Road bicycle racing

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Bicycle racers at the 2005 Rund um den Henninger-Turm in Germany

Road bicycle racing is a popular bicycle racing sport held on roads (following the geography of the area), using racing bicycles. The term 'road racing' is usually applied to events where competing riders start simultaneously (unless riding a handicap event) with the winner being the first at the end of the course (individual and team time trials are another form of cycle racing on roads). It is one of the most physically demanding sports that one can participate in.

Road racing is popular all over the world, but especially in Europe. The most competitive and devoted countries are Belgium, France, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, although the sport is popular also in Australia, Russia, and the United States.

Road bicycle racing began as an organized sport in 1868. The first world championship was in 1893 and cycling has been part of the Olympic Games since the modern sequence started in Athens in 1896.

Road racing in its modern form originated in the late 19th century. The sport was popular in the western European countries of France, Spain, Belgium, and Italy. Some of Europe's earliest road bicycle races remain among the sport's marquee events. These early races include Liège-Bastogne-Liège (established 1892), Paris-Roubaix (1896), the Tour de France (1903), the Milan-Sanremo and Giro di Lombardia (1905), the Giro d'Italia (1909) and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (1913). They provided a template for other races around the world. While the sport has spread throughout the world, these historic races remain the most prestigious for a cyclist to win.

Road race types

The Tour of Gippsland - a stage race - climbing through the scenic area of the Omeo Shire

Single-day races

The first competitor to cross the finish line after completing the prescribed course is declared the winner. Race distances vary from a few kilometres to more than 200 km. Courses may run from place to place or comprise one or more laps of a circuit; some courses combine both, ie: taking the riders from a starting place and then finishing with several laps of a circuit (usually to ensure a good spectacle for spectators at the finish). Races over short circuits (often in town or city centres) are known as criteriums. Some races, known as handicaps, are designed to match riders of different abilities and/or ages; groups of slower riders start first, with the fastest riders starting last and so having to race harder and faster to catch other competitors.

Single-day Nocturnal races

Nocturnal races are an attempt to bring in larger crowds. A good example of this is the Shropshire Star Newport Nocturne, which is Britain's only floodlit cycle race.

Stage races

Consists of several races - 'stages' - ridden consecutively. The competitor with the lowest cumulative time to complete all the stages is declared the overall, or General Classification (GC), winner. Stage races may also have other classifications and awards, such as individual stage winners, the points classification winner, and the "King of the Mountains" (or Mountains classification) winner. A stage race can also be a series of road races and individual time trials (some events include team time trials). The stage winner is the first person to cross the finish line that day or the time trial rider (or team) with the lowest time on the course. The overall winner of a stage race is the rider who takes the lowest aggregate time to complete all stages (accordingly, a rider does not have to win all or any of the individual stages to win overall).


A team of riders draft behind one another, forming a paceline

Though the objective of a race is quite simple - to be the first rider to cross the line - a number of tactics are employed. They are based on the benefit of riding in the slipstream of another rider and thus making it possible to save a considerable amount of energy. A group that breaks away (break) from the main field, bunch or peloton, has more space and freedom and can therefore be at an advantage in certain situations. A small group of riders can work together smoothly and efficiently to maintain a higher speed than the peloton, where the remaining riders may not be as motivated or organized to chase effectively. Usually a rider or group of riders will try to break from the peloton by attacking and riding ahead to reduce the number of riders competing for the win. If the break doesn't succeed, and the body of cyclists comes back together, the winner will often be a sprinter. Teamwork between riders (both pre-arranged and ad-hoc) is important in many aspects: to prevent a break from getting away, helping riders in a break get clear of the bunch, and sometimes in delivering a sprinter to the front of the field.

Races often feature difficult sections such as tough climbs, fast descents, and sometimes technical surfaces (such as the cobbled pavé used in the Paris-Roubaix race) to make the course more selective. Stronger riders will be able to drop weaker riders during such sections to reduce the number of direct competitors able to take the win. In order to be successful, riders must develop excellent bike handling skills in order to be able ride at high speeds in close quarters with other riders. Individual riders can approach speeds of 110 km/h while descending winding mountain roads and may reach speeds of 60-80 km/h during the final sprint to the finish line.

In more organized races there is a bus (the Broom waggon) that follows the race, picking up stragglers.

In all road racing, drafting is a very important concept whereby one rider can save a lot of effort by closely following the rider in front in order to stay in his slipstream. Riding in a peloton can save as much as 40% of the energy employed in forward motion when compared to riding in the wind. Some teams will designate a leader, while the rest of the team is charged with keeping that rider out of the wind and in a good position until a critical section of the race.. This can be used as a strength or a weakness by competitors; riders can cooperate and draft each other to ride at high speed (a paceline or echelon), or one rider can sit on a competitor's wheel, forcing him to do a greater share of the work to maintain the pace and potentially tiring earlier. Drafting may not be employed in a time trial, unless it is a team time trial.


While the principle remains of the winner being the first to cross the line, many of the riders are grouped together in teams, usually with commercial sponsors. On professional and semi-professional teams, names are typically synonymous with the primary sponsors. The size of the team varies, from three in an amateur event for club riders to a dozen in professional races. Team riders decide between themselves, before and during the race, which has the best chance of winning. The choice will depend on hills, the chances that the whole field will finish together in a sprint, and other factors. The rest of the team will devote itself to promoting its leader's chances, taking turns into the wind for him, refusing to chase with the peloton when he escapes, and so on.

