Published on Feb 20, 2019 by Tom Owen

The structure behind a bike race are way more complicated than one may think. It’s much more than how fast a cyclist pedals. Tactics, terrain, and setting is just the beginning formula to a winning combination. This is where we break down the ins and outs of a bike race.




The gun blasts. The flag drops. The race is officially underway after the obligatory parade out of the host city. What happens next? The explosion of riders eager to make a name for themselves. One after the next, accelerations from individual riders pop out of the bunch, hoping to encourage others with similar interests to join them in the long journey ahead. Precisely who forms a breakaway is a complicated matter. Depending on the stage profile, the riders who sacrifice themselves by forging ahead have a variety of goals.

·       The veteran opportunist – This rider is the one in the breakaway who is capable of taking it to the finish. We’re talking about the likes of Jens Voigt or Thomas De Gendt who look for those elusive wins when the peloton sleeps. They’re the driving force in the breakaway, unwilling to give up when the odds seem impossible, and frequent recipients of the most courageous jersey.

·       The newcomer – The breakaway is always a symbol of hope, regardless of terrain, expectations or predictions. Herein lies the newcomer’s, or neo-pro’s, chance to prove themselves. It could be a small team looking for some airtime or a domestique getting his or her chance to move out from under the shadow of the team’s golden child. The riders who want to be in the breakaway believe in their chances to shine.

·       The team player – The breakaway rider who makes the rest of the peloton nervous. This is the teammate who sits themselves in the breakaway to force other teams to work at the front of the peloton. It’s the kind of rider who’s high up on the general classification and is looking to shake up the rest of the bunch. 




Spectators tune into a bike race and immediately see a blur of color, fast speeds and a mass of teams, each working towards their own goals and outcomes. A peloton is well-oiled machine of professional cyclists, wheels inches from each other, navigating weather, road conditions, and terrain.

·       Echelon – In the cycling world, the echelon is the most tactical maneuver ever. Depending on which way the wind’s blowing, teams draft off each other similar to Nascar, meaning they cross each other to get the most shelter possible during high winds. This can play into tactics, especially during flat stages.

·       Feed Zone – The peloton needs their fuel, just like anyone else in the race…which is why all road races have a designated feed zone. This is where the race is unofficially neutralized, so every rider has the opportunity to get some food and drink from the team’s helper.

·       Domestique – The work horse. Each team has designated riders to do the grunt work for their team leaders, whether it be sprinters or climbers. You can see them at the front of the peloton driving the pace, protecting their team leader or sprinter.





What’s going on behind the scenes? This is called the grupetto, the riders who are behind the action, trying to make the time cut. The time cut varies per day but is usually defined as 5-20% of the overall winner’s time for the stage (Ex: A 10% time limit for a stage that took the winner 4 hours would be 24 minutes).

·      Sprinters – During a tough mountain stage, the gruppetto is made up of riders who rule the flat stages and want to make it across the line within the time limit to start another day.


3km rule

Despite what happens on the road, GC contenders can feel safe knowing they’ll start the next day with the same time if they finish safely (without crashing) inside three kilometers.




Race Caravan

The breakaway flies by. Then the peloton. What’s with all the cars and vans that follow the riders? That’s the race caravan, basically the hub of the entire operation.

·       Officials – The first huge part of the caravan is the officials, or commissaires. They’re watching over the entire proceedings, making sure rules are followed, order is kept.

·      Team cars – Sorted in the order of the general classification, each team in the race has a team car, which offers food, drink and direction to riders in the peloton and breakaway. If a rider is in the break, officials allow the team car to drive forward and support their rider in the break.

·      Other support – Always present in the race caravan are race doctors, media and VIPS. They have distinct responsibilities and positions in the caravan. Race doctors have priority when a rider has physical ailments on the road, while media needs the opportunity to take pictures, etc. The VIPS, usually important sponsors, have priority to view the race from a unique perspective.


About the Author

Tom Owen

Tom Owen is a cycling writer who has worked with some of the cycling world's biggest media brands, covering everything from the top levels of the professional sport to bikepacking adventures in the Balkans.