Was like was, race is race. (Three-time World Champion
Peter Sagan’s analysis of the day’s stage)
TV interviewer talking to sprinter Mark Cavendish before a race:
“So what’s your team’s strategy today?”
Cavendish: “I’m not going to tell you that!”
A bike race can be a strange and intimidating sub-culture to a new-comer—like being dropped in the Casbah without a translator. Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of your experience. First we’ll talk about attending a live race; then we’ll talk about watching racing on TV.
There are six basic bike racing formats for bikes like ours: road races, time trials, cyclo-cross races, criteriums (not “criteria”), circuit races, and stage races. Each of these formats provides a different experience for the spectator. I’m not including track racing, which takes place on a track oval, like stock car racing, is often indoors, and is generally ignored by the American cycling community except when the summer Olympics are on.
Road races: as the name implies, they’re races on public roads, covering 50 to 120 miles, usually loops so the start line is also the finish line. It’s the worst format for seeing the actual racing. You stand at the start/finish line and see the riders leave, or finish, or perhaps you drive to a point on the route and wait there until the riders come by, which they do once. So you see the action for a minute or two out of 4 or 5 hours of racing. It’s like watching a football game and only seeing one play. Add to this that the start/finish line of any big-time race is jammed with spectators, often ten people deep, and race organizers like to fence off the start/finish line and allow only big wigs into the area, so it’s almost impossible to get a clear view of a start or a finish unless you’re willing to stake out your spot along the fence hours before. In my years of attending big-time bike races, I’ve never had a clear view of a finish.
Time trials: the opposite of road races for the spectator, time trials make for ideal viewing. A TT is almost always part of a stage race. It’s short (20-50 minutes), and each competitor rides alone. Riders start separated by 1- or 2-minute intervals, so the start times are spread over about two hours. Riders ride against the clock (the French name for a TT is contre la montre, literally “against the clock”), and the riders go hard from the gun, so they warm up for about an hour before competing. What this all means is that, wherever you stand along the course, the riders will come by one at a time, so you can cheer them on by name, and they’ll be going fast—faster than on a flat road race (30 mph vs. 25). You get to watch them warm up for an hour, which they don’t do for a road race. They’re also standing around for hours before and after their race, waiting for their teammates to ride, so they have time to kill and will spend it talking with you. I remember a Tour of California TT where cycling legend Tom Boonen was done with his time trial and just sitting on his bike around the finish line chatting with anyone who wandered by for about an hour. Do everything you can to get a start list, so you’ll know who’s riding next—they don’t give them to spectators, but team directors and officials have them and they’ll often let you photograph it. If that doesn’t work, every team will tape a list of their riders and their start times to the side of the team bus.
Cyclo-cross races: CX races are also ideal for the spectator. CX is what road racers do in the winter. A CX race is about one hour long and consists of lots of short laps on dirt, sand, or (hopefully) mud, so the riders come around again and again and you can see the tactics play out. Since the race is short, the riders go hard the whole time and there’s no coasting. There are barriers that force the riders to dismount and run. The course is lined with tape fencing, and you’re encouraged to stand anywhere along the course and be within arm’s reach of the riders.
The CX community is a family and the race atmosphere is very social, almost a party. The riders often wear costumes, and cowbell ringing is almost mandatory. There’s none of the pretension or pomp of a big-time road race. Riders are accessible and friendly. The only downside is, CX is a poor country nephew of road racing, so the stakes are low and the competitors typically don’t have famous names (in the US).
Criteriums: The vast majority of bike racing in the US is in the form of criteriums (riders call them crits): 45-90 minutes of roughly-one-mile loops through downtown streets. Crits are almost unknown in Europe, where cycling is an endurance sport, but Americans love them because, since the riders come by every 2-3 minutes, the action is constant and you can watch the ebb and flow. Also, since the course is through city streets, you can stand at a street corner and feel like the riders are going to ride right over you at 32 mph—exhilarating.
Crits are simple, so there isn’t much you have to know to watch one. Since they’re short, the pace is fast, especially in the first and last 10 minutes, and things are too crowded and hectic for there to be much in the way of team tactics, so pretty much the race comes down to every rider hitting the gas and hanging on. Since you’ll see the riders over and over, you can focus on an individual rider as they go off the front on a flier, get brought back, fall off the pace, or get pulled from the course if they get lapped—their whole mini-drama will be played out in front of you.
Because the course is so short, after 30 minutes there may be riders everywhere on the circuit, and it can get hard to tell who’s in the lead and who’s getting lapped. Follow the motos (motorcycles): there will always be a distinctive one just ahead of the leaders, sounding its horn to warn spectators to get out of the way, and often another following the main pack.
Ironically, a crit is usually a lousy place to meet riders before and after the race. There are no large “teams,” so no team buses, which is where riders hang out. The riders roll in, do the race, and are gone, except for the winners, who have to stick around for the podium ceremony and should be briefly approachable then.
Circuit races: These are just long criteriums, with a typical course length of 2-3 miles. They may be in town, or they may be at an automotive race course or similar venue. Obviously you see less action, since the riders come by less often, and they, like crits, are a lousy place to meet riders.
Stage races: A stage race is a series of road races, usually one race (a “stage”) a day, with the entire race lasting from three days to three weeks.
Stage races are, for Americans at least, where all the money, the media coverage, and the hoopla are. Everybody knows the Tour de France, a grand tour (three-week stage race, and all cyclists know the two other grand tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. These are multi-million-dollar productions, and they’re as much circus, expo, and Disneyland as they are bike races. The primary appeal to a tifoso (serious cycling fan—plural tifosi) is that the world’s best cyclists are in attendance, so you can meet and get autographs from your heroes. And don’t concentrate exclusively on the current racers—the directeurs sportifs (team managers), coaches, doctors, bike builders, and hangers-on are often legendary cyclists in retirement. America used to have several big stage races, but times are tough for American road racing and I think we’re down to the Tour of the Gila, the Tour of Utah, the Redlands Classic, the Colorado Classic, and some smaller regional stage races, like the Cascade Classic in Bend, Oregon. There’s a race calendar at USACycling.com if you want dates.
How to Attend a Stage Race
Watch the race. A road stage is like any other road race—you have three opportunities to see the riders do their thing for about 1 minute: at the start, at the finish, and at a spot somewhere along the course.
If you’ve come to see the riders actually ride, the most crowded place to stand is the finish line. Next most crowded is the start line (same place, but at a different time). It’s almost impossible to see the race at either time. But the crowds thin out fast as you go elsewhere. Usually you can see pretty well 50 yards down the course from the start line or 50 yards ahead of the finish line.
If you want to have an unimpeded view of the peloton in flight, you need to drive to a spot mid-route. You will only encounter crowds near the summit of a notorious climb or along a steep descent. For the rest of the roughly 100 miles of racing, there might not be a spectator in sight. I remember standing in downtown King City, California, watching in a throng of two other cheering people as the Tour of California peloton barreled down Main Street. Security was lax—I asked a city cop where the peloton was coming through, and he hadn’t heard that the race was happening. The peloton is only going to pass you once, so you’ll be driving some distance and waiting some time for 3 minutes of entertainment. On some routes it’s logistically possible to watch the peloton pass mid-route and drive to the finish line before the riders get there.
There are two times in a road stage when you can watch the riders ride for longer than a moment:
- If the race has a neutralized start, the riders will leave the start line and do a slow lap or two around the start area, just for show, before they head off and begin racing in earnest.