Types of riders

The main specialities in road bicycle racing are:

Notable bicycle races

Grand Tours

The most famous cycling race is the Tour de France, a multi-stage tour over three weeks nominally through France, traditionally ending in Paris. Similar long multi-stage tours are held in Italy (the Giro d'Italia) and Spain (the Vuelta a España). These three races make up the "Grand Tours".

Olympic games

The historian Wlodzimierz Golebiewski says: "Cycling has become a major event on the Olympic programme... Like many other sports it has undergone several changes over the years. Just as there used to be track and field events such as the standing high jump or throwing the javelin with both hands, cyclists, too, used to compete for medals in events which today have been forgotten; for example in Athens in 1896, they attempted a 12-hour race, and in London, in 1908, one of the events was a sprint for 603.49 metres (660 yards)."

The Olympic Games has never been as important in road cycling as in other sports. Until the distinction ended, the best riders were professionals rather than amateurs and so didn't take part.

UCI ProTour events

Professional racing is governed by the Union Cycliste Internationale. In 2005 it instituted the UCI ProTour to replace the UCI Road World Cup series. While the World Cup contained only one-day races, the ProTour includes the Grand Tours and other large stage races such as Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice and the Critérium de Dauphiné Libéré.

The former UCI Road World Cup one-day races - which include all five Classic cycle races or 'Monuments' - are also part of the ProTour: Milan-Sanremo (Italy), Ronde van Vlaanderen (Belgium), Paris-Roubaix (France), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Belgium) and Amstel Gold Race (Netherlands) in the spring, and Clásica de San Sebastián (Spain), HEW Cyclassics (Germany), Züri-Metzgete (Switzerland), Paris-Tours (France) and Giro di Lombardia (Italy) in the autumn season.


Cycle racing on the road is a summer sport, although the season can start in early spring and end in autumn. The months of the season depend on the hemisphere. A racing year is divided between lesser races, single-day classics and stage races. The classics include the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix and Milan-Sanremo. The other important one-day race is the World Championships. Unlike other classics, the World Championships is held on a different course each year and ridden by national rather than sponsored teams. The winner wears a white jersey with coloured bands (often called "rainbow bands") around the chest. There are numerous stage races, that include the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta à España.

History of road races

First races

The acknowledged first races were held in the Parc de St-Cloud, now in western Paris on 31 May 1868. They were held there because of the influence of the former royal family of France, which owned the park and which had been caught up in the enthusiasm for riding the newly devised bicycles with pedals. It explains too the accounts of spectators dressed in their finery.

The races were organised by the Compagnie Parisienne, which the previous year had taken over the bicycle company run by Pierre Michaux and his family. In 1866, Michaux produced a new machine with an iron frame which sloped down to contain the back wheel, made like the front, of wood.

Historians dispute in which order races were run, although it seems certain there was more than one. One of those races was won by a 19-year-old English immigrant called James Moore. He was a friend of the Michaux family and rode one of their new bicycles. It is now in the museum at Ely, Cambridgeshire, England. At the time, Cycling Record wrote that he set off "as fast as lightning," overtook the favourite, François Drouet and then another rider, Palocini, and won by 20 metres. The race ran 1,200 m from the fountains to the gates of the park and back.


The success of the races in the Parc de St-Cloud inspired the Compagnie Parisienne and the magazine Le Vélocipède Illustré to run a race from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the cathedral in Rouen on 7 November 1869. It was the world's first long-distance road race and also won by Moore, who took 10 hours and 25 minutes to cover 134 km. The runners-up were the Count André Castéra, who had come second to Moore at St-Cloud, and Jean Bobillier, riding a farm bike that weighed 35 kg. The only woman to finish within 24 hours was the self-styled Miss America, in reality an unknown English woman who, like several in the field, had preferred not to compete under her real name.

International development

The growth of organised cycle racing led to the development of national administrative bodies, in Britain in 1878, France 1881, the Netherlands 1883, Germany 1884 and Sweden 1900. Sometimes, as in Britain, cycling was originally administered as part of athletics, since cyclists often used the tracks used by runners. This could, says the historian James McGurn, lead to disputes within countries and internationally.


The first international body was the International Cycling Association (ICA), established by an English schoolteacher called Henry Sturmey (the founder of Sturmey-Archer). It opened in 1893 and held its first world championship in Chicago, USA, the same year. A new organisation, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), was set up on 15 April, 1900 during the Olympic Games in Paris. Britain was not initially a member. It joined in 1903. The UCI has run the sport ever since. It is based in Switzerland.

Bicycle championships

File:Bicycle racing.jpg
A criterium in Burlington, Vermont, April 2004

Bicycle championships

See also

External links

Road bicycle racing
UCI ProTour | UCI Women's Road World Cup

UCI Road World Championships | Olympic Games | National Cycling Championships
UCI Continental Circuits:  UCI Africa Tour • UCI America Tour • UCI Asia Tour • UCI Europe Tour • UCI Oceania Tour
Grand Tour | Stage race | Classics | Criterium | Individual time trial | Team time trial