What is Road 2024 1130x600

What is Road Cycling?

By: Angelina Palermo  June 01, 2023

With so many cycling disciplines and so many more forms of racing in each discipline, things can get a bit confusing. Learn more about how each type of racing works and get ready to watch our teams compete at the Paris Olympic Games!

Just as its name implies, the discipline of road cycling takes place on paved roadways. Considered to be the most traditional, popular and purest form of bike racing, road cycling takes on many different forms. Events contested on the road include Time Trials, Road Races, Stage Races, Criteriums, Circuit Races, and Team Time Trials. At the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, men and women will compete in the Time Trial and Road Race.

Road Races

Road races are team-oriented, mass-start events which typically feature a field of 150-180 riders. Teams are generally made up of eight to 10 riders, however at the Olympic Games, team sizes are limited to a maximum of five for men and four for women.

Road races generally take place on public roads and can be point-to-point races or multiple circuits of a loop anywhere from 5 to 25 miles in length. During a road race, team members work together to gain an advantage over other riders, usually designating one person as its team leader. The team leader is determined prior to the race and can be based on several factors including the course’s terrain, a rider’s fitness level and the competition. The leader’s teammates will help in any way possible from fetching food and water to giving up a wheel or their bicycle in the event of a crash or mechanical failure. Throughout most of the race, a team’s leader will ride in the draft of a teammate, never facing the wind head-on unless absolutely necessary.

Behind the peloton a caravan follows the race. The caravan typically consists of race officials, team cars, media and VIP cars, neutral support vehicles and medical personnel. Each team is allowed one car per caravan in which the team director sits and advises his athletes via radio communication. Usually, the director dictates the race tactics from the seat of the caravan car and relays important information to riders including time gaps, the composition of breakaways and chase groups, the location of key riders during the race and any pertinent course information like approaching climbs, descents or corners. A team mechanic also sits in the caravan car, ready to service a rider with equipment if he or she suffers a flat tire, a crash or any other mechanical failure.

Some of the most prestigious single-day road races other than the Olympic Games includes the annual UCI World Championships, the USA Cycling Professional National Championships and European Classics like Paris-Roubaix (FRA), the Tour of Flanders (BEL), the Amstel Gold Race (NED), Liege-Bastonge-Liege (BEL), and Milan-San Remo (ITA).

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Individual Time Trials

Often called “The Race of Truth”, the time trial pits individuals against the clock instead of each other. It’s the most basic form of competitive cycling and the rules are simple: the athlete with the fastest time over a given distance is the winner.

Like road races, the time trial usually takes place on public roads and can be a point-to-point race or multiple laps of a circuit. In a race against the clock, results are often determined by fractions of a second. And since there are no team tactics and riders don’t have the benefit of drafting off another rider, riders seek out every aerodynamic advantage they can. The time trial will feature the most technologically-advanced equipment such as carbon fiber disc wheels, lightweight components, teardrop-shaped aerodynamic helmets, one-piece skinsuits and special handlebars which allow a rider to get into a more aerodynamic position.

Riders start one-by-one at specific intervals, usually one minute, by descending down a small start ramp onto the course.

Some prestigious time trials include the Olympic Games, the UCI World Championships, the USA Cycling Professional National Championships and individual stages of major stage races such as the Tour de France.

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Stage Races

Stage races are multi-day races that string together several “stages”. The rider with the lowest cumulative time after all the stages are complete is declared the winner. The most popular example of a stage race is the Tour de France – a 21-day race every July that is considered to be the most prestigious competitive cycling event in the world.

This grueling combination of events, which can be as short as two days or as long as three weeks, usually incorporates both road races and time trials. A small local stage race might include a time trial on Saturday and a road race on Sunday. The Tour de France typically includes 16 road races and three time trials and covers an average of 3,500 kilometers.

Following each day’s competition a leader’s jersey (usually yellow in color) is awarded to the rider with the lowest cumulative time to designate the current leader of the race.

Because time trials and mountain stages are typically the deciding factors in major stage races, riders who excel at those two specialties are often times considered major contenders for overall victories in stage races. For riders who aren’t all-around specialists or particularly strong at climbing or time trials, an individual stage win is also a prestigious accomplishment.

In addition to the overall winner, most stage races also incorporate other competitions. Jerseys are also awarded to the best sprinter, the best climber, the best young rider, the most aggressive rider and the best team. Because the overall winner is determined solely by cumulative time, it’s possible to win a stage race without actually winning an individual stage.

In addition to the Tour de France, the UCI recognizes two other Grand Tours – the Giro d’Italia (ITA) and the Vuelta a España (ESP). In the United States, major stage races that are part of the USA Cycling Professional Tour include the Tour of California, the Tour de Georgia and the Tour of Missouri.


Although not an internationally-recognized discipline, criterium racing is purely American and one of the most common forms of competitive cycling in the United States. Designed for spectators, criteriums are races held on short circuits, typically in an urban setting.

These fast-paced events are usually 25-60 miles in length and last between one and two hours. The relatively short, closed course features several corners and gives spectators the opportunity to view most of the race.

In criteriums, the pace is fast from the gun as riders can average up to 30 miles per hour for the duration of the race. Quick acceleration and bike handling skills are paramount to success in a criterium. Typically a sprinter with the fastest finishing kick will win in a race that often ends in a mass field sprint.

In the race, if a rider crashes, suffers a flat tire or other mechanical failure, he or she can enter the pit area where a team mechanic has one lap to make a quick repair. After the fix, the rider is reinserted into the same position he or she was before the mishap.

It's important for a rider to remain near the front of the peloton as the first few riders can take a corner with little or no braking. Those further back jockey for position into the turn, brake and then sprint to catch back up. The resulting “accordion” effect takes its toll on riders who navigate hundreds of turns throughout the course of a race.

While the criterium is a popular form of racing in the U.S., it is not contested at the UCI World Championships or the Olympic Games. Domestically, the most prestigious criterium is the USA Cycling Professional National Championships. Many of the events on the National Racing Calendar are also stand-alone criteriums, including notable races such as the Tour of Somerville, the CSC Invitational, the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix and the Chris Thater Memorial. Often times in the U.S., a criterium is part of a stage race. Popular stage races that incorporate a criterium include the Redlands Bicycle Classic, the Tour of the Gila, the International Tour de ‘Toona and the Nature Valley Grand Prix.

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Circuit Races

A circuit race is a general term used for road races that are contested over several laps of a predetermined course. The term “circuit race” is generally used to describe a race that covers laps of a circuit that is more than a mile, but less than five. The course is longer than that of a criterium, but shorter than loops used in a road race. One example of a circuit race is the Sea Otter Classic. Part of the National Racing Calendar, the Sea Otter Classic takes place at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. where cyclists compete over multiple laps of the 2.2 mile course.

Team Time Trials

Like the individual time trial, the team time trial is simply a race against the clock, but with one slight difference. Instead, teams race one at a time and work together to complete the course in the fastest possible time. In a team time trial, the science of drafting plays a major role as teammates take turns at the front of the paceline. When a rider “takes a pull”, the rest of his or her teammates fall in behind and expend up to 30% less energy to achieve the same speed. When the lead rider is unable to maintain the same pace, he or she rotates to the back of the paceline as a “fresh” rider takes over the pacesetting. When executed properly, the well-oiled machine of a team time trial is considered to be one of the most beautiful spectacles in all of sport.