Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Hope all of you are wearing green today. Today we have a guest post from Tony – yes, that Tony. Erika wrote in and asked a general question or two about cycling and since Tony was the one who explained everything to me and got me hooked, I asked him to explain it to you. He does a great job at breaking down some of the basic cycling knowledge that many of you are probably unfamiliar with. So, I hope that you will find this post somewhat interesting. I know I did, and I’m a cycling lover! So, without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Tony…
In response to an outpouring of requests (Erika’s) as to just what the crazy sport of cycling is about, I have agreed to help Nat out by providing some sort of a cycling primer….we’ll call it Cycling 101.
To begin with, cycling as much as it may not seem so, is a team sport. Teams are based out of different countries depending on team ownership and riders from all over the world are employed by different teams based on their performance. Meaning that the best riders are the most sought after which results in them having the larger paychecks. Most teams have a melting pot of riders from countries from every corner of the world. For example the 2011 Radioshack team consists of 28 riders from 17 different countries. With this mix of nationalities it is extremely common for riders to be multilingual, sometimes speaking as many as 4-5 different languages. Within each team there is a hierarchy to the riders based on their skill and experience. Each rider is selected for the team based on what he can provide to the team. Some riders (the majority) are workers. These riders take care of the more talented riders and do whatever necessary for the good of the team. The cycling world’s name for these riders is domestique. The best riders for each team are the leaders (think Lance Armstrong), these guys are also called the “GC” guys (GC stands for General Classification which will be discussed further below). Each team’s mission is to help their GC rider or leader win the race. Each team has a director who is essentially the coach. The coach follows the group of riders on the road (also known as the peloton) in a support car calling the shots via a wireless radio that each rider carries. The support car carries extra bikes, supplies, H2O, and food.
Now that you know what consists of a team, let’s talk about the races. In cycling there are a number of different types of races. The three most common are single day races (in Europe these are known as the Classics), weeklong stage races (races that last 5-7 days with a different event scheduled for each day), and the most difficult, the Grand Tours (3 week stage races that circumnavigate an entire country). There are 3 Grand Tour races….the Giro d’Italia which occurs in May, the Tour de France which occurs in July, and the Vuelta a Espana which occurs in September. The Tour de France is by far the biggest event in cycling and can be compared to the Super Bowl, only for that it goes on for three weeks. GC riders, as mentioned above, are the riders who can compete for the week long and 3 week long stage races. These riders have to be well rounded, meaning they must be able to climb well and time trial well. (A time trial is essentially a race against the clock. Riders compete to see who can cover a given distance the fastest with no help from teammates.) Stage races have different types of stages on a given day. Some days will be mountain stages, some days will be flat stages for the sprinters, and some days are just hilly enough that breakaways can stay away from the pack and fight it out for the victory. In a stage race the rider’s time is accumulated throughout the three week event and the guy who completes the course in the least amount of time is the winner. In each race, the race organizers invite around 20-22 teams to compete. As for viewing these races….all you have to do is go to the side of the road along the route (living in Europe where most events occur helps). There are no admission fees to view cycling events and there are usually caravans that resemble parades that roll through the towns prior to the arrival of the cyclists. Mountain stages are by far the most exciting to watch in my opinion. Not only do you have the excitement of the race but you have shenanigans from the fans that have been camped out roadside waiting for the riders sometimes for days.
To compete well in any race each team must have a plan as to how they plan to race. The basic goal being to get their leader across the line first. In single day races the biggest challenges are to stay out of trouble (not crashing) and to stay with the front of the pack. If a rider were to miss out on a group breaking away from the peloton, he could be missing out on his chance for victory that day. In stage races you have to be smart for three weeks by staying out of trouble and not being too far back on the general classification. Another goal for the leaders in any race is to conserve as much energy as possible until the finale of the race. This is where their teammates are most important. These guys drop from the front of the group back to the cars to fetch bottles of water, chase down potential breakaways, and ride in front of the leaders so that the leaders can conserve energy by drafting. (Drafting is when a cyclist rides directly behind another cyclist so he can conserve energy by doing around 30% less work to keep the same pace as the guy in front.) In order for 9 guys to be operating on the same wavelength the director has to call the shots. The director will instruct his team on when to attack during a race and when to let other teams do the work. There is a lot of thinking that goes into the tactics from his perspective. One team can’t control every rider in the race so they have to pick and choose who they are concerned with. If a guy who has no chance in winning the overall, the director may choose to let him go from the group so that he can focus his attention on more dangerous riders who may try the same later on. Tactics are a huge part of this sport. A little luck doesn’t hurt as well.
As for shaved legs in cycling….essentially all professional cyclists and a large portion of local amateurs do shave their legs. The biggest reasons given are for ease of road rash treatment when crashes occur and for massages post race. But in my experience the main reason for this practice is simply that it is a tradition among cyclists.
Hopefully this rundown has provided some insight into the world cycling. It really is an exciting sport. Just ask Nat, she’s now hooked and has a trip booked to France for Le Tour!!
Thanks again to Tony for writing this post! There is so much more to discuss regarding cycling but hopefully this information was insightful to those of you who wanted to know a little more. If there’s anything else you would like to know about this awesome sport, leave a comment and maybe I can twist Tony’s arm and ask him to write another great post!