- If the race has a circuit at the finish, the riders will ride to the finish line area, then do 4-10 short laps, crossing the finish line on each lap, before the final finish. This is the best set-up for spectating, because you see the riders several times when they’re going the fastest and working the hardest, and you see the final tactics play out. Even at a major event, the crowds aren’t big enough to line the circuit, so there are plenty of places to stand with your vision unimpeded.
Meet the riders. For me, the primary appeal of a stage race is that it lets me hang with my heroes. To do that takes some cunning, because almost everyone at a big-name race—the riders, the team directors, the race staff—is invested in preventing you from doing exactly that. Here are seven tools to defeat them.
1. Get riders’ numbers. Unless you have studied riders’ faces and have a good memory, it’s hard to tell one rider from another. So you find yourself in the embarrassing situation of walking up to groups of riders and saying, “Is any of you Mark Cavendish by any chance?” To avoid this, you must find the race roster, a list of all riders in the race and their bib numbers. Then you can approach the team bus knowing you’re interested in rider #123 and no one else.
The race roster isn’t always easy to find. Some big races post it online before the race (bless them for that). Often race staff hand the roster out to media people, advertisers, and other authorized types, and you can usually have one if you ask. Otherwise, you’ll need to find a race staff member, ask to see their copy, and take a photo of it.
If you can’t find a roster, you can make an educated guess about who a rider is from their bib number. Each team is given a team number. Last year’s winning team is given #1. The other teams are assigned numbers at random. Each team then assigns each rider their own digit. The protected rider is always #1, and the other team members are assigned numbers in alphabetical order. The rider’s bib number is the two numbers combined—thus bib #43 is team #4’s second rider alphabetically. So, if you’re standing by a team bus and a rider has a bib number ending in 1, they’re the big cheese. If their bib number ends in 2, their last name is at the front of the alphabet. If you’re looking for Tom Zirbel, look for a bib number ending in 8 or 9.
2. Stake out the bike. You have little idea where a rider is going to be before a race, but you know where their bike is: leaning against the team bus with their bib number clearly attached and their name decaled on the top tube just in front of the seat tube. If you watch the bike, the rider must eventually appear. If the bike is gone, they’re out for a short warm-up ride and you can catch them when they come back.
3. Go to smaller races. Any U.S. bike race too small to be on TV will probably be deserted of spectators. Yet the racing is excellent and the riders are either a notch below famous, a year or two before being famous, or a year or two past being famous. My favorite is the Cascade Classic, a week-long stage race in Bend, Oregon, every summer. I fondly remember an afternoon where I stood by the start gate for the Cascade Classic time trial and chatted at length with one great American rider after another—Ben King, Joe Dombrowski, Floyd Landis—as they waited in line patiently for their start and had nothing better to do than talk to me. There were probably 40 other fans there with me that day. The only downside to the smaller races is, European riders won’t be there.
4. Go to the stage that starts in the smallest town on the race route. Since stage races try to be continuous courses, tracing a loop or straight line around a country or state, they can’t always start every stage in a major metropolitan city—sometimes stages have to start in small, relatively unpopulated burgs. If you go there, you may find yourself watching the start with the race personnel and a few curious townsfolk who are wondering what’s going on.
5. Follow women’s racing. Although things are changing, women’s cycling is still comparatively ignored by cycling fans. This is a crime, but it works to your advantage when you want to get up close and personal with the riders. Women cyclists are typically accessible, friendly, charming, and delighted by your interest, and there are no security guards keeping you away. Don’t be surprised if you chat with a woman pro, then meet her again a year later, and she remembers you. The men don’t do that.
6. Understand the rider’s race-day schedule. Getting to a pro is all about knowing what they’re doing when. On a typical road stage, a day in the life of a pro cyclist goes like this: the team bus will arrive at the staging area (which may be near or far from the start line) one hour before the start of the race. Your first job is to find the staging area—keep asking race staff (they’re crawling all over the place) until you find it. A team member or two may come out and chat with the crowd if they feel like it, in which case you can talk to them but may have a lot of competition. Team members who have a special stake in the day’s stage may come out and go for a short warm-up ride about 40 minutes before the start, and you’ll have about 5 seconds to distract them and get an autograph as they ride off or as they return and climb back in the bus. Riders have to sign in before every stage, so each rider will ride off to do that moments before the start, and may return to the bus briefly after doing it—you will have 5 seconds to get an autograph as they ride off. After the race the riders will return to the bus and get aboard as quickly as they can, because they’re exhausted and have pressing things to do, like get a massage and eat—you can get an autograph if you stake out the bus, see a rider coming, and are fairly pushy.
If all that sounds like there is no good time for a leisurely chat and autograph session on road race days, you’re right. Encounters tend to be fleeting, amidst a crush of fans, and both parties involved tend to be somewhat rushed.
All of this presumes you’re trying to meet a rider on a big team. Small-budget teams often don’t have team buses, so before or after a race the riders are sitting in a circle in folding picnic chairs. Feel free to approach them if they aren’t deep in a team meeting.
The best time for meeting riders is the time trial stage (see above). You can calculate exactly when a given rider will start to warm up or when they’ll be returning to the bus after racing, both times when most riders are without pestering fans and usually happy to talk.
Here’s how it works: if I’m keen to meet Bradley Wiggins, I need only go to his team’s bus, see on the posting that he starts at 2:45, check the times being turned in by other riders, and it’s a simple calculation: if the typical rider is completing the TT in 25 minutes, I know Wiggins is going to start warming up around 2:00 and will be returning to the bus after his ride at around 3:10. If I go through this process with the ten riders I most want to meet, I can lay out a schedule that has me hopping from bus to bus as each rider makes themselves available.
7. Do your homework. It’s rude and unrewarding to go up to a pro and say, “Who are you and can I have your autograph?” Take the time before you go to the race to find out who’s going to be there, list the riders you like (by team, so you know who to look for as you approach the team bus), and jot down a thing or two worth remembering about each one. An encounter with a pro is vastly enriched if you can say, “Congratulations on Paris-Roubaix last year” or “Good luck in the time trial tomorrow” if he’s a TT specialist. When I met Mary McConneloug, one of my heroes, we got on because I knew we both loved hummus.
Pre-ride the stage. American races usually have “rolling road closures,” where the police close only the section of the road the peloton is actually using, leaving it open to traffic before and after the peloton passes. You can ride the closed road ahead of the race. There isn’t a large window for this, but you’ll have about an hour between when the road closes and the police order you off the course. You can’t start at the start line—you have to enter the course at a spot out of sight of the authorities. And you can’t ride the entire route—the peloton would quickly catch you, for one thing. And you can’t ride back right away, so you have to find an alternate route back to your car, wait for the road to open, or arrange a shuttle. But, despite all these qualifiers, it’s still a thrill to be on the race course with no traffic and the road lined with eager spectators cheering you on and asking if you’re leading the race. It encourages them if you wear yellow.
Collect team water bottles. You can trail the rolling closure in your car and collect team water bottles. Riders are constantly tossing their water bottles to the side of the road, where they lie until you come along and collect them. If you pick a stretch of deserted road, you can collect 10 or 20 bottles in a few miles.
Check out the expo. It’s not all about the race or the riders. At most start/finish lines there is an expo, a tent city of vendors, sponsors, and marketers there to tell you about the latest technical advance, give you swag, tell you about Italian cycling hotels, let you sample a new sports drink, or sell you discounted cycling shorts. It’s like a small state fair, but bike-related, and it’s free. At my last expo, the guy under the tent demoing power meters was none other than Robbie McKuen, one of the five greatest sprinters of all time.
