Bike racing is the kind of sport that doesn't get much attention unless something spectacular happens. For an American rider, that means winning the Tour de France, getting caught doping, getting cancer, or in rare cases achieving what they call "The Full Armstrong." That's a rare event, and it's a shame. It's a shame because bike racing is awesome.
Here's how bike racing can look: a big group of cyclists rides for a really long time. Sometimes a few of them get apart from the group and one of them tries to ride faster than the other. Then later, they all get to the finish line and there's a crazy sprint. But there's more to it than that! There's a lot more to it, and I'm happy to tell you what it is.
The biggest thing cycling has to make most of the race interesting is the breakaway. For most stages, cyclists travel in the peloton (the main pack). A pack of 50-150 riders, they all ride together and drift and it works out very well. But in every stage, some group of somewhere between two and a dozen riders will decide that they like their chances at stealing the stage, and off the front they jump. The peloton will let them go, because in a 150 mile stage they have plenty of time to chase them down later. The cyclists in the break work together to gets as far away from the peloton as they can, and they can get as much as 10 or 12 minutes ahead. Then the peloton says, "alright, enough of that nonsense," speeds up, and in almost every instance they catch up with them and the poor guys who worked hard all day have nothing to show for it.
So why does anyone bother to join the break if they're just going to get caught? Well, maybe your sponsor needs to get on television. If your team is not very good, spending a long time in the break is the only way to get them mentioned on the air. This is an important part of bike racing, and there are people hired for their skill in riding long breakaways. There's an element of strategy to it as well, where a team might put a man in the break to force a rival team to work hard in chasing them down, then take advantage the next day after their rivals are all tired out. Or, if you're a rider who isn't a great climber, great sprinter, or a great all-rounder, the breakaway is your only chance at winning a stage. That's where the French come in.
The French haven't had a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985. The nation holds the record with 36 victories, but it always stings to think that your best days are behind you. So they join breakaways. They join them and they ride without strategy or sense, simply gritting their teeth and going as hard and as fast as they can until they win or, as is usually the case, get caught. They ride their hearts out, fade well before the finish, get caught, and then the next day the newspaper hails their courage. What heart! What style! What an effort he made! Please don't take this as a typical "lol surrender" joke about the French. They've made an art of failure, not of giving up. And sometimes they don't fail! Just in this year's Tour, a young Frenchman was willed to victory by his director sportif:
Can you imagine how much more productive you'd be if your boss stood next to you all day screaming? The economy would be back on track within a week.
So in a good number of stages, the most exciting point is the point every day where the peloton gets close to reeling in the break. There's always a tiny bit of a chance that the break will be successful, and it's fun to watch exhausted young cyclists try their hardest to outrun 100 men. Earlier this year in the Giro d'Italia, one stage featured a three man break trying to get away at the end of a stage. They had started as a 12-man break, but one by one the pace proved to be too much and guys faded. Finally it's down to these last three, and one of them gets the idea in his head that the other two are weak and he's got to do it by himself. So he jumps off the front, zooming out. The other two catch up, and they are not very pleased with his strategy. ZOOM off he goes again. They catch up with him again. "Knock it off," they say. ZOOOOOM. "Look, we'll be faster if we work together but we can't do that if you won't cooperate." ZOOOOOOOM. "You're not getting away, would you just st-" ZOOOOOOOOOOM. The guy didn't make it, and the peloton swallowed all of them up. It's thrilling to watch a break get away, but if they don't make it, your consolation prize is to watch them sit up on their bikes and congratulate each other. They shake hands, clap each other on the shoulder. Good show, man, good show. We sure did try to ride fast, eh? Oui, but not fast enough, ha ha ha. Then WHOOM they're in a crowd of 100 other guys.
Exciting as the break is, there's still usually a lot of time where they're out in front and the peloton has not yet decided to chase them down. But don't fret! There's still lots of stuff going on. For example, you might enjoy trying to figure out when the riders are using the bathroom. They don't discuss this on television, but sometimes in the helicopter shots you can see guys pulling over, or hanging out at the back of the group while they try to urinate while on a moving bicycle. (This is tricky but possible, and doing it at the front of the group is considered extremely rude.)
