Understand Bike Racing In 10 Easy Steps Guide To Watching A Bicycle Race
Jeremy Powers: Of course we’re biased, but cycling is definitely one of the most exciting sports to watch. The sprint finishes, mountain duels and fast crazy racing. It’s a little bit of a wild sport at times, which is part of its charm. It’s not like anything else that’s out there, but there are a few essential things to know if you want to really understand racing. Today, we’re going to go over some of the ins and outs so that you can truly appreciate the beauty of bike racing in all of its glory.
Starting off, the big thing to understand about racing is drafting. Drafting dictates most of the tactics within the sport, and it explains why racing evolves in a certain way. Drafting also known as riding behind another rider when they’re in their slip stream, basically breaking the wind, reduces drag on the rider behind them, anywhere from 25% to 50%. Simply put, if you’re following another cyclist, you’re saving a ton of energy.
This is why you see riders sharing turns on the front over the course of a race, and this is why teams have so many riders to protect their leader during a race. Bike racing is basically a constant battle to hide from the wind and save your energy more than your competitors, so you can use it when you need it the most, which is usually at the finish. There are various tactics and techniques employed to draft. Hiding deep within the peloton, making sure that your team’s riding at the front so you can sit behind them at a consistent pace, or simply refusing to come to the front, pretending that you’re too tired, or that you need to take some extra time to eat or have a gel is a common tactic.
Basically, understanding the simple point that riding behind another rider saves a ton of energy, you will quickly understand a fair amount of the finer parts of bike racing. Sprinting looks wild as hell on TV, and in real life it’s even scarier. Riders everywhere, on the rivet, really high speeds, giving a lot of prestige at the finish line, glory, and there’s just a lot of “grrr” when you’re out there. The sprint will begin long before the finish line. Sometimes up to 50 kilometers before the finish with teams beginning to organize and get in good position for the closing kilometers.
Each rider is going to have a specific job as to where they will sit on the front. No team wants to start too early as every effort counts. Everyone tries to wait as long as possible before hitting the front to keep as many riders as possible fresh for the finish. In the last kilometers before the finish line, the pace gets increasingly more and more fast. It’s like charging wolves wanting to be at the front of the pack. Team riders are going all out to be able to stay at the front for 10, 20, maybe even 30 seconds as they drop one by one turning and burning until their sprinter is the only one left as they launch for the line. Hopefully, the team has timed it to perfection not too far out to the finish line. This is where things get a lot more complicated.
Drafting benefits the rider behind. We went over that, but in a crosswind, this is where air from the side is coming across and riders are going to have to start to shuffle out. They call this an “echelon,” and basically it means that if you’re going to get any shelter, then you’re going to have to be slightly behind the rider in front of you, but off to the side, because the wind’s coming from the side. The road is only so wide, and that means that if the road’s completely wide open, 10, maybe 15 riders are going to get shelter, but then the rest of the crew is going have to push a massive amount of power or else they’re going be dropped, or they can start to move out and start a new pace line behind that pace line. Basically, they have to work together in order to keep pace. If they don’t, tough luck. That’s when things get hard real quick, which is where the term “suffering in the gutter” comes from. So, the next time you see a race split to complete bits, you’ll know why. The finish line is obviously where the winners win, but earlier in the race there are key points in which the riders need to be at the front four.
Tight bends, narrow climb, super dangerous roads with potholes, and all kinds of road debris all over the place. There could even be a cobbled stretch. These are all reasons that racers need to be at the front to avoid a crash and stay out of trouble. Think of the bunch like one big long string. Getting caught out at the back of these during those key moments, you’ll not only be far behind the bunch, but you’re going to get this whiplash or yo-yo effect basically where the peloton stretches out, and that’s going to mean that you’re going to have to put out a ton of energy just to get back and keep pace with those at the front. This is why racing may suddenly kick off midway through a race or a stage with teams battling each other to stay at the front during the key moments. Of course, this is a skill for the team managers of the riders knowing where these key points in the race might go down, which is why older, more experienced riders are so valued in professional cycling, even if they aren’t physically at their peak still.
The race winner, of course, takes home the big prize, but there are other prizes in cycling. Jerseys are often awarded to riders from different classifications within the race. In a multi-day stage race, you will wear a jersey if you are leading a certain classification. Let’s take The Tour de France for example, there is the polka dot jersey of the leader of the mountains classification. There’s the green jersey for the points of the sprint classification. There’s the white jersey for the young rider classification, and then there’s the yellow jersey which designates the race leader. In The Giro d’Italia, there even used to be a jersey for the last placed rider overall.
