A Road Racing Primer for Cyclists

Bike racing has exploded in the United States. In 2010, USA Cycling, the official governing body for all disciplines of competitive cycling in the United States, issued 69,771 licenses. This represents eight consecutive years in which the number of licensed, competitive cyclists rose compared with the previous year. USA Cycling also sanctioned 2,933 events across five disciplines (road, track, mountain, cyclocross and BMX) in 2010 alone.

As the name implies, road racing takes place on paved roadways. It is generally considered the most traditional and popular form of bike racing and it takes many forms. Specifically, road racing can be divided into two categories: mass start races and time trials. Mass start races include road races, criteriums, and stage races while time trials include both individual and team competitions.

1. The Individual Time Trial (ITT). A time trial is an individual race against the clock. Riders start one at a time, usually at 1-2 minute intervals. It is known as the race of truth because every rider’s performance is based entirely on his or her ability. There is absolutely no drafting or team tactics. Whoever navigates the course in the shortest amount of time is the winner. Most time trials are between 16 km (10 miles) and 40 km (24.8 miles) in length, and are contested over a variety of terrain. Because of its ease of entry and relative safety, time trialing is a great place to start as a competitive cyclist.

2. The Team Time Trial (TTT). The TTT is very similar to the individual time trial. The primary difference is that the TTT involves two or more cyclists working together to cover the route as quickly as possible. The members of the team take turns pulling at the front and providing a draft for their teammates, however, there is no drafting off of other teams. To avoid this potential problem, teams are usually released at 3-4 minute intervals.

3. The Road Race. Road races are team-oriented, mass start events held on public roads that consist of either an out-and-back route (start and finish is the same location) or point-to-point configuration (start and finish separated by the distance of the race). Some road races are held on a circuit. These are loops of more than 1 mile but generally less than 5 miles within a particular town. Race distance is typically based on rider experience (i.e., the more experience the longer the race).

4. The Criterium. Criterium racing is a purely American endeavor and is one of the most popular forms of road racing in the U.S. Criteriums (also known as “crits”) are held on relatively short (less than one mile), closed courses and are typically 1 hour or less in duration. Criteriums tend to be extremely fast races, held on relatively flat terrain that benefits the pure sprinter. Because of the frequent turns and high speeds, bike handling ability is vitally important during a criterium.

5. The Stage Race. Stage races take place over several days and often include a combination of a road race, a criterium and a time trial. The winner is the person that accrues the lowest cumulative time over the various stages. Stages races can be as short as two days or as long as three weeks (e.g., the Grand Tours which include the Tour de France, the Tour of Italy and the Tour of Spain).