Encyclingpedia: Road Cycling
Just as its name implies, the discipline of road cycling takes place on paved roadways. Considered to be the most traditional and popular form of bike racing, road cycling takes on many different forms. Cycling events contested on the road include time trials, road races, stage races, criteriums, omniums, team time trials, and circuit races. The Olympic Games feature two of these events: road race and time trial.
Road races are team-oriented, mass-start events which typically feature a field of 150-180 riders. Teams are generally made up of eight to 10 riders, except at the Olympic Games where team sizes are limited to a maximum of five for men and four for women.
Road races generally take place on public roads and can be point-to-point races or multiple circuits of a loop anywhere from 5 to 25 miles in length.
During a road race, team members work together to gain an advantage over other riders, usually designating one person as team leader. The team leader is determined prior to the race and can be based on several factors including the course’s terrain, a rider’s fitness level, and the competition. The leader’s teammates will help in any way possible from fetching food and water to giving up a wheel or their bicycle in the event of a crash or mechanical failure. Throughout most of the race, a team’s leader will ride in the draft of a teammate, never facing the wind head-on unless absolutely necessary.
Behind the peloton, a caravan follows the race. The caravan typically consists of race officials, team cars, media and VIP cars, neutral support vehicles, and medical personnel. Each team is allowed one car per caravan in which the team director sits and advises his athletes. A team mechanic also sits in the caravan car, ready to service a rider with equipment if he or she suffers a flat tire, a crash, or any other mechanical failure.
Individual Time Trials
Often called “The Race of Truth,” the time trial pits individuals against the clock instead of against each other. It’s the most basic form of competitive cycling and the rules are simple: the athlete with the fastest time over a given distance is the winner.
Like road races, the time trial usually takes place on public roads and can be a point-to-point race or multiple laps of a circuit.
In a race against the clock, results are often determined by fractions of a second. And since there are no team tactics and riders don’t have the benefit of drafting off each other, riders seek out every aerodynamic advantage they can. The time trial features the most technologically-advanced equipment such as carbon fiber disc wheels, lightweight components, teardrop-shaped aerodynamic helmets, one-piece skinsuits, and special handlebars which allow a rider to get into a more aerodynamic position.
Riders start one-by-one at specific intervals, usually one minute, by descending down a small start ramp onto the course.
Stage races are multi-day races that string together several stages. The rider with the lowest cumulative time after all stages are complete is declared the winner. The most popular example of a stage race is the Tour de France – a 21-day race every July that is considered to be the most prestigious competitive cycling event in the world.
This grueling combination of events, which can be as short as two days or as long as three weeks, usually incorporates both road races and time trials. A small local stage race might include a time trial on Saturday and a road race on Sunday. The Tour de France typically includes a time trial prologue plus 20 other road race and time trial stages.
Following each day’s competition a leader’s jersey (usually yellow in color) is awarded to the rider with the lowest cumulative time to designate the current leader of the race.
Because time trials and mountain stages are typically the deciding factors in major stage races, riders who excel at those two specialties are often times considered major contenders for overall victories in stage races. For riders who aren’t all-around specialists, strong climbers, or strong time trialists, an individual stage win is also considered a prestigious accomplishment.
In addition to the overall winner, most stage races also incorporate other competitions and award jerseys to the best sprinter, best climber, best young rider, most aggressive rider, and the best team.
Because the overall winner is determined solely by cumulative time, it’s possible to win a stage race without actually winning an individual stage.
Although not an internationally-recognized discipline, criterium racing is purely American and one of the most common forms of competitive cycling in the United States. Designed for spectators, criteriums are races held on short circuits, typically in an urban setting.
These fast-paced events are usually 25-60 miles in length and last between one and two hours. The relatively short, closed course features several corners and gives spectators the opportunity to view most of the race. In criteriums, the pace is fast from the gun as riders can average up to 30 miles per hour for the duration of the race. Quick acceleration and keen bike handling skills are paramount to success.
These races often end in field sprints, and typically a sprinter with the fastest finishing kick will win.
In a criterium, if a rider crashes, suffers a flat tire or other mechanical failure, he or she can enter the pit area where a team mechanic has one lap to make a quick repair. After the fix, the rider is reinserted into the same position he or she was before the mishap.
It is important for a rider to remain near the front of the peloton as the first few riders can take a corner with little or no braking. Those further back jockey for position into the turn, brake and then sprint to catch back up. The resulting “accordion” effect takes its toll on riders who navigate hundreds of turns throughout the course of a race.
Omniums are similar to stage races but instead recognize an overall winner based on the accumulation of points instead of lowest cumulative time. Following each stage, a rider is awarded points corresponding to his of her stage finish. Following the completion of the last stage, the rider with the most points is declared the winner.
The term “circuit race” is generally used to describe a race that covers several laps of a circuit that is more than a mile, but less than five miles. The course is longer than that of a criterium, but shorter than loops used in a road race.
Team Time Trials
Like the individual time trial, the team time trial is simply a race against the clock with teams racing one at a time and working together to complete the course in the fastest possible time. In a team time trial, the science of drafting plays a major role as teammates take turns at the front of the paceline. When a rider “takes a pull,” the rest of his or her teammates fall in behind and expend up to 30% less energy to achieve the same speed. When the lead rider is unable to maintain the same pace, he or she rotates to the back of the paceline as a “fresh” rider takes over the pacesetting.