Road racing is exactly what the name implies -racing on paved roadways, but there are several events, such as time trials, criteriums, and road races, which can be highly specialized in nature. Combinations of the vaious disciplines may be combined into stage races.
Endurance is a main factor in road racing — distances of 100 miles or more for men, and 50 miles or more for women are common, and topography varies from hilly (favoring the lean, lightweight climber) to flat (where the bigger, powerful sprinters tend to excel). Road races tend to be struggles between these two types of racers, with the endurance specialists forcing the pace at the front of the pack and the sprinters waiting for the moment when a short burst of blinding speed will make the difference between victory and defeat.
Often, strong, aggressive riders will “attack” the group in an attempt to “break away,” or escape on their own. This is a gamble, as a group can ride faster with less effort than a solo breakaway. Riders in a group can take turns “pulling” at the front and “drafting” in the pack’s slipstream in a long, wheel-to-wheel group called a “paceline.” Because of the stamina required, drafting, or riding closely behind a rider to decrease wind resistance, is very important. A drafting racer can save as much as 25 percent of the effort expended by a lone rider. A sprinter who has been conserving his energy by drafting in the pack can use his speed to jump ahead at the finish line.
A breakaway with a number of riders forming their own paceline has a better chance of success, particularly if it contains several riders from a single team. Watch for riders wearing the same jersey — they’ll take turns setting the pace and resting in the draft. Riders from other teams, meanwhile, may “sit in,” refusing to take a turn at the front, or take a slower, shorter pull than the others, either trying to slow the break, hoping their own teammates will catch it, or conserving energy for the final burst toward the finish line.
Watch the front of the main pack. If its leaders wear the same jersey as the breakaway leaders, they are “blocking,” or trying to keep the pack’s pace at a tempo that is slower than the break, but fast enough to discourage new break-aways. If its leaders are wearing another team’s colors, however, a full-blown “chase” may be developing.
In longer road races, a spectator may see a lull in the action and think that the riders are not racing. In races where cyclists are expected to be in the saddle for three, four or five hours, unspoken truces give the competitors a respite to eat and drink, take off jackets and leg warmers as temperatures rise or answer the call of nature. They’re conserving energy for the next attack, the next chase, efforts that in a strong group can push the pace in an instant from a sedate 25 mph to 35 mph and beyond. A rider who does not save something for those heart-pounding moments will not last long.
Finally, if the breakaway is caught and the pack re-forms with the finish line approaching, the various teams will maneuver to set up their sprinters, positioning them behind powerful riders who’ll provide a “leadout” — a gradual acceleration to top speed over the last couple of miles — that slingshots the sprinters toward the line at speeds in excess of 45 mph.
There is only one winner in every race, but even in top-level competition a champion needs a strong team. Nearly all criteriums and road races involve a degree of teamwork and tactics.