Road Racing is massed-start cycle racing on roads or circuits. First rider over the finish line wins, with anything from twenty to almost 200 competitors, depending on the event. In the UK, events range from short Youth and Juvenile (under16) races of 20km or less, through club level events for adults of between 40km and 100km, to Elite-level one day races of 200km or more. The majority of adult racing takes place on public roads, though there are an increasing number of circuit events, either on roads closed to other traffic or on specially constructed circuits, some which are shared with other sports like motor racing and kart racing, others are purpose built for cycling. All under-16 racing takes place on traffic-free closed circuits.
The classic Road Race is a test of stamina, fitness and tactical acumen. Team tactics often come into play. Riders often have particular strengths: some can climb hills and mountains very quickly; others have a devastating turn of speed or sprint; other have the ability to ride very well against the clock in Time Trials (which often form part of multi day or stage races). The art is to restrict your rival's gains in the areas where they are strong and maximise your gains in your preferred terrain.
Some Road Races are contested over several days and several stages. These "Stage" Races or Tours often feature prizes for each stage winner, plus others for the best sprinter in the race, the best climber (aka King of the Mountains), the leading team and, of course, the overall winner, who is the rider with the best aggregate time. The Tour de France is the world's most prestigious Stage Race and lasts for three weeks.
All top Road Racers need to be able to stay in the saddle for hours at a time (endurance). Some are exceptionally good at going uphill and target wins in hilly terrain: these are known as Climbers. Others have a big 'kick' or ability to accelerate and are known as Sprinters. They often win races where the finish is contested by a number of riders - a bunch or sprint finish. Few riders can win, however, if they are not tactically very aware and at pro level team tactics and strategy can be very complex.
Endurance, Sprinting, Climbing, Tactics - these are just some of the qualities a successful road rider might possess. Which is the most important? Well, it's open to debate, but compared to the sledgehammer tactic of just trying to ride faster than your rivals - something which will not work at anything but the lowest level of the sport - the rapier blade of genuine tactical nous is potentially a race winner for you. Here's a simple guide to some of the tactical moves which can win Road Races.
Road Racing is amazingly varied and the tactical options open to a rider or team are almost endless. This is what makes it such a wonderful and unpredictable sport. Often the strongest teams and riders prevail, but the outsider who is prepared to take risks and commit to daring tactics always has a fighting chance. Here, in simplified terms, are three classic tactics used by top teams:
Mountain Goat: a hilly or mountainous event will always suit a lightweight rider climber - who can ascend very well. However, the key to that rider winning the event often lies with his team-mates who must protect him through the flatter parts of the route classically by slipstreaming him (which can cut his required power output on the flat by 30%). The climber must conserve his or her energies until the critical climb of the race usually the last significant climb. They must then commit themselves totally to riding that climb as fast as possible in the hope that the other riders will not be able to stay with the pace. If the finish is at the top of the climb, it makes things easier: drop your rivals on the climb and as long as you can maintain your high climbing pace, you will have a good chance of winning. If the finish is some distance beyond, the rider must also be confident of maintaining a high enough average speed to the finish so that his/her gains on the climb are not completely lost.
Sprinter: A predominantly flat event is usually viewed as the hunting ground of the Sprinter, a rider with an exceptional turn of speed, albeit over a relatively short distance. The theory is that on a flat stage, by clever positioning in the field and the help of team-mates, the sprinter should not lose contact with the front of the race and should still be in the leading group of riders approaching the finish. The sprinter must then get to the front of the field in the closing few hundred meters and use that exceptional speed to pull away from all rivals. Sprinters often win races by millimetres, so timing and commitment are essential. Sprinters are often aided by team-mates right up to the closing hundred metres: the less effort the sprinter has to make before the final sprint the better and some of the best sprinters have team-mates who are expert at slipstreaming them through the field and almost the line, allowing them to use their final burst of speed for just a few seconds as they claim victory. The sight of several sprinters battling for the line is one of the great sights of cycle sport.
The Break: An alternative tactic for both mountainous and flat stages is the lone or small break. An individual or small group of riders might be able to ride clear of the main field in the opening miles of an event, with the rest of the field content that they have plenty of time to catch them later. This often happens, but judicious blocking by team-mates of riders in the break can disrupt the chase. Equally, a well-balanced and committed bunch of perhaps half a dozen riders can hold the main field at bay for a surprising length of time and if the chasers time their pursuit badly, they can let the break get away and claim the win. On the flat, breaks can also get away from the field in the closing stages of races and, if there is any hesitation in the main field, they can stay clear to the finish. In the mountains, a talented climber can sometimes make an early break and maintain such a high pace through the hills that the rest of the field can't catch them. All breaks require bravery, self-confidence and total commitment to succeed.
Tailwinds: tail winds make breaks hard to catch the collective effort of the field working to slipsteam each other through still air or a headwind can usually overpower the smaller number of riders attempting to do the same thing in a break. A tail wind removes this advantage and makes breaks harder to catch.
Cross-winds: a classic Road Race scenario. Cross-winds lead to echelons of riders basically diagonal lines of riders seeking shelter from the wind behind and to the side of the nearest upwind rider. The lengths of echelons is governed by the width of available road. If you are not in the front echelon and that echelon is travelling more quickly then your own, you can find yourself losing touch with the front of the race very quickly. The wind will make joining the front echelon difficult and even if you do, there may be no room left to join it at the downwind side, leaving you isolated and fighting the wind alone - a no-win situation.
Time Trials: some of the most successful winners of the Tour de France built their success on being great riders against the clock. They would target the Time Trial stages of the event for 100% effort in the hope of gaining time on rivals. Then, using their team to help them as much as possible, they would mark any moves of their rivals on the normal Road stages. Of course this tactic requires an excellent all-round rider to make it work he/she must be able to stay in touch with all the main contenders in the potentially dangerous mountain stages, where time can be lost very quickly. But time gains are often easier to defend than gain in the mountains.
The structure of the sport of Road Racing is undergoing a major overhaul in Great Britain. A new event classification system and an extended ranking system are just two of the changes. Follow the link below for a detailed overview of how the category of events ties into the ranking and licence points available - plus how your own category is determined. Click here for more information.
All the information on this page originally from British Cycling.