Road cycle racing is popular the world over, although the sport has a definite Eurocentric feel, with the Benelux countries, France, Germany, Italy and Spain enjoying particular prominence. Road races are categorised according to length, single-stage or multi-stage, and type. Types of road race include:
- Open road races - Where riders compete over a linear or circular course, which can measure anything from 20km to over 200km.
- A stage - The same principle as an open road race, but forming only one element of a multi-day competition.
- Criterium - A race which takes place on a closed course, often involving several laps of a circuit. Can vary in length from 800m to around 4km.
- Individual time trial (ITT) - Explained by the commonly used French term contre le montre, literally “against the clock”. Riders complete a set course of variable length (anything from 15km to 200km) and set off at intervals. The rider with the lowest time wins. This is a solo race, and can form a stage of a longer multi-day competition.
- Team time trial (TTT) - The same principle as the individual time trial, but involving all the members of a racing team.
For most types of road race, competitors set off en masse, this body of riders being known as the peloton. The first rider to cross the finishing line wins (or the fastest, in the case of time trials). There may also be additional point-scoring opportunities throughout the race involving sprints and being the first rider to summit designated mountains. In a multi-day competition, for example, riders compete for the title of sprint or climbing champion as well as for the overall lead.
Road races take place all over the world. Given the length of the races, it is usually necessary to use public roads. These may be closed to traffic for major events, and UK youth racing (for under-16s) always takes place in traffic-free circuits.
Racing bikes are light, aerodynamic and fitted with narrow, slick tyres and dropped handlebars which allow the rider to adapt his or her riding position.
The name BMX is a shortened form of Bicycle Moto-Cross. There are two forms of BMX - Racing and Freestyle. BMX is an ideal form of cycling for competitors of all ages, and makes for an exciting introduction to cycling for children from six years upwards.
Competitors can choose from two types of bicycle - the smaller, 20” wheel variety and the larger 24” inch cruiser. Often fast and furious, racing involves up to eight riders speeding around a track between 300 and 400 metres in length. The track incorporates jumps, bumps and banked corners (known as berms), so skill is needed to negotiate these obstacles without losing speed. Each lap is known as a moto, with finishers accruing points based on their position. The first rider to cross the line wins. Where several laps are raced, the final ranking is based on points accrued; the first to cross the line being awarded one point. BMX racing is widespread and popular, and has even been classified an Olympic sport.
Freestyle covers all non-racing elements of BMX. Freestyle, which may be subdivided into 'street riding', 'dirt jumping', 'flatland' and 'ramp and park' differs from BMX racing because it is concerned with skills and tricks, not speed alone. Obstacles feature heavily, with riders doing tricks on/over ramps and the like.
MTB is the accepted shorthand for mountain biking. This covers four different disciplines; 'cross country', 'downhill', 'freeride' and 'trial'. Although there is variation depending on the discipline, by and large, MTB uses 26” wheeled bicycles with front and/or rear suspension.
Often shortened to XC and the most popular discipline, Cross Country basically conforms to the typical idea of mountain biking. It involves riding a linear or circular route on variable terrain, with appreciable ascent and descent. Common XC is a leisure pursuit, while XC racing adds a competitive edge, in which riders must complete a course in the shortest time possible. XC racing demands rigorous physical training and a high level of skill. Cross country is the only MTB event currently included as an Olympic sport.
Mountain biking does what it says on the tin - it involves riding downhill. Also known as DH, downhill can be a leisure pursuit or competitive sport, although the term is most often used in the context of racing. Racecourses are physically and mentally demanding, with obstacles including jumps of over 10 metres and drop-offs of 3 metres or more.
Terrain is usually rough and the gradient is steep throughout, top to bottom. Due to the high speed and potential for injury, downhill mountain bikers wear protective clothing such as knee and elbow pads, full face helmets and even motocross style body suits. Downhill mountain bikes are heavy, and typically come equipped with front and rear suspension and hefty brakes. Downhill bikes are not designed for riding uphill, so lower gears are often dispensed with.
This discipline is more aggressive than normal cross country, and might involve downhill racing, jumping and elevated trails comprising off-the-ground bridges, and stunts. Within freeride, a variety of riding known as 'slopestyle' is gaining popularity. This is a real cross-over between MTB and BMX, and involves big jumps and high levels of skill. Freeride bikes tend to be lighter than their downhill counterparts, and almost always have front and rear suspension. It's common for riders to customise their bikes and develop different skills to showcase on the course, which can earn points from judges in a competitive freeride event.
The fourth and final category of MTB, this again has close links with the BMX scene and even skateboarding. Whether in an urban or off-road environment, trials riding uses obstacles to create tricky courses which require good balance, skill and originality. Riders negotiate the course on customised bikes, typically having 20” or 24” wheels and a small frame.
Also known as 'Cross', Cyclo-Cross is a fast and furious form of cycling that combines elements of Cross Country MTB with running. Riders complete laps of a short, off-road course roughly 1km in length, hindered by both natural and man-made obstacles. It is almost always necessary for riders to dismount and shoulder the bike in order to negotiate the course. Less technical skill is required than for Downhill riding, but good levels of fitness and the ability to switch between riding and running are essential.
Four-cross (also known as 4X) is a version of Cyclo-Cross in which four cyclists compete over the course of a short (250m) circuit. Crashes are frequent, so 4X riders wear full protection similar to that worn by BMX riders.
Bicycles used in Cyclo-Cross combine elements of road bikes and MTBs, with thin but grippy tyres ensuring effective handling off-road, and low gears allowing riders to negotiate obstacles and uphill sections more easily. A light frame is an advantage for a Cyclo-Cross rider, making it easier to carry uphill.
Track cycling is a fast-paced style of cycle racing over short distances. Riders compete by completing laps on specially constructed tracks which comprise two tight, banked corners connected by two straight sections. Tracks can be located indoors in a velodrome or outdoors, and vary greatly in length. For Olympic and World Championship competition, wooden indoor tracks of 250m are used.
Track bikes are much lighter and aerodynamic than most other types of bicycle, weighing in the region of 7kg. They are very narrow and often have spokeless wheels, which cuts down air resistance. Brakes and gears are dispensed with, so the speed a rider achieves is down entirely to the pressure applied to the pedals.
Cycle Speedway is akin to Track cycling, but races are even shorter and are usually conducted outdoors on dirt tracks in public parks. Circuits vary in length from 60-90 metres and races involve 3-4 laps. The pace is fast - races are over in less than a minute - so strength and aerobic fitness are of vital importance.
Speedway is a club sport and, more often than not, two pairs of riders from different clubs compete in a single race. Clubs are ranked in leagues, with position determined by the outcome of matches, which comprise 16-20 races.
This is the nearest cycling gets to being a contact sport, as riders jostle one another on the track, especially when negotiating tight corners. For this reason, protective clothing is a must. Bikes used in Speedway are often adapted MTBs, which have been stripped down and include no gears or brakes.