Bike racing is arguably the most strategic sport in the world, and the only one in which the countryside itself is the playing field. While most European viewers know it as well as many Americans know football or baseball, the jargon of the sport can be baffling to new viewers. A few key concepts can help the general viewer understand what’s going on.
Bicycle Stage Race Terms
- Peloton. The main field, or pack. “Peloton” is French for “small ball.” The peloton is the primary measure of what’s going on in the race. Riders in front of it are in a breakaway. Riders behind it are dropped, or “off the back.”
- Drafting. Following in another rider’s slipstream. Drafting is at the heart of bike racing, as riding behind another rider can save 30-40% of a racer’s energy. Nearly all tactics and strategy devolve from this truth. To understand the power of drafting is to understand bike racing.
- Stage Race. A multiple-day race in which the fastest cumulative time determines the winner. Each day, a stage is contested as its own race, with a start and finish and its own winner, but all of the riders’ times are run together from day to day. A strong rider can win a stage race without ever winning a stage if he or she finishes well each day.
- Time trial. A race in which riders race one at a time against the clock. There is no drafting, so there is no team strategy; the strongest rider wins. Hence, Europeans call it “the race of truth.”
- Team. While TV commentators often stress riders’ nationalities, most professional bike racing teams (except in races like the Olympics and the World Championship) are trade teams. They are funded by companies who want publicity. Think NASCAR. Cycling is – as much as football or hockey – a team sport. The team wants its leader to win the stage or the race. Many members of the team will never win a major race or even try to win a race themselves; if the leader wins, the team wins.
- Team leader. The rider the team has decided to support in each event. A team may support one rider in one-day races like the European “Classics” and another rider in longer races like the Tour of Switzerland (one week) or the Tour of Italy (3 weeks).
- Climber. A rider who can go uphill in mountains quickly and for long periods of time. Climbers are often small or thin riders, who fare well in the mountains but have trouble in sprints and time trials.
- Sprinter. A rider who excels in bursting from the pack, with a concerted effort from his team, in the final few hundred meters of a race. Sprinters are often larger, muscular riders who are fast in a drag race but can’t hang in the big mountains.
- Time trialist. A rider who does well in the race against the clock.
- Domestique. (Pronounced doh-mess-TEEK.) French for “servant:” a rider who works to keep the leader in contention and to keep other teams’ riders under control. A domestique’s duties in a single day might be chasing down a break, ferrying water bottles from the team car to the other riders, dropping back to help a teammate with a flat tire, or giving up his bike to a more “important” member of the team who has had a mechanical failure.
- GC rider. GC means General Classification, or how the riders stack up over the multiple days of a stage race. A GC rider, to be successful, must be good at climbing and time trialing – the two disciplines in which significant time can be lost in a stage race – and be near the front finishers on a daily basis.
Think of some recent multiple Tour de France champions: Greg Lemond, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, to name a few. Every one could climb with the best and finish the 3-week race without losing significant time on any one day. Plus, they won just about every time trial in the tour.