Ogle the hardware. For many cyclists, running a close second to the riders in sex appeal is the gear. Every well-funded team will have a team bus, and every bus will have leaning against it every morning the finest cycling hardware on earth, 9 pristine $10,000 bikes for you to ogle. Nearby will always be a wrench (team mechanic) who will answer questions about the equipment if they don’t have a job to do at the moment (and they speak English).
Don’t go to the Tour de France. The fantasy of all cyclists is to follow the Tour for a few days. Don’t do this to watch cycling. The TdF is 100 times bigger than any other cycling event in the world, which means you’ll be in crowds 100 times bigger and more frantic, fighting for space in hotels 100 times busier, and being kept 100 times as far away from the cyclists, who are protected like royalty. On famous climbs, spectators arrive days in advance to claim a spot. Go only if you like madhouses and media circuses.
Watching a Bike Race on TV
Watching cycling on television is in many ways much better than watching it in real life, because you can actually see much of the racing, follow the action, and see the dynamics of the race as they develop. I say “much of” because you only see what the helicopters and camera motos happen to observe, and, since the racing is strung out over as much as 30 miles of road, that’s a fraction of what’s going on. Imagine you’re watching an NFL football game being filmed by one camera that’s a mile in the air and two more that can only capture one player at a time, cameras that have no idea which players are worth watching ahead of time, and you’ll have the idea.
For instance, in the 2014 Tour de France, Andrew Talansky, a gifted young American rider who was making his first attempt at contending for the overall win, had fallen hard and was riding in intense pain at the back of the peloton. He fell hard a second time, and it was obvious that his Tour was over. But, refusing to do the sensible thing and quit, he rode on, totally alone, miles behind the rest of the riders, slowly and in agony, for forty miles, determined to finish the stage and avoid being eliminated—“to honor his teammates,” he said later. The next day he abandoned the race.
It was one of the gutsiest performances the sport has ever seen—and it was a fluke that the TV audience got to experience it. If a moto hadn’t happened to be there, at the back of the race where usually nothing of interest is happening, and a TV director hadn’t happened to have the wisdom to tell the moto to stay with Talansky during his great ride, we at home would have seen nothing and would only have known what the commentators would have told us, that he was hurt and getting dropped.
To make matters worse, the typical European road race or stage is 4 hours long or more, and American TV is only willing to cover the last 1.5 hours of it (plus post-race interviews, etc.), so you always come in in the fourth quarter of the game. And TV is reluctant to fill you in on what you’ve missed, unless it’s a crash.
And to make matters still worse, cyclists don’t have their names on their jerseys, and they’re swathed in helmets and dark glasses, so much of the time the TV commentators don’t even know who they’re looking at. You get used to statements like “A Team Garmin rider is attacking!” Which one? They don’t know until the TV feed comes in for a closer look.
So watching bike racing on TV leaves much to be desired. But it’s still pretty grand. And it’s getting better, as TV learns to mount cameras on sprinters’ bikes and track riders via GPS chips.
Converting Kilometers to Miles
All racing except US racing measures distance in kilometers, so until you can think in kilometers you have to do a lot of converting in your head—otherwise when the announcer says, “They’re passing under the 5K banner,” you’ll have no idea how near the finish line is. Going from kilometers to miles is easy: every 10K = 6 miles, so when they say “They’re 64K from the finish,” just round off to the nearest 10 (64 > 60), divide by 10 (60/10 = 6) and multiply by 6 (6 x 6 = 36). Now you know they have 36 miles plus change to go. Converting miles to K’s is harder, but you don’t have to do it very often.
Let’s talk about what’s going on in a stage race. As 200 riders roll down the road shoulder to shoulder in the peloton, what are they thinking? What are they each trying to do?
Kinds of “Victory”
Few of the riders in a stage race are trying to win anything personally. Most of them are like NFL offensive linemen, blocking for the guy who’s trying to score. Such helpers are called domestiques in French (“servants”) and gregarios in Italian and Spanish. Because a stage race would be boring if there was only one “winner” over three weeks of racing, the race organizers create many different kinds of victory. Many of these ways are represented by special jerseys, awarded to riders at the end of each day’s racing, worn by the racers during the race as long as they keep them, and awarded for keeps at the end of the race.
The GC/The Leader’s Jersey. The most important competition within the race is the General Classification, which is the overall first place in the race. It’s won by the rider with the lowest elapsed time spent riding over the entire race, and it’s calculated by simply adding together their riding times from each stage. The GC leader wears the Leader’s Jersey, typically some striking color. The Tour de France’s GC jersey is the Maillot Jaune, “the yellow jersey” (pronounced roughly MY oh ZHAWN, rhymes with “song” without the g), The Giro d’Italia’s is the Maglia Rosa, “the pink jersey” (MAHL yuh RO suh), and The Vuelta a Espana’s is the Maillot Rojo, the “red jersey” (MY oh RO ho).
Most teams will have only one rider who’s aiming at the GC (called “the GC guy” or “the protected rider”), and everyone else on the team is expected to ride for them, unless the team also has a sprinter, in which case the domestiques are expected to help both of them, typically by burying themselves (AKA riding out of their skin—making a maximum effort). But some teams just don’t have a good GC guy, so they don’t contend for the GC. Thus in any given stage race, out of the 200 riders on the course maybe as few as 12 riders are actually trying to come in first. The rest are either trying to help one of those 12 win or are striving for another kind of victory.
Stage wins. After the GC, the next-most important victory is a stage win, first place in the day’s race. Winning a stage and winning the GC are almost mutually exclusive. GC’s are won by hoarding one’s energy over 3 weeks, stages are won by making a maximum effort on a given day. So, much to the surprise of novice cycling spectators, GC guys rarely win stages—in fact, Tours de France are frequently won by riders who win not a single stage out of the 21 in the race.
Every non-GC rider dreams of lucking into a breakaway (riding ahead of the peloton) and winning a stage, but as a practical matter on any given stage perhaps 20 riders think they have any chance of winning. Different riders have different skill sets—some do well on rolling courses, some do well on flat finishes, some do well on mountaintop finishes—and a large part of a team’s strategy is to examine the parcours (the race course, AKA the profile) and decide which stages offer which riders a chance to win. You’ll often hear a rider after a stage win say, “We scouted the route months ago and knew that today would be a good day for me to go for the stage win.” Riders who devote their Tours to trying to win a stage here or a stage there are called stage-hunters.
There is no jersey for a stage winner.
The Sprinter’s Jersey/Points Jersey. Riders who aren’t contesting the GC and aren’t stage-hunting may target two other jerseys. The first is the points jersey, called by most people the sprinter’s jersey because it is supposedly won by a sprinter. The points jersey is awarded (after every stage and at the end of the race) to the rider who has amassed the most sprint points. Those points are garnered at designated intermediate sprint points (chosen by the race committee) and at the finish line of predominantly flat stages. Points are given to the first few riders who cross the line, with the most points going to the leader and fewer and fewer points going to the followers in finishing order. The Tour de France points jersey is the Green Jersey.
You would think the Sprinter’s Jersey would be won by the race’s best sprinter, but it’s almost never the case. The best sprinter is trying to win sprint stages, so they will save their energy during the intermediate sprints and let those intermediate points go to some wily rider who manages to be in the lead a third of the way through the stage. The jersey usually ends up going to some savvy old vet who has little hope of winning anything better and devotes themselves to being out in front for the first hour on lots of stages.
