotels at midnight and marched riders off to police stations. While the efforts to weed out cheats are welcome, it can often be seen as police forces just trying to grab a bit of the limelight.
- How do riders go to the toilet?
- How do riders know what is happening in the race?
- Why do riders shave their legs?
- How do riders eat and drink on the road?
Normally they drop off the back of the bunch and use the bushes in a quiet spot. It is bad form for there to be an attack when a major rider is relieving himself. When a rider is on the attack, they may 'refill' their drinks bottle while on the move before throwing it away. This will make a rather smelly souvenir for a spectator!
Nowadays most riders are in contact with their team manager via radio. Official motorbikes will give out time-checks to breakaways.
Firstly it is more aerodynamic, secondly because it makes it easier to massage, thirdly the skin is much easier to treat after an accident. There is a pre-time trial tradition that riders do not shave for.
There are designated feed stations on the road where members of the team staff hand out satchels containing energy bars and pieces of fruit. Drinks are normally supplied by the team cars. A domestique normally drops back to collect bottles for the whole team. Riders can store some bottles on their bike, a few in pockets on their jersey, and may even ride holding another couple of bottles. Riders in breakaways normally have a team car with them and can collect the bottles straight from them. Bottle hand-overs are monitored by race officials very carefully as riders can get pushed along by holding onto a bottle while the team car accelerates.