Professional cycling is one of the most difficult sports to follow, but also the most rewarding once you understand it. I got in to it after seeing the 2012 Olympic Road Race in Bushy Park, but it still took me months to get my head around it properly. This guide will endeavor to explain things as simply as possible! I’m going to focus on the types of races rather than tactics and terminology; I’ll save that for another day.
The easiest place to start isn’t the Tour de France, it is with a one-day race. The simplicity of the rider who finishes first wins the race is much easier than with a stage race.
Teams consist of usually 7 riders and within that team, one or two will be designated leaders who the rest of the team will ride for. They will chase down attacks, fetch food & drink and protect their leader(s) from the wind. The leader(s) will then try to attack near the end of the race or wait for the final sprint. There are usually approximately 20 teams in a race.
The types of one-day races are where it can get confusing. There are different terrain types and these suit different riders and teams. The most common types of terrain are hilly, flat and cobbles. Hilly races often have an uphill finish and can be quite unpredictable and exciting. Flat races can be the dullest with the pelaton riding for hours before a final exciting sprint to finish the race. Cobble races are my personal favourite and as the name suggests, much of the riding is over sectors of cobblestones. These races are the most unpredictable, particularly if there has been wet weather.
I would recommend trying the following one-day races:
- Hilly – Il Lombardia – an end of season race in October set in Northern Italy. Stunning scenery and riders desperate to get something out of the season makes for an exciting race
- Flat – Scheldeprijs – Set in early April, this Pan-flat with a few cobbled sectors and cross winds that can break up the pelaton makes this one of the more exciting one-day races
- Cobbles – Paris-Roubaix – set in mid-April, this is the most famous cycling race after the Tour de France is probably the single best day of racing in the cycling calendar. Endless cobbled sections break the pelaton up early on and make for an unpredictable race, though the strongest is likely to be in the final group at the finish.
Stage races is where a lot of newcomers fall down. The usual question is how come the rider that wins the most races (stages) doesn’t win the race? The simple answer is time – the winner of a stage race is the rider with the least accumulated time over the stages; that’s the easiest way to understand it. There are also different competitions in most stage races, including:
- Points – riders gain points for high finishes, rewarding either consistency, or a sprinter if many of the stages are sprinter-friendly
- Climber – most climbs in a stage have points on offer at the climbs, giving an incentive for riders to break away from the pelaton. This competition is often competed for by those that don’t have other objectives of winning a stage or the overall race
- Young Rider – the best rider under-25 with the least accumulated time
Stage races can consist of anywhere from 2 to 21 stages. Most at the top level are between six and nine, with the three Grand Tours (see below) consisting of 21. The best stage races have a mix of terrain and types of races. Many of them also have individual time trials and team time trials (a subject for another post).
I would recommend the following stage races as a starting point:
- Paris-Nice – set in early March, this early season race takes the riders across 8 stages from near Paris all the way down to Nice. There is often a good mix of terrain and an excellent field of riders. The last few editions have been excellent with the race still undecided until the final stage.
- Tour de Romandie – this is a great short stage race in late April with 6 stages throughout the Romandie region of Switzerland. There are often time trials, high mountains and a high quality field that are gearing up for the Giro d’Italia that will be just around the corner.
- Bink Bank Tour – this is my wild card choice that is set in mid-August. Consisting of 7 stages and set across the low countries, it often takes the routes of some of the classic races set in that part of the world in March and April. That means there are often cobbles and short explosive climbs, making for attacking and exciting racing.
The Grand Tours
This is where most people start, having seen the Tour de France first. It is also the most difficult to follow! For a start there are 21 stages set across three weeks; it doesn’t make for casual viewing. If you understand the sport though, then the Grand Tours are the most rewarding to follow, particularly if the race is undecided until near the end.
The three grand tours are:
- Giro d’Italia – set in Italy in May, this is often a race targeted by up and coming stage race riders. The field is usually quite good, though often missing the best riders. Recent editions have been excellent, with the 2017 edition decided on the final day time trial.
- Tour de France – the big one that all the best riders are at. The scenery is stunning and the stages can often be exciting but for me, one of the problems with the race is its size. Gaining a high placing at the Tour de France means more to teams than it does at other grand tours. This can often lead to quite defensive riding and I can’t remember an exciting finale to the Tour since I started watching. I still never miss a stage though!
- La Vuelta – my personal favourite, set in Spain in September. It is the last chance of the season for stage race riders and also includes a pelaton where at least half of the riders are already exhausted. The result is an unpredictable race with often more attacking riding than at the Tour.