Cycling 101

Cyclists riding in a straight line

The basics of a stage race

It may come as a surprise to learn that cycling is a team sport. In fact, it is one of the most strategic team sports of all. Teams at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah will have eight riders each to start the week. Each team has its own game plan for winning, and each rider plays a different role in that game plan.

Most teams have one leader. His teammates play the role of a domestique, one who sacrifices his own chance of winning in support of the team leader. A domestique is the “worker bee” of the team, protecting the leader from the wind, chasing down breakaway riders, fetching water or clothing from the team car, and even sacrificing their wheels or bicycles for the leader in certain situations.

One of the most crucial concepts in team racing is drafting. Riders can conserve energy, as much as 30% or so, by riding in the slipstream of another cyclist. As a result, teams try to surround their leader with teammates, keeping him out of the wind and fresh to attack at the right moment. Different formations can increase the energy-saving benefits of drafting, such as forming an echelon, and wind can necessitate a variety of drafting formations.

Teams also develop complex strategies to win specific stages and the races within races, such as pointsfor King of the Mountain or Sprint competitions. Not only do teams designate a leader for the overall race, but many also select riders to try and win the jerseys that are awarded to the best sprinter and best climber of the Tour.

Then there is the time trial, which can be contested as an individual or team “race of truth.” The athletes race against the clock, not against fellow competitors. In the end, of course, the winner will have the lowest time among all competitors, so that competition might be considered more “indirect” than a road or circuit race.

For more clarification, refer to this glossary of terms about cycling. If all the tactics aren’t crystal clear, you can at least sound like an expert by saying, “I’m so impressed by Team RadioShack on the jump and they put the hammer down for the breakaway to capture the Sprint bonus. The rest of the peloton seemed to just pop.”


When a rider quits during a race.
A sudden acceleration to move ahead of another rider or group of riders.
Big Ringing It
The chain on the big chain ring, going for maximum speed. Also referred to as “pushing a massive gear” or “grinding a big gear.”
Total exhaustion caused by lack of sufficient food during a long race or ride.
Bonus Sprints
On each stage, race organizers designate several intermediate points along the route where bonus points are given to the first three riders that cross the line. These sprints are a “race within a race” during each stage.
A rider or group of riders that has left the main group behind.
When one or more riders from the peloton manage to ride away and catch up to, or “bridge” up to a breakaway.
Caravan/Race Caravan
The official and support vehicles in a race.
Circuit Race
A one-day race that laps around a circuitous route, that must be greater that 10km long.
Classic Race
A one-day race in which the route travels between two separate points, instead of a circuitous route.
A multi-lap, one-day race on a closed, short course, typically two miles or less.
Short for Did Not Finish.
Short for Did Not Start.
A team rider who will sacrifice his individual performance to help a designated teammate. Duties can include giving up one’s bike for another rider, supplying refreshments to teammates, and catching breakaway riders. French for “servant.”
To ride closely behind another racer, saving energy by using that racer as a wind break. Riding in front is very strenuous but affords a great energy-saving advantage to the rider behind.
When a rider has been passed by another, or left behind.
A staggered, long line of riders, each slightly offset and downwind of the rider ahead, allowing them to move considerably faster than a solo rider or small group of riders. In windy sections where there are crosswinds, a large peloton will form into echelons.
Feed Zone
A designated area along the route where riders can grab “musette bags” filled with food and drinks as they ride by. There is an unwritten rule in the peloton that riders should not attack the field while the riders are going through the feed zone.
Field Sprint
A mass sprint at the finish among the main group of riders in a road race.
The amount of time or distance between a rider or group of riders and another rider or group of riders.
General Classification (G.C.)
The overall leader board in the race, representing each rider’s total cumulative time in the race. The rider with the lowest time is number one on the G.C.
Grand Tour
Refers to three-week major cycling stage races: Tour de France, Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), and Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain).
To ride hard. Also, to “put the hammer down.”
Individual Time Trial. See “Time Trial” below.
A quick acceleration, which usually develops into a sprint.
King of the Mountain. Award for the Best Climber.
Lead Out
To intentionally sacrifice one’s chances in order to create a windbreak and creating an opening for a rider behind. A racing tactic whereby one rider races at high speed to give a head start to the rider on his/her wheel. Almost always refers to a situation involving a sprint to an intermediate sprint line, or final finish line.
Slang for a mechanical problem with the bicycle. “He had a mechanical.”
Mountain Climb Classifications
Large mountain climbs are normally classified according to their difficulty. Category 4 is the easiest, followed by Categories 3, 2, 1, and the Hors-Categorie (which is the hardest). Mountain climbs are classified according to their length and the average gradient of the road’s incline.
Off the Back
When a rider or riders cannot keep pace with the main group and lag behind.
Off the Front
When a rider takes part in a breakaway.
A string of riders that moves at high speed with each individual taking turns setting the pace and riding in the draft of the others. See also Train.
The main field, or pack, of riders in the race. Peloton is French for a group moving forward.
One type of beginning for a stage race, which is a relatively short time trial.
Pop or Popped
Blown. Had it. Knackered. Stuffed. Lots of words to describe the legs just going all weak. Loss of power.
Flat tire.
Road Rash
Skin abrasions resulting from a fall or crash onto the road.
The bike seat.
Sitting up
When the rider is no longer tucked, or riding in the most aerodynamic fashion.
The area of least wind resistance behind a rider.
Stage Race
A bike race held over successive days, with a different course each day. Stage races can last anywhere from three to 25 days. The rider with the lowest total time (or accumulated points) after completion of all the stages wins the overall race.
A rider riding at or near the back of the peloton who’s job is to take any of his teammates or team leader back to the front of the race if there is a crash, flat or mechanical problem.
Team Leader
The rider for whom the team rides in order for the leader to win a stage or race.
Time Cut
Mostly applicable to the Grand Tours. On each stage all riders must finish within a certain percentage of the winner’s time to remain in the race. Those who are unable to make the cut are disqualified from the race.
Time Trial
Race against the clock over a predetermined course or distance. The goal of a rider is to ride at just under his/her maximum effort and reach the finish in the shortest time. A Time Trial is conducted as an individual event or team event. Riders in an ITT can pass each other on the course but they are not allowed to draft off of each other. Also known as the “race of truth.”
A fast moving paceline of riders.
Union Cycliste Internationale, is an international governing body of cycling, based in Switzerland. It governs the disciplines of road, track, mountain bike, cyclo-cross, BMX, and indoor cycling.
Wheel Sucker/Wheelsucking
Someone who sticks to a rear wheel ahead of him or her and refuses to go to the front.
USA Cycling
America’s governing body of cycling. USAC supervises the activities of all cycling disciplines (road, mountain, track, cyclo-cross), and establishes criteria for the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team.
French word for bicycle.

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