This grueling combination of events, which can be as short as a weekend or as long as three weeks, often incorporates all three types of road racing. A small local stage race might have a time trial and road race on Saturday followed by a criterium on Sunday. A larger regional race might begin with an individual time trial, then continue over five days with three road races, a criterium and a circuit race. Major stage races such as the Tour de France cover more than 1,000 miles in several stages spread over three to four weeks of racing.
In stage races, the lowest elapsed time over all stages determines the winner on individual general classification, or "G.C." Some smaller races prefer a system that awards points for stage placings and are essentially a points omnium.
Time and points bonuses may be awarded for top-three finishes and for the winners of designated intermediate sprints or mountain tops in the course of individual stages. Riders must complete each stage — in some cases within a specified time limit — in order to start the next. And there’s more at stake than the individual victory — stage races feature competitions for the best team and best climber and may also have competitions for the best young rider and most aggressive rider. The leader in each individual category receives a special jersey to make him easily identifiable in the next stage, and teams with little chance of an overall victory often make one or more of these jerseys, or stage wins, their objective for the race.
Stage racing emphasizes all-around ability and strategy. A sprinter who is at a disadvantage in a hilly stage may choose to concentrate on winning a bonus sprint in the course of that race. The rider won’t win the stage, but will gain valuable time (or points) that will maintain or improve their position in the G.C. A team with a rider well-placed overall will work to protect or improve that position, chasing down breakaways and snatching bonus sprints from a dangerous opponent. Riders may surrender their individual ambitions for stage placings to protect the leader’s position in the G.C. Indeed, it’s not always necessary to win a stage to win the overall race — a rider must only post a lower total elapsed time than the competition, and that takes strength, savvy and support.