The Climber’s Jersey (AKA the King of the Mountains or Queen of the Mountains jersey) is awarded (after every stage and at the end of the race) to the rider who amasses the most points at designated KOM/QOM points (always mid-race summits and finish lines of mountain stages). Points are awarded as they are in the points competition. The climbs are categorized, Cat 4 to Cat 1, in order of difficulty, 1 being the hardest, with the very hardest climbs called in French hors categorie, literally “outside categorization.” The amount of the points are in proportion to the category—the harder the climb, the more points you win. The Tour’s climber’s jersey is the Polka Dot Jersey (in French, the maillot a pois rouges, “jersey of red peas”).
As with the Sprinter’s Jersey, the Climber’s Jersey is rarely won by the best climber in the race, by the identical logic—the best climbers save their energy to win mountain stages.
The Best Young Rider Jersey, awarded (after every stage and at the end of the race) to the rider with the best GC standing under age 25. The Tour’s is the White Jersey.
Most Aggressive Rider Award. Because long stage races are usually won by biding one’s time and hoarding one’s energy, things can get a little tedious, so, to spice things up, a stage race may award this jersey, also called the Combativity Award, given out (after every stage and at the end of the race) by the Race Committee to the rider who demonstrates the most flair or spunk. This person doesn’t get a jersey—he gets to wear a red bib number. He’s usually the guy who rides off the front of the peloton and stays there the longest, and he’s almost never the stage winner, which tells you what aggressiveness gets you in cycling. It’s a consolation prize, and it’s purely subjective.
The Team Classification. It’s given to the team whose three most highly placed riders have the lowest combined time on GC. It’s another consolation prize, rarely actively sought, and typically not won by the team with the GC-winning rider—GC winners have more important things to think about than getting high placings for their second and third riders.
Types of Stages
The 21 stages of a Grand Tour are divided into four types: sprint stages, mountain stages (aka mountain-top finishes or climbing stages), time trials, and whatever’s left over (sometimes called “rolling stages” or “breakaway stages”).
Sprint stages. These are primarily flat stages with flat, straight finishes, designed to end in bunch sprints, with the sprinters, the fastest riders over 300 meters, streaking for the finish line in the final seconds.
Mountain stages. These are hilly stages with awesome amounts of elevation gain, culminating in a finish line at a summit. They’re won by the climbing specialists, and everyone else just hopes to survive without catastrophic time loses.
Time trials. Discussed above.
Other. Any stage that isn’t flat, doesn’t end on a summit, or isn’t a TT is a free-for-all. Since the course isn’t tailored to any kind of specialist, the win is up for grabs. Winners can be virtual unknowns and breakaways are common and often successful. Such stages are said to be the battleground of the baroudeur, a French word meaning warrior and used to describe a rider who is strong, tough, aggressive, and daring.
How to Win a Stage
There is a different logic for winning in each of the 4 kinds of stage. In order to understand this, we need to master two concepts:
How time is calculated: A rider gets whatever time has elapsed on the clock as they cross the finish line, unless (and it’s a huge unless) they finish with other riders. If they cross the line in a bunch, every member of the bunch gets the same finish time. On a flat stage, it’s common for the first 60 riders in a race to all get the same time, and I’ve seen flat stages where every finisher got the same time. This is done for safety’s safe—if every rider in a bunch was fighting for milliseconds, there would be chaos and bloodshed on every finish line. This timing rule means that, of the 200 riders finishing the stage, only perhaps 18 of them have anything to gain by riding hard (6 of them trying to come in first, 12 more trying to lead out the 6), and still nasty crashes at finish lines are common.
Drafting. Remember what we said about pacelines in the Special Conditions chapter: a rider riding in the wind shadow of a rider immediately in front of them saves 40% of their energy. So any rider who tries to ride off and leave the peloton also leaves any ability to draft, and thus has to work up to 40% harder than the riders behind them. This is the central issue in all road racing. It explains why every rider does what they do. And it explains the single most baffling thing to newcomers to the sport: why don’t the riders try to ride faster than the others? The answer: because going faster would put you in front, where you would have to work 40% harder than the riders behind you, who would then shell you in the next day’s race or in two hours when you’re exhausted and they aren’t. So the only sensible position is behind the other riders, where they will be in the wind and pull you along relatively effortlessly.
Drafting is what every cycling movie gets wrong. In the movies, riders try to win by getting ahead of their opponent, like it’s a horse race. In real life, it’s the reverse: riders fight to get behind their opponent and let the other guy do the work.
If we add together the time issue and the drafting issue, we see what each rider in the race has to do:
How to Win a Sprint Stage: Since the peloton agrees that the stage will end in a sprint, everyone rolls along in a bunch (gruppo compatto in Italian) for the first 4 hours, with everyone resting and domestiques taking turns pulling (sharing the wind-breaking work at the front). Then, in the final few minutes, the teams with sprinters come to the front, raise the pace to astonishing speeds, and try to set up lead-out trains, single-file lines of lead-out men whose job is to “deliver their sprinters to the line.” The lead-out men drop off as they tire and, in theory, the sprinter is dropped off with 100 meters or so to the finish line, at which point they floor it, reaching speeds above 40 mph, banging elbows with the other sprinters and fighting for space and an open road to the line. Sprints are frequently won by inches. A sprint finish is the most exhilarating, dangerous moment in racing.
Sprinters can only do one thing: go incredibly fast for 8-10 seconds. They’re working hard for less than a minute total in 21 days of racing. For the rest of the Tour, they’re just trying to hang on and not get dropped so badly they’re kicked out of the race for failing to make the time cut (below).
Since sprint victories win you sprint points but gain you no time, no GC rider has the slightest interest in winning a sprint stage. Some teams don’t have sprinters, and no team has more than one. In a sprint stage, all domestiques are under orders to serve the sprinter. Thus in a 200-person peloton, perhaps only 10 riders are trying to win a sprint stage, and all the other riders agree to get out of their way in the final few hundred meters and let them fight it out.
The rules governing a sprint finish are strict but hard to enforce. A rider may not impede another rider’s sprint or deviate from a straight line if it obstructs another’s route to the line. The penalty for transgression is draconian: the offending sprinter is relegated (given the finishing position of the last riding group), effectively ending any chance they have of winning the Sprinter’s Jersey. In extreme cases riders have been kicked out of the race. Yet fighting for position is a fact of life in the sprint—handlebar-banging and what the Brits call argy-bargy are necessary if you aren’t going to be intimidated. So what qualifies as too aggressive is hotly debated, and every relegated sprinter howls in outrage that they just did what everyone does.
A sprint is often won by inches, so the competitors will perform the throw, where they literally shove their bike ahead of them at the last instant, thus gaining about 6 inches. Watch for the throw. It’s often the difference between first place and second.
During the opening hours of a sprint stage, you may see breakaways, where small groups of riders go off the front and ride ahead of the peloton for a while, but it’s assumed that this is for show and they will be brought back (caught) before the finish. Once in a blue moon a breakaway may stick (survive) and a member of the breakaway will win a sprint stage, but this is considered the height of cheek.
How to Win a Mountain Stage: The key to climbing is, it’s slow. Winners may be crawling up the slopes at 10 mph. So drafting becomes irrelevant. And the slower the pace, the bigger the time gaps between riders—a sprint stage can cost riders seconds, but a mountain stage can easily cost you or gain you minutes.
