Saturday, November 20

Bike Racing 101

Bike racing is my hobby and my passion. But bike racing, in America at least, is a fringe sport. People all have heard of Lance Armstrong, but know little about the sport itself. So since my race reports are still many months away (it being the off-season and all), I thought I'd try to pen a few essays in the manner of a primer to shed some light on the sport. Bike racing is divided up into three main categories, road, track, and mountain. I will be writing only about the first, road racing, because that is what I know.

Bike racing at the core is a fusion of endurance, strength, tactics, and technology.
  • First and foremost cycling is an endurance sport. Even at the beginning amateur levels, a bike race lasts more than 1/2 hour. Many road races can last over 2. At the top levels, races like the Grand Tour's (like the Tour de France) last 3 weeks with only two rest days.
  • Strength is required, both when sprinting for a finish line, attacking to create a gap, or to race the bike up a 18% grade
  • Tactics are a part of bike racing least appreciated by the novice (fan and racer). In all bike races (except time trials) drafting forces tactics on the riders. The rider drafting behind one or two riders in front of you uses 20 to 30% less energy than the riders "in the wind". If one rider can force, because of tactical considerations, a stronger rider to "do the work" (pulling in the wind). Then that weaker rider will often be fresher by the time race is over. Time trials, individual or team efforts, on those funky aero-bar funny bikes, also have a tactical aspect. You have to learn to gauge your effort so that you use all your strength on the course. Go out too hard, and you fade which loses time. Go out to easy, and you end up losing time, because you could of gone faster.
  • Finally bike racing is a high-tech sport. Cycle computers can measure speed, heart rate, and via strain gauges the force you exert. This data can all be collected for later analysis. Additionally, bikes today are crafted using space-age materials, pushing weight/strength ratios to the limits in order to shave weight and improve performance. Pro riders in the off season rent time in wind tunnels to work on their time trial on-bike position help beat the wind.

Road racing consists of three types of races.
  • The Criterium Criterium's are the most common type of race in the US. Literally they are short course races (the race course is officially less than 4 miles) usually between 1/2 to 1 mile in length. These races are the most exciting type of bike race for the bystander because the whole race comes past every few minutes. A bicycle does not have to brake when cornering and the speeds in these races are surprisingly high. At the amateur levels I race, Criterium speeds can be 28 mph if the pack is large and motivated. They are rarely slower than 25 mph. The sprint finishes usually top 40 mph.

  • The Time Trial Also known as the "race of truth" because there is no team tactics involved here. In a time trial, the racers typically start at 30 second or 1 minute intervals. Drafting is prohibited (if a racer drafts another he can be penalized in time or disqualified). This type of racing is very much a physical and mental exercise. When time trialing if your concentration wanders, you slow down. Your effort very shortly causes your body to start "complaining". You must focus past this and on your effort, constantly monitoring your race computer (to make sure your effort is right), your gearing, the road, and how you feel.

  • The Road Race Road races can be long circuit races, one big loop, or a point to point race. In the US, point to point races are rare at the amateur level. Depending on the region, terrain can have a big effect on the race tactics.

In future posts, I will expand on this introduction expanding on these short descriptions of the three types of road races.