A brief guide for beginners.
( This post was originally written during the first week of the Tour de France in 2019 and updated later a few times.)
HOW MANY DAYS LONG IS THE RACE
If it’s a one-day race
Just enjoy it. One-day races are like thrillers. Lots of twists, never boring. (Well, actually, Milano-Sanremo can be boring for most of the day, but that makes the tension higher inside the last 20 km.)
A multiple-stage race (mostly 4-7 stages)
tt’s always useful to take a glimpse at the stage profiles, so, if you are not a friend of bunch sprints, you can avoid getting disappointed. Many of these types of races provide only 1 or 2 stages for the climbers and GC-riders. Mountain- or hilly stages are much more spectacular, no wonder, people like to watch them more. But if you love to cheer for (almost) lost causes, you can follow the efforts of the breakaway riders (there is a breakaway group on almost every stage) to reach the finish before the bunch on a flat stage too. I called it a lost cause because the distance how far the breakaway riders can escape is mostly controlled by the teams of the sprinters. They can miscalculate, and it sometimes really happens, but the peloton is usually faster and stronger than the breakaway group. (Don’t get me wrong, I like bunch sprints, but I know, that a flat stage is mostly exciting within the last 10 km. But it’s not obvious for someone, who just started to follow cycling races.)
A Grand Tour
(Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana
– for making it less difficult, I’m going to talk about the case of the Tour de France)
YOU STARTED TO WATCH THE RACE BECAUSE OF THE HYPE
So, it’s a road cycling race (obviously), there are different types of stages. If you happened to watch a flat stage with a bunch sprint at the end, and can’t imagine, what other people find exciting in this sport watching hours and hours, wait until the mountain stages. More climbs, more drama. Usually, the third week is the most thrilling one, when the GC riders have to show their real forms and have to fight against each other. Fortunately, during the 2010s, especially at the end of the decade there are many really attack-friendly riders among the overall favorites, who aren’t afraid to risk. The audience can enjoy really exciting races. On the rest of the stages the main question is usually, could the breakaway riders ride home or will be caught by the peloton (a.k. a. the main bunch). I guess the battle of the sprinters are enjoyable the most when you already know some of the contenders, and you can follow their positioning before the finish. But people are different, someone might fall in love with this type of racing for the very first time.
YOU STARTED TO WATCH THE RACE BECAUSE OF THE RIDERS IN THE YELLOW JERSEY OR SOMEONE, WHO IS AMONG THE FAVOURITES OF THE GENERAL CLASSIFICATION
Brace yourself, you won’t see him at the front of the race on every stage, even fewer times attacking. Three weeks is a very long period, a GC-rider has to deliver a constant and solid performance, in most of the cases he has no other task, only to finish the stage. The first week is mostly about the surviving, the battle for the best possible GC-places start more likely on the second week, and it’s getting more serious on the third one
Also important to know, that not every rider, who has the chance to wear the yellow jersey temporarily is one of the favorites of the race. Especially in the case of the sprinters. Because the first week is usually about stages with bunch sprints, it happens quite often, that also the general classification is led by a sprinter. But these types of cyclists usually don’t like the mountains, they struggle to get through them. (If you want to follow a sprinter’s performance during a mountain stage, you can find him most likely in the gruppetto, literally the small – or not always so small – group of riders dropped early from the rest of the peloton).
A different situation, when someone was an indifferent rider (mostly without a strong team behind him) at the start of the race, but he somehow managed to get into the yellow jersey, and to stay in the leader position for several stages. Thomas Voeckler was in a situation like this in 2004 and in 2011.
A slightly different case was the one with Julian Alaphilippe in 2019: he is one of the best riders of the elite peloton, very unpredictable in many ways, but not a typically GC-rider and his team wasn’t prepared for the situation defending the yellow jersey either. But in both cases people could cheer for the cyclist day by day for remaining in the leader jersey. (It was like an ancient Greek tragedy. You know, it’s just the question of time, when the hero is going to fall.)
YOU FOLLOW A RACE BECAUSE YOU SAW A SUCCESSFUL VREAKAWY OR A SPECTACULAR VICTORY ON THE TOP OF A LEGENDARY MOUNTAIN AND YOU WANT TO CHEER FOT THAT PARTICLURAL RIDER ON THE OTHER STAGES TOO
I have bad news for you: it’s possible, that the rider had only this one action during the entire race and you won’t see him anymore. Almost 200 riders are racing at a race like the Tour de France, most of them ride for their teammates (sprinters or/and GC riders), and they have the chance to show their talent only for few times. On the other hand, there are teams without real GC-contenders, and they are usually chasing the stage wins. It can sometimes happen, that certain breakaway specialists or climbers are preparing only for a certain stage (because it’s close to their home, or just suits their riding style) and succeed, but on the rest of the race, they are just rolling with the peloton.
YOU DON’T CARE WHAT TYPE OF CYCLING RACE YOU’RE WATCHING, IT SEEMS TO BE FUN ANYWAY
Just keep watching!
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