Mountain stages are won by climbing specialists, usually 130-lb. riders with high power-to-weight ratios who come from high-altitude countries, who don’t need teams around them and who have been hoarding their matches during the flat stages, waiting for this day. The climbers may only have 4 or 5 stages they care about in the entire grand tour, and they sit in the peloton and conserve their energy the rest of the time. When a climber drops everybody and solos in on a mountain stage, look to see how they do the following day—often they lose huge amounts of time, because they’re exhausted.
GC riders are ambivalent about climbing stages. On the one hand, there are huge time gains to be made. On the other, they can’t beat the climbing specialists without burning too many matches and endangering their standing in the overall. So GC riders tend to be good climbers who place high on the stage but don’t win, and disappointingly, it’s common for top GC contenders to come to an agreement not to contest the stage—they ride together and cross the line together, guaranteeing that no one gains time on the others, thus allowing them all to save matches for the following days.
A lot of riders climb well, and all the GC contenders want to not lose time, so there are a lot of riders in the race who might win a climbing stage—perhaps 25 people out of the 120-person peloton.
There is much fancy talk about the “tactics” of climbing stages, but it really comes down to two moves: 1) put your team at the front of the peloton and set a pace so ferocious the other climbers’ teams are shot out the back, and/or 2) wait for a moment of weakness or inattention in your competition, then sprint away from them, hopefully to never see them again. The sooner in the stage a rider attempts #2, the gutsier they are.
How to Win a Time Trial: TT’s are the simplest cycling races for newbies to understand—it’s won by the rider who goes the fastest. No teams, no drafting, no breakaways, no tactics. The winner is usually a TT specialist, who, like the sprinters and the climbers, has little to no interest in any stage in the race but their own. As in the mountains, there is the potential for significant time gains (30 seconds is a lot), so the GC riders would love to win but they know they’re unlikely to beat the TT specialists, who can burn all their matches on this one day, so typically they’re only trying to beat each other. In a TT, there can be no gentlemen’s agreement among the GC guys about not trying hard. In a Tour TT, perhaps 6 riders out of 120 have a reasonable chance to win, and the GC guys dare not go slow, but almost everyone else is using the stage as a recovery day. I once approached Phil Gaimon, a domestique, for an autograph after his TT and said, “Excuse me, I know you’re tired,” and he said, “No, actually I’m not.”
TT’s are won with brute power over 30 minutes or an hour, so TT specialists are big guys with huge engines. That means they’re heavy, which means they can’t climb, so the GC is of no interest to them. TT’s are brutal on climbers, who have relatively little muscle mass. A dedicated climber may spend as little as a couple of days on a TT bike in a year, including the day of the race.
Some tours have team time trials, in which the entire team rides together. In such races, drafting is everything, and the practice of taking pulls and pulling off without interfering with the draft is refined to a high art. The team’s finishing time is taken from the 5th rider across the line, just to prevent a TT specialist from going solo.
How to Win an Uncategorized Stage: the stages that aren’t sprint stages, climbing stages, or TT’s are free-for-alls. It’s hard to tell how the parcours suits individual riders’ talents, so all the less-famous riders feel like this is their chance. Especially when it’s late in the tour, when riders are tired and the GC riders aren’t feeling aggressive, riders no one has ever heard of feel OK about having a fling. Breakaways are frequent, often several a stage, and usually they fail (Brits call the riders in a breakaway “no-hopers”), but sometimes they succeed.
The logic of the breakaway is complicated, for two reasons:
1.For it to stick (succeed), it has to have several riders—at least 4, more like 8—so they can share the workload of breaking the wind. Otherwise the peloton, with its superior drafting ability, will gobble them up. Those riders have to work together (share the pulling), or they will get caught, but they each want to win, and you win by not pulling (thus saving your energy for the sprint), so the riders have to cooperate while trying to get the others to do most of the work. On TV you’ll often see riders in breakaways having violent arguments with the other riders about how someone is sitting on and not doing their share of the work. Someone has to be in front, but the rider in front always loses, and everybody knows it. As the breakaway approaches the finish line, the cat and mouse game of trying to not be in front intensifies. It can be fascinating, or heart breaking. When American Chris Horner rode his first Tour de France, he got in an early two-man breakaway. With the finish line in sight and the victory assured (for one of them), the two men began playing cat and mouse and almost came to a standstill on the course. The peloton swept them up and Horner came in about 20th. Asked afterwards if he regretted his decision, Horner said, “Nobody remembers who came in second.” Horner never won a Tour stage.
2.Breakaways will only work if the peloton (which is always theoretically faster, because they can draft better) lets them. It seems odd to not want to win a stage, but the climbers can’t win, the TT specialists can’t win, the sprinters can’t win if the course isn’t flat, and the GC contenders only care about gaining or losing time on the other GC contenders, so often in a rolling stage late in the race, the no-name riders are free to fly. But the breakaway has to be made up of riders so far down on GC (behind in the race) that the GC contenders don’t find them a threat. If a GC contender does get into a break, either the peloton will shut the break down or the other members of the break will order the contender to go back to the peloton and stop ruining their chances.
Here’s how it works: in the 2020 Tour de France, Julian Alaphillipe was a highly regarded GC rider. Then he had what the French cal a jours sans, a “day without,” and lost 10 minutes. His GC hopes were gone. The commentators said, “Now his job is to lose another hour, so he can win a stage.” Think about that until it makes sense.
GC contenders are willing to give amazing amounts of time to breakaway riders if those riders pose no threat. In 2004, an unknown named Thomas Voeckler got into a breakaway on Stage 5. Since no one in the breakaway was a GC threat, the peloton let the breakaway win by a staggering 12 minutes, and Voeckler wore the Yellow Jersey for the next 10 stages. He was a French national hero for the rest of his career.
Since the logic of racing is all about drafting, and ideal drafting takes at least 5 or 6 riders, there is nothing so exciting, risky, and admirable in racing as the solo or the two-person breakaway. This is truly going all-in with the deck stacked against you and in the teeth of the odds. Sometimes a rider or two will go off the front early in the race, ride ahead of the peloton for 4 hours, and be caught within sight of the finish line. Such riders are deservedly celebrated for their noble, doomed effort.
Letting someone else in the breakaway do all the work while you catch a free ride on their back wheel is called wheel-sucking, and pros roundly condemn it…when they aren’t the ones doing it. In the 2005 Tour de France, George Hincapie and another rider got in a long two-man breakaway. Hincapie did as little work as possible, sucking the other rider’s wheel for miles, then in the last hundred yards came around his exhausted victim for an easy win. The other rider complained bitterly about Hincapie’s lazy, selfish, ungentlemanly tactics…then went out and did the exact same thing to another rider to win a stage a day or two later.
If the breakaway looks like it has a chance to stick, or a rider just wants a share of the media attention, they may try to bridge up, crossing no man’s land from the peloton to the breakaway group. This takes heart, because they have to ride faster than the peloton and faster than the breakaway, often for several minutes, by themselves.