We can’t forget about national champ jerseys. These are special jerseys that are awarded to riders who win their respective national championship title, which is always a one-day race containing riders only from that country. Now, whoever wins on the day gets to wear that custom national champ jersey that signifies their country for the entire year until the next time that that race takes place. Now, riders have a ton of pride in where they come from, so to represent their country at the highest level wearing that jersey is a privilege that’s never taken lightly. Now, we also can’t forget about the world champion jersey, which is probably the most prestigious jersey in the entire peloton. The jersey is always white with the rainbow bands across the chest.
Winning the world championships is easily probably the most prestigious award in the entire sport of cycling outside of a grand tour. All of these jerseys make for a very colorful peloton, giving race announcers and fans something to look at and talk about for years to come. You may have heard the term “domestique.” Now, for example, Canadian rider Michael Woods just recently signed for the team Israel Start-Up Nation, as Chris Froome multiple Tour de France winner and stage racer as his super domestique for next season. Now, this doesn’t mean that Woodsy is going to be going around and doing Chris’s laundry at the house. Team leaders need trusted help that they can rely on in races and in the mountains.
Domestiques will keep them out of the wind and tactically assist them during racing, sometimes covering moves, and countering moves for example. Super domestiques need to be as good a rider as their team leader. They just don’t need to go for the win at the end of the stage, or deal with the pressure of being a general classification rider, which can sometimes be immense. A domestique will spend energy where race leaders save it. They carry bottles, food. They even stop for the toilet with their leader. Most GCN presenters, at some point or another, were a good domestique. So, we know a thing or two about getting bottles and the tough work.
Anyways, there’s no glory with this job, but if you do it well, you will have a long and valued career inside the peloton and in the sport. Socks. With all this serious racing talk, we thought we’d note one part of bike racing that is completely off the radar. There is a body called the UCI, which is the Union Cyclist International, and that’s the sports governing body. They basically write all the rules and oversee the racing that’s carried out and make sure that it’s done fairly. One of their rules that they have is that you can’t wear socks that come up further than the midpoint of your calf when you’re racing. There is a reason for some rules, but there’s also reasons that are best left to the imagination, but it just highlights that you don’t need to understand some of cycling’s finer points to enjoy watching bike racing. The infamous time cut.
Now, if you’re dropped in a race, you can’t just simply trot along and pick up your finishing medal. In every race, there is a time cut. In stage races, it’s very important to understand. Often, it’s between 10% and 25% of the winner’s time. There is a little bit of a buffer, which normally ends up equating to about 25 to 50 minutes of extra finishing time after the race winner. Finish outside of this buffer, you’re out of the race. Done. In grand tours, this is why the last group on the road in the big mountain stages gets so much attention. Sometimes the heavier riders and the sprinters have to battle just as hard as the race leaders to finish inside the time cut. Otherwise, they’re out of the race and they won’t be able to contest sprints later in the stage race. Now we need to talk about breakaways. Breakaways are the small group of riders who escape early in the race and lead for most of the day before sometimes being swept up by the chasing bunch towards the finish line. Breakaways happen for a bunch of different reasons, but most of the time riders and teams seek publicity by getting off the front and getting TV time while the cameras are rolling and the rest of the peloton is in the back.
It also helps to have a breakaway out in the lead of the race for a while so that teams can control the race. Attacks are typically discouraged while a breakaway is out ahead. The teams will typically ride tempo at the front, but not reel the break back in too early. No one also wants to attack and then be out in no man’s land in the middle of the break and the peloton, because truly, it’s just a waste of energy. Of course, breakaways sometimes don’t get caught at the line, and they take it all the way to the finish for a big victory from a person that typically wouldn’t have expected to take a win on the day. We need to talk about the unwritten rules inside the cycling peloton. There’s a little bit of, let’s say, technically things that are against the rules. We heard about the socks earlier which are bizarre, but those are in the rule book, but then there’s a bunch of things that we turn a blind eye to, given the circumstances.
One of the things, getting a draft off the back of a team car. Technically, it’s illegal, it’s banned, but if you crashed or had a bad mechanical, then it’s pretty much a fair game and considered amongst the entire group to be okay, to get in the slipstream of a team car to get back into the peloton. There’s now a commissaire or a judge who oversees the race and will enforce the rules when necessary. However, the most experienced rider in the peloton or the bunch will become the unofficial voice of the peloton. If there’s a bad crash, this rider will sometimes call a race to a halt to make sure that everyone is dealt with and okay. Other teams will also sometimes help riders that get into trouble as well, either giving them a spare bottle or a tow back into the bunch if they’re in trouble. It’s kind of like if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Everyone’s friends in pro cycling, kind of? Hopefully, that’s cleared up some of the nuance and ins and outs of bike racing. Truthfully, it can be very confusing. Hopefully, this hasn’t confused things further. Cycling is a totally wild sport, but when you truly understand it, it is super beautiful and fun to watch. We’d love to hear from you. Let us know down in the comments what you learned from this video, what you didn’t know, something that you might like to know for a future video. I want to thank you all so much for watching, and we’ll see you next time.