A bike race is a whole lot more than just a bunch of riders going really fast. If you want to know what's going on, you need to understand basic racing strategy.
The first thing you need to know is that cycling is a team sport and with 15 teams 'on the field' at the same time, it can be one of the most strategic team sports of all.
Each team has its own game plan for winning, and each rider plays a different role in that game plan. Most teams have one leader. The leader’s teammates play the role of domestiques, who sacrifice their own chances of winning in support of their team leader.
Teams also develop complex strategies to win specific stages and the races within races, such as King of the Mountain or Sprint competitions. Not only do teams designate a leader for the overall race, but many also select riders to try and win the other competitions within the race.
The key to bike racing is to conserve energy, using it only when you have to. So how do you conserve energy in a bike race?
One of the most crucial concepts in team racing is drafting. Riders can conserve energy by riding in the slipstream of another cyclist. The rider at the front is doing a lot of work while the one behind sitting in his slipstream uses a lot less energy. It takes only 75% as much effort to ride in second position and only 60% to ride in the middle of a group.
As a result, teams try to surround their leader with teammates, keeping him or her out of the wind and fresh to attack at the right moment. Wind can necessitate a variety of drafting formations, such as forming an echelon when the wind is coming from the side.
Bike and wheel design can also reduce air drag and these bikes are often designed with super computers using data from wind tunnel tests. Check out the wheels on the elite riders at the Festival and you’ll see some pretty strange designs too.
If you only have to sprint against 5 other racers, you have a much better chance of winning bbut the pack won't just let you ride away so you have to "attack". You have to catch the other riders by surprise by sprinting away from them. If you're lucky, a few other riders will come with you while the pack is napping, and if you all work together, you'll have your breakaway.
In a breakaway riders from different teams will work together to accomplish the goal of getting to the finish line first, while still saving enough energy to beat the other racers in the break with them.
...Or Not Breaking Away
Other riders are good at winning a finishing sprint from a pack of 100 so these sprinters want the whole group to stay together. As the race gets close to the finish, their teammates will work to catch any breakaways and to make sure that no one gets away from the group. All the while, the sprinters rides in the group, conserving energy for the finish.
At least a couple of miles or a few laps before the finish, the teams start to work on their strategy to win the race.
Position is everything. You need to be near the front so that you can win that mad dash for the line. But you don't want to be AT the front, because then you'll be too tired to sprint at the finish.
If you've got a good team, they'll work for you. They'll go to the front and hammer like crazy, while you sit in their draft just a few riders back. They'll be too tired to sprint. But that's YOUR job, not theirs. And they'll deliver you to that finishing straight in good shape and in a good position.
Going into the last stretch, you may have one or two teammates who will rocket away with you in their slipstream. This is called a leadout. At the last moment, you'll slingshot around them and hit warp speed. Top racers will hit 40 mph or more in the sprint.
Sound easy? Well, everyone else's team is trying to do the same thing. Which is why we call it "racing"!