One of the most common questions asked about bike racing is, if breakaways work one time in twenty, why do riders keep attempting them? There are three answers. The obvious one is that, infrequently, the breakaway sticks. The other two are less obvious. First, cycling is a sponsored sport, and sponsors want screen time. If you can’t win, one way to get some publicity is to be off the front for three hours and heroically lose. And second, cycling isn’t all about winning to Europeans. Perhaps the most popular French cyclist of all time was Raymond Poulidor, nicknamed “The Eternal Second,” who had a knack for barely losing a race. Europeans love riders who lose with flair, and dislike riders who win in a cool, calculated way, which is why they hated Lance Armstrong, before they hated him for doping. Europeans love panache, a wonderful word that says worlds about cycling culture. And one way to show panache is to take a flyer, attack, go on a breakaway, and damn the odds. Racing awards the Most Aggressive Rider award to encourage this attitude. Some of the most famous and beloved cyclists in the sport, like Jens Voigt, have been daredevils who ride with panache and guts and almost never win.
How to Win the GC: First, you have to finish, which means you have to stay healthy and not crash—so you’ll never see a GC guy anywhere near a sprint finish line. Second, you have to not have bad days (jours sans), which means hoarding your matches and not going too deep on any one stage. Third, you have to stay out of the wind, which means sitting behind your domestiques following wheels for hour after hour, at all times except during TT’s and the ends of climbs. This means that, out of the 85 hours of the race, you’re doing nothing but trying to be inconspicuous for about 75 of them. In many ways, the Tour’s “winners” are the most boring riders in the pack, the most risk-averse plodders.
GC guys win during the time trials and the mountaintop stages, and they do that by putting time into their GC opponents. In the TT, the strategy is simple—ride faster than the other guy. In the mountains, it’s more complicated. As we said before, you win by 1) exhausting the other rider and their team by putting your team at the head of the peloton and setting a blistering pace over the long haul and/or 2) waiting until you sense of moment of tiredness or inattention, then gunning it until you create a gap, thus preventing the other guy from using the minimal amount of draft they would get from sucking your wheel to stay with you. Typically gaps are best attempted on the steepest pitches.
As we said before, mountains are times of great risk to GC riders. A missed acceleration or a bonk can easily cost you the tour. And tours like to design courses where there are several brutal mountain stages in a row, so energy conservation is as hard as possible. If you think you can win the GC in the TT, you may call a truce on some of the mountain stages and agree to ride with the other GC riders at a less than killing pace. Tifosi hate the strategy, but it wins. If you’re not great at the TT, you have to build a lead in the mountains big enough to compensate for the time you’re going to lose there.
GC riders are wonders of nature. They have to be good at mutually exclusive things: time trialing (big engine, large frame) and climbing (tiny body, feather weight). Some riders, like Miguel Indurain, were dominant at one (in his case, the TT) and just survived in the other, and some were good but not great at both, but a few were great at both. Alberto Contador, probably the greatest Tour ride in history after Greg Lemond, in his prime was the best climber and the best time trialist in any tour he entered.
GC battles are best viewed from behind: watch the GC rider in second place and ask, where are they going to find the seconds they need to catch up? Are they going to try to break away on a steep stretch of a mountain stage? Are they going to ask their team to ride the leader’s team into exhaustion? Are they going to risk it all on the TT? Are they going to try to sneak away on a breakaway stage? Whatever they’re planning, the leader knows it and will do their best to prevent it.
And let’s take a moment to celebrate the domestique, the rider who serves the protected rider and without whom they cannot win. These people ride in the wind, keep the GC guy safe from crashes, turn themselves inside out day after day, go back to the team car for water bottles and then sprint up to the GC guy to resupply them over and over, ride to exhaustion and then disappear to the autobus (below), and a hundred other tasks, all in the knowledge that no one outside their team and immediate family will ever know their name or appreciate what they’ve done. It’s common for a domestique to have a 10-year pro career and never win a race. Think about it.
If you want to study racing tactics in more depth, check out the website How the Race Was Won, which analyzes the winning strategy in dozens of actual races.
Cutting Deals: Since different riders are trying for different kinds of wins, stage races often see something unique to cycling: two competitors agreeing mid-ride to divvy up the spoils. It works like this: if a GC rider and a stage hunter get in a break-away, the GC rider might ride up to the stage hunter and say, “I don’t care about the stage win. You don’t care about overall time. Let’s work together, come to the finish line together, and I’ll let you win.” It isn’t considered cheating.
Rider Personalities: Different kinds of riders have different personalities:
- Sprinters: E-ticket adrenaline junkies, cocky, eccentric egomaniacs
- Climbers: Ballerinas
- Time trialists: anti-social machines
- Domestiques: friendly, humble pals, the guys you’d want for a buddy
- GC contenders: patient, pragmatic assassins
How Hard Are The Riders in a Grand Tour Working?
Cycling loves to talk about how a Grand Tour is the hardest endurance challenge in all of sports. But how hard is it? It’s true that the riders spend absurd amounts of time in competition—three weeks of 4-6 hours a day—and they’re averaging 25 mph over that time, a pace which would kill you or me in a minute or two, and they’re doing it while climbing huge mountains. But the fact is that most of the riders are working at their limit for a small fraction of that time. The sprinters are the most extreme case—they’re working hard for about a minute of the three weeks (10 seconds a stage for 6 stages). The climbers only work on the climbing stages, and then only work hard on the climbs (roughly a third of the stage), and then often only on the last climb—say, 12 hours out of the three weeks. The domestiques put in the longest hours, but they work hard only when they’re pulling on the front in a flat stage or pacing the GC guy up a climb, and they take turns doing that—say, 25 hours out of the three weeks. The TT specialists work hard for 15-45 minutes, during the TT. And the GC guys do no work on the flat and rolling stages, and work hard only during the TT and during the last climb of the day on the mountaintop finishes that they choose to contest—say 5 hours in the 3 weeks. The rest of the time, if a GC guy’s team is doing its job, they’re protected (surrounded by their teammates and in someone’s draft) and in effect being carried down the road. When a GC rider is without teammates and having to do all their own riding, they are said to be isolated, and in one Tour de France it was calculated that Lance Armstrong was isolated for 30 minutes total throughout the 3 weeks of racing.
On any given stage, as much as a third of the peloton is openly not racing at all. This is the group that has fallen off the peloton, perhaps by as much as an hour, and is called the autobus (also called the laughing group and the gruppetto—the “little group”)— riders with nothing to lose by going slow and whose only goal for the day is to not get caught by the time cut. Not surprisingly, TV cameras give little attention to riders in the autobus.
So as you watch the race unfold, keep asking, Who’s doing the work? How are the riders avoiding working? Near the end of one Tour de France when Lance Armstrong and Jan Ulrich were close on time and slugging it out for the GC win, a commentator asked an old pro about Ulrich’s chances. “No chance,” the old pro said. Why? “Too much time in the wind,” they said tersely. Ulrich had burned too many matches by riding unprotected by his team. Lance had been better at avoiding work. The old pro was right.
Since it’s bad for business for cyclists to be seen dogging it, the race organizers take two steps to discourage it:
1. Time bonuses. In some stage races, a rider wins time by finishing high on a stage, an intermediate sprint, or a summit—instead of simply accumulating points, the rider actually has their overall time reduced. Where time bonuses are awarded and how large they are are decided by the race organizers, but typically there are time bonuses at all finish lines, all major mountain summits, and at least one intermediate sprint point, and a typical time bonus for winning a stage is 10 to 20 seconds. This has a major effect on a GC rider’s tactics. There is now a penalty for failing to contest intermediate sprints and mountaintop finishes. And those seconds can matter. In the 2015 Tour of California, Peter Sagan trailed in the GC by 2 seconds going into the final stage, which had time bonuses on the intermediate sprint point and the finish line. Sagan won neither sprint but finished near the front at both, gaining one second at the intermediate sprint and 4 seconds at the finish, winning the Tour.
