Getting the most out of an international Road Circuit championship

We talked to some experts, we now kind of know how to interpret a bike race. Want to get in the know?

Photo by: Sylvain ELIES

Sorry, Time Trials, you were wonderful but now you’re done. It’s time for us all to move onwards and upwards to the Road Circuit–you know, the thing with the breakaways and the peloton cyclists all turning together in a fashion that would certainly kill the average Joe.

If you’re unfamiliar, get ready to be familiarized! 

If you already know exactly how to watch a bike race, you might want to ignore the rest of this article, lest your eyes roll so far back into your head that you require immediate medical attention. You’ve been a cycling fan since 1998 or whatever! You are just as impressive as you hoped you would be, seriously! We freely admit it. Now shush.

How to watch a bike race and get a real thrill out of it all

We spoke to Matt Crane, who’s currently the Director of Development of Richmond Cycling Corps and a former pro cyclist himself. He is an incredibly patient and gracious person who guided our uninformed minds through the process.

Turns out that what you’re going to see is anything but just guys and gals pedaling bikes really quickly. “A road race on paper is incredibly simple–everybody starts at the same time and the first guy who crosses the finish line wins,” says Crane. “But then it gets impossibly intricate and complicated between point A and point B. If there are 200 guys in the race, there are 200 separate dramas going down. The aggregate that they form becomes its own organism.”

The physics you need to know

Drafting is key. Wind resistance–the very thing that creates drag on your car and makes you spend more money on gas–forces a rider to increase their output by as much as 30%. As Crane reminds me, this isn’t an auto race. The engine that drives a pro cyclist is his or her own body, so any possible physical respite they can get, they’ll take it, storing up as much energy as they possibly can for whatever transpires down the road.

“In a bike race, the guy at the front is not winning. The guy saving energy behind him is really the one winning.”

Cyclists “draft” off each other by riding directly behind each other, the person in front bearing the brunt of the resistance and using the most energy. Essentially, if you’re drafting, you’re getting a reduced-price ride. 

There’s a gentleman’s agreement (sort of, more on that later) where cyclists allow each other to draft, and there’s strategic drafting in which teams form a windbreak for someone (maybe a sprinter) until they’re ready to unleash that someone upon their foe.

A soft start

There’s no carefully metered out start line for each rider, like you’d see in a sprint on foot. It’s a soft start, with 200 guys all lined up in a pack at the starting line, ready to get the day’s drama on. It’ll all begin to coalesce really soon.

The politics of the peloton

“A race plays out in sort of a script. It changes race to race, but there’s sort of like a general formula,” Crane explains. “When a peloton leaves the start line, it’s any man’s game. You’ve got 160 miles to throw your hat in the ring in whatever fashion your team or your individual tactics dictate.”

Peloton is French for “ball,” and that’s what it is–a balled up knot of riders that the unpracticed eye would judge as futile. Why lump together in a pack? Why not try to fight your way out of it? This ain’t like NASCAR at all!

Think of it kind of like a staging area. You’re riding, you’re covering ground, you’re biding your time, or maybe you’re in the back, drafting off 180 other riders. As you watch a peloton, you’ll see a constant peeling off of riders from the front to the back, doing their duty and bearing the brunt of the wind for as little a time as they can get away with. 

The early breakaway

Almost inevitably, there will be a breakaway. A group of riders “attacks” (or aggressively pushes out of the peloton), usually one rider from one team and then a few others follow him or her.

And the peloton just sorta allows it. “There’s kind of this collective consciousness that we’ll let them go. It’s like the gas is off–the race is no longer open,” says Crane, referring to the idea that now it’s no longer any man’s game, there are some people ahead and some people behind in meaningful ways, “And that’s good because you can’t race wide open for so long. Everybody’s comfortable with that, it’s a situation we’re all familiar with. We’ve got the peloton and then maybe a few minutes ahead is a breakaway.”

What’s going on in that breakaway? They’re drafting, saving energy, and forming rotation. Taking turns expending energy and saving energy until either the peloton catches up to them and swallows them whole, which is most likely going to be the case. The first breakaway are usually, says Crane, the younger riders, ones who are trying to get some experience or make a name for themselves.

“There’s sort of a wink/wink nudge/nudge thing going on. The breakaway knows that its chances of winning are pretty low. The peloton is going to bring them back. The teams are organizing behind them, but until then, they’re going to chill.”

So why break away at all?!

“Aha!” says Crane. He is a delight. “Because the breakaway doesn’t ALWAYS get caught. Sometimes the teams misjudge. Sometimes a group of guys get up the road that’s stronger than the peloton anticipated and they can’t get them back. And [if you’re in the breakaway during the last lap] you’re guaranteed survival, kind of, if the peloton catches you in the last lap–because maybe at that point the peloton is down to like 30 guys, then you’re part of the top pack!”

