If Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the Tour de France has piqued your interest in cycling, you’re in luck – the very first medals to be awarded at the 2012 Olympics will go to the road cyclists, whose event kicks off the Games on Saturday.
The British team, complete with World Champion sprinter Mark Cavendish and Tour winner Wiggins, will be fighting for a win on The Mall, but they won’t have it all their own way: the 250km race is a bubbling mix of tactics, as different riders attempt to bring their particular strengths to bear in a decisive fashion.
It begins and ends on The Mall in London – in between are nine testing ascents of Surrey’s Box Hill. The route, approximately 250km for the men, is designed to give different types of rider the opportunity to use their skills. Under ordinary circumstances, the climb of Box Hill after 64Km wouldn’t bother professionals, but going over it nine times (144km) at race pace will be difficult for the heavily-muscled sprinters who ride in the German and GB teams. The lightweight breakaway specialists in the French and Belgian teams will try to escape here, but the flatter final 48km on the run back to the Mall means that the sprinters’ teams will have a chance to reel them back in. Whether or not you’re cheering for Team GB, Mark Cavendish is the favourite to win and the one to watch.
The women’s event takes place over a shorter course of 140km, and features two laps of the Box Hill loop rather than nine.
The main group of cyclists is known as the peloton, and it contains enough riders to move much faster than the smaller breakaway groups of riders who dash away from the front of the group in a bid for glory. When the TV helicopters show the peloton chasing a breakaway, its shape will tell you a great deal about the state of the race:
A block or blob-shaped peloton means that the race is moving at its most relaxed pace and that the peloton feels that the escaping riders are no threat.
An arrowhead formation suggests that some riders are working hard to drive the pace along. This means that the peloton is wary, and trying to keep escapees within reach.
When the peloton stretches out into a long, thin line it means the riders are going “full gas”, riding at their hardest in order to hunt down escapees who have a dangerous chance of staying away until the finish.
If the peloton is arranged in diagonal lines across the road, known as echelons, then they are struggling with crosswinds. Each cyclist will attempt to shelter from the wind alongside the next rider, filling up the width of the road. Riders dread crosswinds, as crossing from one echelon to the next can be exhausting enough to ruin their chances.
Riders who aren’t fast enough to sprint but are strong enough to ride for hundreds of kilometres in a small group will use challenging terrain to escape from the peloton and beat it to the finish line.
Escaping riders will take it in turns to dictate the pace at the front, a technique known as bit-and-bit. A flick of the elbow from the rider on the front means that it’s time for one of the riders behind to take their turn riding into the wind. Crafty riders will take as few turns as possible to save their strength, but if too many riders begin skiving the pace will drop and the escapees will be caught.
Escapees who are trying to save their strength for an attack will begin “glass cranking”, expending less energy on their pedal strokes, while an exhausted rider might be seen “pedalling squares”, their smooth pedalling motion replaced with laboured efforts to heave the pedals around.
On TV you’ll see the distance the breakaway riders have to go until the finish, and a figure in minutes and seconds that tells you how far ahead of the peloton they are. A rule of thumb says that a “full gas” peloton can recapture at least a minute in every 10 kilometres, so if the second number is dropping significantly faster than the first, the escapees are likely to be devoured by the chasing pack.
The race ends on The Mall, with the cyclists heading for a finish in front of Buckingham Palace. If the peloton successfully recaptures the breakaway, you’ll see teams forming fast-moving lines. These are lead-out trains, and they are composed of strong riders protecting fast ones. The train provides a slipstream for the sprinters, who will be three or four places back in the line. The endurance riders in the team, such as Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar and the current British Road Race Champion Ian Stannard, will maintain a high pace to discourage late escapes, all while being barged and jostled by rival trains. At the last moment, the sprinters will launch themselves out of cover and hit speeds of nearly 50mph as they charge to the finish. Britain’s Mark Cavendish is the master of this dangerous dash, and most British fans will be hoping for an embarrassment of riches: watching the World Champion win the Olympics with help from the Maillot Jaune, a pair of Tour de France stage winners and the national champion.
Several of the favourites in the women’s race are Brits too, including the former British Road Race Champion Lizzie Armitstead and former World Champion and current Olympic Champion Nicole Cooke. Likely rivals for Armitstead and Cooke are The Netherland’s Marianne Vos, a consistent race winner who has already notched up 12 major wins this year, and reigning two-time World Champion, Italy’s Giorgia Bronzini.