Riders hate time bonuses, because they make them work, and race organizers like them, because they add drama. Fans seem to be divided.
2. Time limits. Since most of the riders aren’t trying to win, they have no motivation to make haste. So, in theory, a climber could roll a sprint stage at 9 mph and rest up for the next climbing stage. To keep this from getting out of hand, every stage of a stage race has a time limit, an amount of time you must complete the stage by—if you miss the time cut, you’re disqualified. The time limit is a multiple of the winner’s finishing time—typically the winner’s time plus 25%, so if the winner finishes in 4 hours, you have to finish in 5. That sounds generous, until there’s a 15,000-ft climbing stage and one-hour gaps become common, or a rider gets injured and is struggling in agony toward the finish line. There are many famous tales about gutsy cyclists covered in blood and riding in great pain alone for hours, only to be disqualified for missing the time cut.
A sore point with riders and fans is that the time cut, like most rules in the sport, is applied capriciously—sometimes strictly, sometimes loosely. If a marquee rider or a group of GC riders misses the time cut, the race committee will grant a dispensation to keep them in the race. But in 2013, Ted King, a popular American cyclist, separated his shoulder in a crash in the Tour de France, fought bravely to the line, missed the time cut by 7 seconds, and was booted from the race, to the rage of cycling fans worldwide.
Stage races are full of sweet or absurd little traditions, and knowing about them enriches the experience of watching considerably:
Sticky bottles. When a domestique goes back to the team car to fetch water for the rest of their team, they’ll stuff as many as 10 water bottles in their jersey. The last one is called the sticky bottle, because the rider and the directeur sportif both hold on to it while the DS guns the car, thus giving the domestique a 50-mph boost down the road. It’s totally illegal, openly practiced, and never punished, like a lot of crimes in bike racing.
The phantom brake problem. When a rider needs a rest, they’ll often suddenly develop a convenient problem with their rear brake. They’ll pull up next to the team car and hold on while the wrench leans out the car window and studiously examines the mythical problem for a couple of minutes, thus giving the rider a breather and a tow.
With all cycling infractions, minor versions are tolerated by the commissaires (race officials) and flagrant versions aren’t. In the 2015 Vuelta a Espana, GC contender Vincenzo Nibali had a mechanical and got dropped, grabbed the team car, and was towed at 55 mph back to the peloton in full view of the race helicopters. He was ejected from the race.
The elbow flick. When two riders are in a breakaway, their only chance of staying away is for them to cooperate by sharing the time spent pulling. The rider in front signals the rider behind them that it’s time to switch positions by a small flick or waggle of the elbow. It looks like they’re doing a one-armed version of the chicken dance while riding.
The tifoso push. On steep climbs, it’s tradition for tifosi to put their hands on a rider’s back or bicycle seat and push them up the hill for a few feet. It’s illegal, but it doesn’t make a difference in the final results and it’s a sign of love.
Wait for the patron. Cycling considers it ungentlemanly to take advantage of another rider’s crash or mechanical problem, especially if the rider is the patron (unofficial boss of the peloton, pronounced “pah TRAWN,” rhymes with “song” without the g) or similar Big Kahuna. So if one of these riders with clout gets held up for some reason, the other GC guys will typically signal the peloton to slow down and wait for them to rejoin the group. Sometimes ruthless riders fail to do this and put the hammer down when their competition is in trouble, and after the stage they always express incredulity when told about the hold-up: “I had no idea they had crashed—of course if I had known I would have waited.” In the 2010 Tour, Alberto Contador famously attacked when Andy Schleck had a chain malfunction, and won the tour by 30 seconds, the exact amount of time it took Schleck to fix the problem. Schleck was furious and said, “My stomach is full of anger,” a phrase that immediately went into the cycling lexicon.
Home-town hero. If the stage route goes through the home town of one of the riders, the rider is often allowed to ride off the front at a crawl through the town and wave to his neighbors. Sometimes the peloton stops in town for a few minutes while the local hero hugs his family and friends and perhaps shares a glass of champagne.
Newspaper for the descents. Pro racers want to carry as little as possible up the climb, so they always arrive at the summit dressed in next to nothing and are facing a freezing 50-mph descent down the back side of the mountain. Some riders take stacks of newspapers from tifosi and stuff them under their jerseys for insulation. Tradition says it should always be la Gazzetta Dello Sport, the bible of bike racing.
The upside-down bib number. Riders are assigned numbers in alphabetical order within their team. If a rider draws #13, they’ll pin it on upside down to cancel the jinx.
Nature breaks. Race stages are 4-6 hours long, so bathroom breaks are inevitable. A rider can stop to pee any time they want (European law requires only that they face away from the road), but doing so alone necessitates a long solo chase to catch the peloton. So riders wait until the patron stops, signally a peloton-wide nature break, as it’s called. TV cameras tend to look away, but you can find still photographs of nature breaks, with 50 or more riders all peeing shoulder to shoulder, or catch a glimpse in a helicopter shot. Riders can be fined for taking a solo nature break in flagrant view of, say, a picnicking family.
Drafting the support cars. If a rider gets held up by a crash or a mechanical, and they’re important to the team, other team members will wait and pace them back to the peloton. If they’re not, they’ll have to catch back on by themselves. This is theoretically impossible to do, since one rider can’t ride faster than the peloton. But the rider has an advantage: the peloton is being followed by a stream of cars—team cars, neutral support cars, media cars—and the rider can leapfrog their way back to the peloton by riding in the cars’ slipstreams. They’ll sit in the draft of one car, resting for a minute, then accelerate to the next and tuck in behind it, repeating the process until they’re back in the fold. Again, it’s illegal but tolerated, since the rider has no chance of rejoining the race otherwise, as long as they don’t draft extensively behind their own team’s car.
The lanterne rouge. The “red lantern” is awarded to the rider who comes in dead last on GC in the Tour de France. It’s not quite the joke it appears to be. Riders who are far down on GC often are the ones who have worked hardest for their team leader, riding tempo at the front of the peloton for hours or dragging the leader up the long climbs before cracking and falling to the wayside exhausted, their job done for the day and now left to struggle to the finish line inside the time cut. There’s even a book about the history of the Lanterne Rouge and how riders have fought for it.
Echelons. When the wind comes from the side, the ideal drafting spot moves from directly behind the rider in front of you to the side, so the riders move accordingly. In crosswinds, instead of pacelines the riders form echelons, diagonal lines across the road, with each rider roughly at 4 o’clock or 8 o’clock instead of the usual 6 o’clock position. It’s a precarious situation, and, since riders from different teams usually don’t want to cooperate, people can get caught out in the crosswinds and lose big time.
The broom wagon. Traditionally the tail-end riders are followed by a broom wagon (in French, voiture balai), famously rendered in the movie The Triplets of Belleville. It “sweep ups” anyone who wants to quit. Prominent riders who abandon the race due to injury usually have their own team car beside them when they make the decision and simply climb in, but lesser riders are often abandoned by the team car and need the broom wagon. It traditionally has actual brooms lashed to it.
National champion jerseys. Team members wear the team kit, but you’ll see some riders wearing unique jerseys based on national flags. These are the champions of their respective nations. There are a lot of them, since cycling is an international sport, and some of them are pretty obscure. I remember a time I was standing next to a rider wearing a national jersey I couldn’t identify and asked him what nation they were champion of. They said, “Uzbekistan.” Which borders Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, as we all know.
