Tips for Spectators
Tips for Spectators from the Colavita/Sutter Home Women's Cycling Team presented by Cooking Light
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cycling was the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. Thousands of people lined streets across the country to watch the greatest stars or joined standing-room-only crowds at cycling tracks known as velodromes.
Today, cycling is enjoying a resurgence as one of the few sporting events where elite athletes compete in local neighborhoods and downtowns and no admission fee is charged. Essentially high-speed chess games on wheels, road racing events can be anywhere from one day to multiple days and the courses can vary from point-to-point routes road races to short, closed courses (known as criteriums). Multi-day events like the world-famous Tour de France are known as stage races and usually include several different racing formats. In all cases, competitive cyclists rely on teamwork, strategy, and preparation to claim a place on the winner's podium.
Road races are mass-start contests with routes that often feature hills (which favor climbers) and flat sections (where sprinters excel) and begin at one location and end in another. Cycling teams work together to gain an advantage over other riders, usually designating one person as the leader for the day based on terrain, fitness and the competition.
Iona Wynter Parks, Director Sportif (or manager) of the Colavita/Sutter Home Women's Cycling Team presented by Cooking Light explains that what makes road races thrilling to watch are the high speeds and breakaways where riders aggressively pull ahead of the field (the main group of riders, also known as the peloton). Timing is key as riders in a group ride faster with less effort and more protection from the wind by taking turns pulling at the front and drafting in the pack's slipstream in a long, wheel-to-wheel formation called a pace line.
Iona suggests watching for riders wearing the same jersey as they take turns setting the pace and resting in the draft. Riders from other teams may sit in, refusing to take their turn at the lead to either slow the breakaway so their teammates can catch up or to conserve energy for the final sprint to the finish line.
As the pack approaches the finish line, teams will maneuver to position their sprinters behind powerful riders who will provide a lead out. British Olympian Rachel Heal says to look for teammates riding close together. The rider in front will begin a sprint as a head start for a rider on their rear wheel who will come forward at even faster speed to take the lead.
Five-time US National Criterium Champion Tina Pic explains that criteriums (crits) are multi-lap races held on a closed course of about a mile or less in length with both right- and left-hand corners. These races, which usually last one to two hours, are extremely fast as the cyclists jockey for position and sprint for "race-within-the race" contests. Crits are exciting to watch as the cyclists' quick acceleration and exceptional bike-handling skills can be followed throughout the entire race.
In criteriums, strong riders attack from the moment the starting gun is fired. Tina says to watch how cyclists in the front of the pack take the corners with little or no braking. Those in the rear compete for the best "line" through the turn, brake, then sprint to catch up with the pack as it accelerates.
In an hour-long race with hundreds of corners, teamwork and tactics are critical as attacks and chases follow in rapid succession. Tina recommends watching for situations in which one team greatly outnumbers the others. One rider from the team may attack, forcing the other teams to chase, then another rider will break away as soon as the first is reeled back in, repeating the process until the competition folds under the pressure. If the pack stays together, the race may end in a field sprint, with each team maneuvering its fastest rider toward the front in the final laps.
As the pack approaches the finish line, teams will maneuver to position their sprinters behind powerful riders who will provide a lead out. Kelly Benjamin, winner of the 2008 USA Criterium Series, says to look for teammates riding close together. The rider in front will begin a sprint as a head start for a rider on their rear wheel who will come forward at even faster speed to take the lead.
Time trials pit a rider or a team against the clock. Unlike other formats where all competitors start together, riders are dispatched in intervals to race alone along a relatively short course. Colavita/Sutter Home's Andrea Dvorak says time trials are known as "the race of truth" since riders must summon all of their strength, endurance, and determination to maintain maximum speed. For time trials, competitive riders use specialized bikes and helmets to overcome aerodynamic drag. Time trial bikes also have different handlebars so riders can assume the "tuck position", keeping their bodies as low and flat as possible.