Vernacular and tactics of cycling important in big races

Mark Cavendish of Britain, middle, leads a pack that includes Edvald Boasson Hagen, left, and Bradley Wiggings, second from left, during a training run Thursday with the Sky team riders near Liege, Belgium. The large group of riders is known as the peloton, a French world meaning a group or platoon. The Tour de France began Saturday.

George Hincapie, right, uses his smart phone to take pictures of 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans on Friday during a training run near Liege, Belgium. Team leaders such as Evans are often treated like royalty, being served by their domestiques.

2012 is a great summer to be a cycling fan: The Tour de France started Saturday, the London Olympic Games follow, and the USA Pro Challenge starts right on our doorstep in Durango on Aug. 20.

If you watch any of these events, the dialogue of the commentators can be confusing. So, for those interested in learning the vernacular and tactics of cycling, here are some basics.

Intricacies of the peloton

The large group of riders is known as the peloton. Peloton is a French word which means a group or platoon. The peloton is one of the most powerful forces in cycling. It is really like a beehive; at times it can be tranquil, while at others it buzzes with anger and energy. A rider sheltered in the midst of the peloton can be using 30 to 40 percent less energy than the riders at the front. While it provides safety and shelter, it is also extremely dangerous. A careless mistake can send a rider tumbling to the asphalt, and the tightly packed group can create a domino effect that can ensnare dozens of riders.

Attacking and breaking away

An attack is when a rider or group of riders is trying to get away from the peloton. If the attack is successful, the rider or group up the road is then known as a breakaway. These guys are trying to stay away to the finish for a chance at glory. However, the speeds at which the peloton can maintain is almost mind-boggling. A sustained speed of 30–35 miles per hour can reduce a breakaway gap quickly. It is not uncommon for a breakaway to gain as much as 20 minutes on the peloton, only to be caught within meters of the finish line.

Mountains add third group

When the race hits the mountains, there usually will be many different groups on the road including a breakaway, the main peloton and finally the gruppetto. The gruppetto consists of riders who cannot handle the speeds and suffering to maintain contact with the front riders on the climbs. It is usually comprised of sprinters and domestiques.

Test of endurance

The tactics of a race can vary widely depending upon the type of race and the objectives of each team. The Tour de France is a 23-day stage race with time trials, flat stages, rolling terrain and high mountains. Each day will require a different tactic along with a tactic for overall success.

A 23-day race requires a tremendous amount of endurance. For riders seeking the yellow jersey of the overall leader, conserving as much energy as possible is paramount. Each team consists of nine riders, and each rider will have a specific roll.

Serving the leaders well

Most of the riders are what are known as domestiques, which means servant in French.

This years’ Tour de France is widely billed as a duel between Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins. But the victor may well be the rider who has the strongest and most dedicated domestiques.

The physical and emotional sacrifice of these riders is almost beyond comprehension. If a team leader flats or crashes, or needs something to eat or drink, a domestique is there. If a dangerous rival has gotten into a breakaway, it is the job of the domestiques to bring him back to the peloton.

In the high mountains, you will see the domestiques setting a searing pace to keep a team leader near the front or to weaken his rivals. The domestique will often push himself well beyond his limit day after day to ensure that the team leader is protected. In many respects, the domestique is the offensive lineman of professional cycling. And the winner of this Tour will undoubtedly be the rider with the most dedicated and prepared domestiques.

Choosing Olympic glory

The road race of the Olympic Games, however, will require an entirely different set of tactics. It is a 165-mile race with undulating hills around London. To put that distance in perspective, it is about the same distance as driving from Durango to Grand Junction. Many of the worlds’ best riders are skipping this years’ Tour de France to focus exclusively on winning the Olympic Games.

Not so fast on sprinter talk

The pundits will proclaim that the London course is suited for the sprinters because the final 15 kilometers to the line is flat. However, with just five riders on each team along with the heat and the distance, it will be hard to control a field of nearly 200 riders. Most teams will have selected strong riders who each have a possibility of winning, and domestiques will not play as important a role.

Some teams, such as the United Kingdom, USA, Germany and Italy have fast sprinters, and they will have a few domestiques and may actually work together to ensure a sprint finish. Yet the finishing kick of Mark Cavendish of the UK may force an adjustment in tactics. He is nearly unbeatable in a straight-up sprint and will be extremely motivated to win in front of his home crowd.

With just five riders per team and the depth of the field, I don’t think it will come down to a sprint finish. This course will favor a rider who is patient, but also aggressive and strong. A well-timed attack with 40 kilometers to go may just be the successful tactic. The strong riders will be aggressive toward the end to avoid a field sprint.

This is an exciting year to be a fan of cycling. And I hope you get a chance to see some of the many events.

Good riding.


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