The best-known championship jersey is for the World’s Championship, solid white with 5 colored stripes across the chest. The colors are those of the 5 rings on the Olympic flag, which were chosen because every nation then competing in the Olympics used at least one of them in its flag. If you’re sharp-eyed, you’ll see riders with the five colored bands on the collars and cuffs of their team kit jerseys. They’re past World Champions, who have the right to wear the stripes for the rest of their lives.
World Champions can only wear their champion’s jersey when they’re performing in their championship discipline, so when it’s time for the time trial, all the road world champions put their championship jerseys away and the TT specialist world champions bring theirs out.
If you follow bike sports, you’ll see the World Champion’s jersey a lot, because all cycling subcultures use the same one—road, track, TT, mountain bike, cyclo-cross, even BMX.
Accessorizing the jersey wearer. When a rider wears one of the 3 important jerseys—GC, points, or climber’s—their team often rewards them by making up a matching kit and/or matching accessories. So the Yellow Jersey wearer may show up at the start line the following day with yellow bibs, socks, shoes, helmet, gloves, and bike. Peter Sagan once dyed his beard green to match his Green Jersey.
Road hazards. One of cycling’s most important elements is that it, unlike all other major sports, is contested on public roads, so all the hazards of the open road play a role in the race. Most dangerous is the road furniture—the round-abouts, barricades, cones, curbs, and railroad tracks that litter the streets and roads, all of which are well- or poorly-marked, and are complete surprises to the riders, who don’t have the time to preview every mile of a 2,100-mile stage race. The results can be funny or tragic. In 2015, Peter Stetina, one of America’s best young racers, suffered a season-ending injury when he ran into one of several metal posts inexplicably standing in the path of the sprinters at the end of a stage in the Tour of the Basque Country, one of Europe’s most prestigious stage races.
Next most hazardous are the tifosi, the rabid fans who stand along the road as the riders pass and lust to get into the action any way they can. They applaud and scream in riders’ faces, pound them on the back, wave their national flag in front of them like a torero, run alongside them wearing outlandish costumes (caribou horns, devils, angels, Borat, giant hypos), push them up hills, or offer them water. Sometimes it gets ugly. Eddy Merckx, the GOAT (greatest of all time), had his career altered permanently when a “fan” jumped into the roadway and punched him in the stomach, an injury from which Merckx never fully recovered.
An egregious fan intervention can make you famous. One of the most famous images from the Tour de France is of Giuseppe Guerini streaking for victory on Alpe d’Huez in 1999 and plowing head-on into a photographer who decided that the best angle for a photo was directly in front of him (Guerini won anyway).
More like comic relief are the animals—the dogs, cats, horses, and cattle that dart across the roadway or get caught up in the excitement and accompany the riders until someone can divert them—but they can be deadly. On Stage 11 of the 2015 Tour, Warren Barguil was in the midst of a solo 50-mph descent when he hit a herd of cows intent on crossing the road. He was lucky to escape with his life. Check out the video on YouTube.
Most surprising to new cycling fans are the trains. European trains run everywhere, and the authorities don’t alter the train schedules to accommodate the racing, so it’s a common sight for a group of riders to be barreling down the road and come to a dead stop for 30 seconds to let a train pass. It can alter the race results, ruining a breakaway’s chances of staying away or a peloton’s chances of pulling a breakaway back. Riders are forbidden to cross the tracks once the barriers begin to drop, but the temptation to sneak through is enormous, and riders are often either being disqualified for squeezing around dropped barriers, or not being disqualified even though they did it, to the outrage of rule-abiding people everywhere.
Chalked Messages. Tifosi write the nicknames of their favorite riders in chalk across the road, as a form of encouragement. The favorite place for this is on a climb, where the rider theoretically is going slow enough to see it and be inspired. Often the message is just the name (often written several times), but sometimes there’s an “Excelsior!”-type word added. Each language has its own word for “Go!” or “Come on!” Most familiar is the French “Allez!” (“go”), usually said or written at least twice. Next most familiar is the Spanish “Venga!” (“come”), made famous by Manolo Saiz, a team director who screamed it without interruption at his riders during time trials. The Italian word for “Go!” is “Vai!”, but Italians are as likely to use “Forza!” (“strength”—in other words, “Be strong”). There are chalked messages on other themes: images of hypodermic needles and penises seem especially popular.
Finish-line pantomimes. When a rider wins a stage by a healthy margin, they’ll sometimes do some personally significant pantomime as they cross the line. Sometimes it’s a pantomime of the rider’s name, as when Juan Antonio Flecha (literally “arrow”) mimed shooting a bow and arrow. Sometimes it’s a sign to the family, as when a new father rocks a baby. Sometimes it’s a commentary on a rider’s relationship with the press. When Johan Museeuw, the Lion of Flanders, won a major race after destroying his leg in a crash and reading in the media that he might never ride again, he lifted the leg high in the air and pointed ostentatiously to it as he crossed the line. Peter Sagan has made an art form of the finish-line pantomime, miming at different times the Incredible Hulk and Forrest Gump.
Gifting stages. Hard as it is for fans new to racing to believe, riders are often allowed to win (i.e. are “gifted”) stages. It can happen for lots of reasons: a GC rider feels he owes a domestique payback for his hard work; a beloved rider is finishing his career and goes on one last breakaway; it’s Bastille Day and the breakaway rider is French; a young GC rider wants to honor the grand old man who has battled all the way up the mountain alongside him. It’s another of the ways (like Hometown Hero above) in which European racing is more gentlemen’s club than sport, and it’s considered by most Tifosi to be a sign of gentility. Some cut-throat riders want no part of it—Bernard Hinault, a pitiless rider, famously said after Lance Armstrong flagrantly refused to gift a stage to someone, “No gifts.”
Americans love stage races and crits, but for most of the world’s tifosi the big deal is one-day races, because here there is no resting—it’s typically 4 to 6 hours of hard, relentless, no-prisoners racing, often made as tough as possible by the race organizers. Important one-day races are typically long, with obstacles, like huge amounts of climbing or nasty road surfaces (the famous cobbles of Belgium, or dirt, or gravel), and are intentionally staged early in the season when the weather (everybody hopes) will be bad (snow, rain, mud, wind). The riders who thrive in such conditions are called classics men (because the oldest of the grand one-day races are called Classics) or hardmen—or, if you’re a real tifoso you call them flahutes—and they have a special place in the cycling pantheon. Classics usually aren’t won by climbers (not enough power) or GC guys (too cautious), or sprinters (too delicate), but by guys who can pour on the power, hour after hour, over potholes and through mud. Late stages in the Tour de France can be won by second-tier riders who have been resting in the autobus for two weeks, but the big one-day races are always won by riders at the top of the sport. An interviewer once asked George Hincapie, who won a couple of Tour stages, whether he’d rather win a Tour stage or a classic, and Hincapie said, “No comparison” (meaning the classic was more desirable).
The important one-day races (all in Europe and almost all in the Spring, before the grand tours) include Paris-Roubaix (the dirtiest and nastiest of them all), Gent Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. A sub-category of these is the Cobbled Classics, races that traverse roads paved with paving stones (called in Europe pavé). Notice most of them take place in Holland or Belgium, where cycling fans worship toughness and a win in any of these races is considered more prestigious than a Tour de France win.
There are no world-class one-day road races in the US, so we’re limited to watching them on TV. Watch them much the way you watch a breakaway stage in a stage race, except note that here every team in the race has a rider who is in for the win, and no one is saving it for tomorrow.