If that doesn't interest you, perhaps you would like to watch them eat. Each stage has "feed zones," where a team staff member stands by the side of the road holding bags with food in them. You get energy gels and bars and sugary stuff, but also some typical lunch food. Just because just because you're in the middle of grueling physical activity doesn't mean you can't enjoy a ham & cheese panini. You get the same amount of grousing here that you would anytime a group of people are all eating sack lunches, and there's plenty of discussion where guys try to trade. Powerbar sponsored a number of cycling teams early in their history, and I can't imagine trying to bargain with those. "Say there, Fritz, got yourself some strudel, do you? Well how about this gluey brick? It's malt flavored!"
After lunch riders are left with an empty bag, but they're all bicycle riders, so you imagine they're pretty earth-conscious, right? Well you'd be exactly right: that feed bag doubles as a place to put a note with the coming evening's hotel information! Reduce, reuse, and when you see an attractive fan on the side of the road, hand it off to them and see if they can find a new use for it.
When they're not trying to throw their garbage at pretty girls, cyclists have to keep each other company. But it's a team sport, so they always have plenty of pals on the road. Teams keep things interesting too. Teams have a captain, and everyone else rides in support of the captain. Sometimes this means giving an all-out effort while the captain hangs out behind you and drafts in your slipstream. Other times it means going back to the team car, stuffing a dozen water bottles down your shirt, then riding around handing them to the rest of your team. If you captain's bike breaks, you give him yours. The people who do this are called domestiques. It's French for "servant," and generally speaking, they're not under any illusions about what their role is. Thus, cycling teams exist in wonderful harmonies where one man is going to get money, endorsements, and fame, and everyone else is going to have to wait to use the shower. It's important to dream big, kids.
But sometimes the team thing doesn't work out. Every so often you have a young cyclist coming up, or an old cyclist returning, and they get into fights about who should be the captain. Greg Lemond, the first American to win the Tour, had some bad experiences with this. In 1985, he rode in support of Bernard Hinault, who was going for his fifth Tour victory. Hinault crashed and started struggling, and on one of the mountain stages Lemond found himself ahead of Hinault, with the leaders. He was a world class rider by that point, and if he attacked he would have won. He tells his team leaders this. They tell him his captain has suffered terribly and Lemond must go back and help him. He's like, 10,000 kilometers back, they say. He's dying. You have to go give him your bike and mouth to mouth and if you see a roadside place pick up a soda or two.
So Lemond goes back, finds Hinault a little tired but chugging along, certainly not thirsty, but by then all he can do is work with Hinault, and Hinault wins the tour. Lemond finishes second. 1986 rolls around, and Hinault is telling everybody how much he respects Lemond, and how this is Lemond's year, and how he's going to ride in support of the American to repay him for 1985's sacrifice. During the race itself, Hinault repeatedly rides out in front, riding with aggression and relentlessly attacking.
"Why are you doing that?" Lemond asks. "Just tiring out your rivals, boss," Hinault says, "getting them good and tired." Hinault keeps this strategy up all the way to the end, even going so far as to ride faster than Lemond in the final time trial, so that Lemond's opponents ... would be ... uh, demoralized, maybe? They would certainly be confused. It's hard to race when you're confused, I guess. Lemond, to his credit, is hip to Hinault's shenanigans the entire time, beats him in the mountains and in the time trials, and ends up winning the 1986 Tour by almost four minutes.
Intra-team fighting isn't the exclusive province of the French. America's own Lance Armstrong had a good row when he returned to cycling in 2009. Having been retired since 2005, Lance's coach Johan Brunyeel had moved on to both a new team (Team Astana, sponsored by the nation of Kazakhstan) and a new star, Alberto Contador. Lance comes back, and Contador's response is a perfectly understandable "uh, this is kind of my team." Lance tells Alberto that he just asked to see the team for a second, calm down dude it's not like he's going to run away with it. When asked by reporters which one of them will captain the team in the Tour de France, Contador says "probably me, I guess" and Armstrong just repeats "We'll ride in support of the strongest rider" over and over again. The Tour rolls around, Contador goes "OK, time to ride faster than everyone else," and does just that. To his credit Lance rides in support of Contador. To his discredit, the whole time he does it he's got a big sour puss on his face. He's lucky the World Anti-Doping Agency doesn't test attitudes, because I'd say his is piss-poor.
So I hope I've convinced you that there's more to bike racing than "which one of these guys can ride faster?" Next time it flashes for three seconds on SportsCenter you can turn to your friends and tell them about the fascinating dynamics of a breakaway. When they're not impressed, you can tell them it's totally possible to urinate while riding a bicycle. If they're still not impressed, well, you know what to do.