How to ride a bike: road racing

Road race.jpg

Well, following the success of Nicole Cooke winning her Gold medal, I thought I'd talk a bit about bike racing.

The first bike races were held as soon as more than one person had a bike - the earliest of which were thought to have originated in the late 1700's, basically a two wheeled hobby horse. Road racing bikes of today will be designed for lightness, rigidity, but also be comfortable over long distances, and will have a selection of 18 gears. Often made of carbon fibre, a good road racing bike will set you back a couple of grand.. or more!

The essence of a road race is a "massed start" and first over the line at the end wins. Pretty straight forward really. But of course there's more to it than that.

Distance vary from circa 30 miles on closed circuits (such as the Thursday night racing I used to do on the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit), "criteriums" (multi-lap events through town-centre based circuits) to the three week long extravaganza of the Tour De France (founded in 1903). Most distances for single stage day races however are 80 to 100 miles and generally take between 3.5 to 5 hours to complete.

For any type of racing it's much more convenient to ride as a member of a cycling club. It's convenient because the club will handle all the insurance and relevant paperwork viz a viz organisational bodies you have to join, but it's also convenient because it's very handy to be a part of a team in this kind of event.

As we are all different, we each have different styles of riding and different riding strengths too. Some may be better sprinters, or better hill climbers for example, and some races feature competitions within competitions. Take the Tour de France for example - the overall winner is the person that completes the course in the shortest time and to do this you have to be a strong all-rounder. The leader of the Tour gets to wear the Yellow Jersey. 

But there's also a competition for sprinters - folk that can propel their machines and 40mph or more for short distances (a few hundred yards) at the end of a long day... and at various "hot spots" during the day too. In the Tour the Sprint leader wears a green jersey.

Then there are the hill climbers - generally not great at sprinting or long fast days, but are angels in the hills. Again in the Tour they get to wear the famous "polka dot" jersey if they lead that particular competition. 

Eddy Merckx famously won all of these jerseys in his debut Tour, a feat unmatched by anyone since.

Road Racing has always been much more popular on the Content than here, but in recent years it has increased its presence in the UK and we've seen the results of this at the highest levels in the Olympics with Nicole Cooke and in the Tour with Mark Cavendish winning 4 stages.

So what's it like to ride a road race? it's a real buzz - if all goes well. Each race is very different - some are fast and hard from the word go, some take their time to wind up, others never really fizz.... One race I did stopped in a mass pile up after a couple of hundred meters! Another was a hard hard slog through rain, mud, sludge, slippery dangerous corners, punctures and head wind...

Often there is a break away - a group of riders, maybe from different teams, manages to give the bunch the slip - maybe as a result of a hot spot sprint, maybe as a result of a hill climb, or maybe as a result of an attack. When a rider attacks they'll shift up a gear or two and sprint away from the bunch, hoping perhaps that two or three other riders will respond, catch up and work together to get away from the bunch. Many a time this won't succeed, and if there's a succession of attacks, one then another and another... it can push the speed of the whole race up to a sustained 30mph or more...

Riding at speed in a group takes skill and practice - no one wants to fall off, no one wants to be in a crash and no one wants to cause a crash. Not only are they highly dangerous, and the injuries could keep you off your bike for weeks (and hurt!), but your bike might get damaged too... so concentration is critical.

If the group does break away, they'll work together to keep away, if not build their lead on the bunch. They do this by riding "bit and bit" i.e. taking turns on the front, maybe 100 meters at a time then falling to the back of the group and the next rider takes up the challenge on the front, hammering away for the next 100 metres or so. It's very exciting being in a break away, knowing there's a much bigger group somewhere behind you... if you get dropped from a leading group, you'll get swept up by the peloton when that catches you.

If the breakaway stays away to the finish, there might be a straighforward sprint to the line, or the group might just dissolve as no one wants to take the lead - it's often easier to win a sprint from behind... and if this happens and the groups slows down too much, they could be caught by the chasing group! It does happen... 

If there's a massed sprint to the finish, you'd better watch out! Bikes go all over the road as riders put all of their effort into getting the damn thing to go as fast as possible... if you're not prepared for some elbowing argy-bargy with a bunch of other riders all going at 40mph or more, then stay out of it! 

There's a lot more than I can fit into this here post, there are tactics to deal with wind, how to mount an attack, how to use your gears.. a whole mass of stuff, (diet, training, bike) but hopefully there's at least a flavour of the thrills and spills of it all. It's a lot of fun a lot of hard work, but very exciting, rewarding and social too!