How to watch a road race: a beginner’s guide


Following on from our beginner’s guide to time trials, here’s your introduction to watching the most popular form of road bicycle racing.

What is a road race?

The road race is the easiest to understand of all bike races.

The concept is simple: everyone starts at Point A at the same time, and rides to Point B. The winner is the first person to cross the finish line at Point B.

Usually, racing takes place on normal roads that are temporarily closed to traffic.

The length of races varies greatly between events. For the biggest events, raced by Elite Men and Women, you can expect the distance to be anywhere between 100–250 kilometres, taking from 2.5 hours to up to 8 hours.

The terrain varies from race to race: some courses are mostly flat, while others feature extremely long mountain climbs and descents.

A cycling road race
Cyclists racing along a coastal road. Photo: Con Chronis

What does it take to win a road race?

Given the long distances, road racing is a test of endurance: you need the base fitness to complete the distance.

If we want to get more nuanced, there are different types of riders with strengths and weaknesses.

Sprinters have explosive acceleration for a few seconds. They are heavier than most other riders due to the muscle mass needed to generate speed. Therefore, they are most likely to win on flat terrain, where they can keep up with their rivals and make a burst for the line in the last few hundred metres.

A sprint finish of a cycling road race
Some road races finish in a bunch sprint. (Photo: Russ Ellis)

Climbers, as the name suggests, are best at riding uphill. They are lighter than most others and can ride away from their rivals on long climbs.

Puncheurs are a sort of hybrid between sprinters and climbers. They have a fairly fast sprint, but can also climb well on shorter hills up to a few minutes in length. Puncheurs excel on short, steep hills where they drop the pure sprinters.

Rouleurs can sustain a high power over a long period of time, but are heavier than climbers and lack the explosiveness of sprinters. Their best chance to win is on flat or rolling terrain if they get ahead of their rivals and hold them off until the finish.

Why are some riders so far ahead?

When you tune in to a road race on TV, often you’ll see a small group of riders several minutes ahead of the rest of the field.

That small group is called the breakaway, while the main pack of riders is called the peloton.

Many road races follow a typical formula, as follows:

  1. All the riders start together;
  2. Early on, some will accelerate away from the peloton and attempt to form a breakaway;
  3. Eventually, the peloton will let the breakaway gain a few minutes’ advantage, confident that they can reel them back in;
  4. During the main part of the race, the breakaway will try to stay clear of the peloton, while the peloton tries to gradually catch up without spending too much energy;
  5. Close to the finish, either the breakaway will stay away to contest the win, or they will be caught by the riders in the peloton, who will race each other for victory.
Breakaway riders in front of the peloton in a cycling road race
Riders trying to form a breakaway ahead of the peloton. (Photo: Con Chronis)

Tell me more about teamwork and tactics

Teamwork can appear subtle when watching a road race, but it’s essential to winning.

This is mostly because of the affect of drafting, or slipstreaming.

At the speeds of 40–50km/h usually seen in road races, you can save a lot of energy by riding behind another person instead of fighting air resistance yourself. It’s estimated that you can save between 20–40% of energy by drafting in this way.

That’s why cyclists tend to bunch up together in groups: it’s hard to stay away from the peloton by yourself.

A team rides in single file in a cycling road race
Teammates work for their leaders by riding in the wind. (Photo: Con Chronis)

Teams will usually have a strategy that revolves around protecting one or two of their riders. Their teammates will shelter their leaders as much as possible during the race, helping them save energy until they need to use it at the end of the race, whether in a sprint or on a late climb.

Team members will also help by dropping back to their team car, which follows the peloton in a convoy of vehicles, to collect drink bottles and food and deliver it back up to their leader.

In the important final kilometres of a race, you will often see teams lining up in single file at the front of the peloton, trying to position their leader near the front of the bunch while keeping them out of the wind. That way, the leader will be in the best place to launch an attack or sprint for the win.

Cyclist takes a water bottle in a cycling road race
Cyclists can collect water bottles to distribute to their teammates. (Photo: Russ Ellis)

What about multi-day races?

Some road races, like the famous Tour de France, go on for many days – up to three weeks.

You can think of each day as a standalone race, where the riders will start from Point A and finish at Point B. The first rider to Point B wins that stage.

On each day, every rider’s time is recorded: the time it took them to ride from A to B.

At the end of the whole race, after all stages are completed, the winner is the rider who has the lowest cumulative time.

Georgie Howe in a leaders jersey at a bicycle stage race
In a stage race, the current leader of the race wears a distinctive jersey (though not always yellow). (Photo: Con Chronis)

How can I watch the road races at the 2022 UCI Road World Championships in Wollongong?

Road races will make up the last three days of competition at Wollongong 2022.

The races will take place mostly on multiple laps of an urban circuit that finishes in central Wollongong.

You can watch the 2022 UCI Road World Championships live on Stan Sport, with the last few hours of the Elite Women and Elite Men road races broadcast from 3:00pm AEST on Channel 9, Gem and 9Now (check local guides).

To learn more about the green-and-gold campaign at Wollongong 2022, including race times and our Aussie riders in action, read the Australian guide to the 2022 UCI Road World Championships.

Feature photo: Rob Jones

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