It’s like you just warped! Only you had to expend a lot of energy to do so. Careful!

“In cycling there’s a numbers element. If you’re in a breakaway of six, you now only have to beat five people.” 

But what’s most likely going to happen is…

Some riders have been assigned early breakaway duty by their team, and they’re up there being the sacrificial lamb, as Crane describes it. Meanwhile, their team leader is saving energy back in the peloton. At a certain point, the team is going to try to get the leader out of there, creating a windscreen with their bodies and pulling him or her up front.

If you’re an amazing sprinter (your strength is short distances, very fast), you’re going to hang back in the peloton as long as possible. “There’s absolutely no reason for a sprinter to be in the breakaway,” says Crane. And that’s because a sprinter can most likely destroy anyone in the peloton. So if the mob reclaims the breakaway and the sprinter’s still in the peloton–boom. Easy enough.


“There’s also the real deal, like ‘The race is ON’ kind of breakaway. That’s a MOVE. That’s a serious threat,” Crane says, and his general excitement level has increased so much during his description of the race that I find myself feeling anxious even though we are talking about a hypothetical situation. “That’s not a move a sprinter would make. The sprinter’s got his card to play, and he wants a group finish. Savvy, all-around riders, they don’t want the breakaway, they want to be solo or with another group. Other riders will mark them–one guy goes, another’s teammate might follow him for a free ride to the line.”

The end result of one of these various scenarios is always the same: somebody gets a rainbow jersey. Everybody else is very, very tired for at least a few hours. The fans go wild. 

Who to look out for this weekend

Here are Crane’s one-to-watch in the elite class:

Alejandro Valverde — Spain

Says Crane, “He’s won more medals in world championship cycling than any other male rider in history, but he’s never won gold. He’s at the tail end of his career, so he’s got great form. Physically, he’s as good of a specimen as he’s going to be. He’s an old dog now, he’s salty. He’s always been a good, smart rider but now more so than ever. When I watch him in the race, that dude’s impeccable. He’s an all-rounder, he’s good on the hills, and he’s got a sprint.

“I think basically the Richmond course is hard enough to where you really have to be a tough, smart old bastard to win this thing.”

Michal Kwiatkowski — Poland

The defending champ, and another good sprinter, climber, and jack-of-all-trades. Kwiatkowski was the first Polish cyclist to win the UCI Road World Champtionship. Chances are good he would like to make it a tradition.

Vincenzo Nibali — Italy

Nibali won the Tour de France in 2014. “He’s a good rider,” says Crane. “But he’s also savvy and aggressive and has proven himself in hard races. You can never discount a guy like that.”

Ben King — USA

Our beloved Central Virginia candidate, King “is a likely candidate for a breakaway,” Crane says. A young guy with a lot of potential, King is a former national champion.

Evelyn Stevens — USA

The buzz about Stevens is undeniable, but she ended up placing only seventh in the Women’s Elite Time Trials. “She used to be a trader on Wall Street, and just is a really amazing person. She got into cycling recreationally, and within a year she was crushing it.

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot — France

Aka “PFP,” Ferrand-Prévot is a “young buck,” according to Crane. She beat out Marianna Vos, a Dutch rider who Crane calls the “absolute boss of women’s cycling.” Vos is injured this year, so she won’t be competing. Disappointed sigh.

A wild card

There’s a saying that “Blood runs the color of the trade team,” which means that it’s unlikely that a Portuguese guy (for example) will try hard to beat a member of the French team, if that member is on his trade team during the regular season. “That alliance is a deep one,” warns Crane. “If you’ve got the world champion on your team next year, that’s just good business for everybody.”

But those connections are for the next-level cycling fans. If you’re interested in going that deep into the intrigue, we recommend positioning yourself by a diehard cycling follower and getting them to alert you when those alliances need to be watched.

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Use your newfound knowledge to watch the race in a savvy way from these very spots

The schedule

Women’s Junior Road Circuit

  • Friday, September 25th • 10:00 – 11:50 AM
  • 64.9 km (40.3 mi)

Men’s Under 23 Road Circuit

  • Friday, September 25th • 12:45 – 4:50 PM
  • 162.6 km (100.8 mi)

Men’s Junior Road Circuit

  • Saturday, September 26th • 9:00 AM – 12:15 PM
  • 129.8 km (80.6 mi)

Women’s Elite Road Circuit

  • Saturday, September 26th • 1:00 PM – 4:25 PM
  • 129.8 km (80.6 mi)

Men’s Elite Road Circuit

  • Sunday, September 27th • 9:00 AM – 3:40 PM
  • 261.4 km (162.4 mi)

We went into more detail about the Road Circuit course here and gave a bunch of suggestions for viewing spots here!

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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