To the untrained eye, a professional bike race looks like a blur of color sailing through the countryside or cityscape. Some riders are ahead, some behind, there’s an inevitable winner, and that’s about it. However, there are many layers to the art of road racing, and a greater knowledge of each can enrich the recreational spectators’ experience.
A unique aspect to the sport of professional cycling is the access fans have to their favorite riders. There are plenty of opportunities for photo opportunities and autographs during bike races, as team buses are easily accessible before or after races. Cycling fans can watch riders warm up, head to the announcer stage to watch them give interviews and sign in, and gather around the start line to cheer them on when the gun goes off.
After a local dignitary sends the riders off on their way, the race usually has a neutral zone, or a certain distance the riders travel before the race organizers officially start the race. A neutral section can be for many reasons. First, to parade the riders through a city for the spectators’ enjoyment, to organize the following caravan of team and official cars or to safely navigate the peloton out of city streets not ideal for a typical hectic start to a race.
After the neutral zone, the lead official waves a flag, and the race begins. Typically, this is when we see certain riders go full throttle in an attempt to break away. For most novice spectators, this is when things get confusing. Why are some riders allowed to race ahead and others hang back? The riders who escape the peloton are called the breakaway. These riders are usually from lower tier teams looking for exposure, younger athletes hungry for opportunities to prove themselves, or veteran specialists feeling lucky. Many variables dictate when or if a breakaway goes and stays away, including the weather, terrain and race distance. These riders have their fingers crossed these variables play into their hands, and they can successfully hold off the rest of the bunch.
If all goes according to plan, the peloton senses the right time to crank up the speed and reel the breakaway back in, almost like an amoeba. Whether it be a mountain top finish or a sprint, the premise is similar. Each team who has a dog in the fight, so to speak, will try and set their key player in the best position possible for the crucial last few moments before the line. If it’s a mountain top finish, the teams’ domestiques, a rider who works for the team’s chosen climber, will raise the pace to put pressure on their rivals. Same goes for a sprint finish, where a lead-out train hopes to deliver their sprinter into the perfect position by increasing the speed to a point where other trains can’t compete. Either way, the outcome is always an exciting one and full of drama.