How Cycling Works, Part 1: The Teams

A team is more than just its riders

The Tour de France is an exciting time in the cycling world, but for someone who is just discovering cycling, it can be a bit overwhelming. While cycling seems simple enough (they’re just riding their bikes down the road, for crying out loud!), it’s actually quite a complex sport. While the Tour can be enjoyed at any level, it helps to understand the basics of cycling and how racing works. For the next few days, I’ll be posting some “primers” to help those new to the Tour understand what’s going on!

First up, the essence of cycling: the teams. Cycling is a strange mix of team and individual sport. Only one racer wins the stage/race, but that one racer cannot win without the support of a team. Teams are usually built around a few “stars,” who usually gets the most attention/stage wins/press. But those “stars” wouldn’t be able to win any races if they didn’t have a team around them. A team usually has 20-30 some riders (at least the ones with a nice budget do!), so a team will have various riders at various races at any time. The B teams often to the “lesser” races, while the A teams are usually sent to the higher profile races. This was something I definitely did not understand when I started watching. When I watched the Eneco Tour after the Tour, I couldn’t understand why Andy et al., who I just watched ride the Tour, weren’t riding for Saxo Bank at this race!

At each race, within a squad of 6-9 riders (depending on the size of the race), a team leader is usually designated who the other riders support. These domestiques (French for servants) do things like shepherd things back and forth to the team car (including water, cold/warm weather gear, instructions, etc.), take pulls on the front of the peloton to chase down breaks, draft the leaders back to the peloton if they get dropped for some reason, or even give up a bike or wheel if the situation calls for it. The domestiques rarely win, often riding hard until they pop, then limping to the finish line. All of this is done to help preserve the strength and legs of team leaders- keeping them out of the wind, towards the front of the peloton to try and avoid the crashes that often happen in the bunch. There are exceptions, such as when Garmin-Cervelo super domestique Johan Van Summeren won Paris-Roubaix in 2011, but they are the exception and not the rule. However, just because you’re domestique doesn’t mean you’re not famous- Jens Voigt being a perfect example. He’s one of the hardest working and best liked domestiques of the peloton. He got a love letter from me.

Of course the teams aren’t just the riders. Other important members include soigneurs, the mechanics, the cooks, the directeur sportifs (DS), etc. Soigneurs (French for “care givers”) do a variety of jobs, from doing laundry, clean up, driving team cars, organizing team cars, restocking supplies, etc- anything and everything that might be required to run a team. Sometimes soigneurs will also be masseurs, an important job in helping riders recover. I’ve heard it compared to being a roadie for a rock band- lots of work, little pay, late nights, etc. Only the passionate need apply!

Mechanics are self explanatory- they’re the guys that keep the bikes running! Often a mechanic will ride in the team cars, to help with wheel and bike changes, and help with any bike repairs that need to happen on the go. Again, late nights, as after each race, they must get the bikes ready for the next day- washing and cleaning the bike, making sure all the parts are working like they should, etc. And that’s not just the bikes the 9 riders use, but all the spare bikes as well.

Most teams have cooks there to make sure the riders are getting the right food in the right amounts. Some of the bigger teams have their own “kitchen” bus, but the smaller teams often cook out of the hotel kitchens.

The DS is probably the most important member of the team, when it comes to racing and tactics. They’re usually sitting in the cars, “coaching” the riders. If the race has radios, they’ll give breakaway updates, crash updates, road updates through the radio, as well as give guidance on when to attack or chase. If the race has no radios, they’ll wait for riders (usually the domestiques) to come back to the car for instructions or updates. Most DSs are former riders.

Hopefully that clears up the complicated dynamics of how teams work! See parts 2 and 3 to learn about The Jerseys and Living on the Bike.

Tour de France: A Feelings Index

This a modified version of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

Disclaimer: If you use this list to predict who will do well at the Tour, you will probably lose.

It’s so weird to think that the Tour de France is going to be starting TOMORROW! It seems like only yesterday that I turned on the TV, one bored summer afternoon and, without knowing how it would change my life, started watching the Tour de France. Little did I know that watching this race was the start of a long, sordid affair with the cycling world. If I known that watching this race would result in my eating, drinking, and breathing cycling, would I have turned on that TV? Who knows. The only thing I do know is watching that race marked a changing point in my life.

So as the 2011 edition of the TdF draws near, it is custom for everyone and their mom, their dog and their grandparents to make predictions on what they think different riders’ chances are at the podium, the different jersey’s, a top 10 finish, etc. I find prediction, and making them, to be rather useless, as form and fitness are only one tiny (albeit important) part of the overall equation in winning any race. You can’t predict bad luck, bad weather, or what others might do on the road. Oh yeah, and I suck at them. However, this will not stop me from throwing my hat into the predictions ring. However, this will be no ordinary predictions list. Mainly because I suck at prediction and am still not familiar enough with the riders to really know their chances. In fact, it won’t be a predictions list at all. This will be a feelings list, as I talk about my feelings towards those riding the TdF this year.

Anna’s 2011 Tour de France Feelings Index Ratings

Andy Schleck

If you’ve ever read any of my blog, you know exactly how I feel about Andy. He’s the rider that got me into cycling in the first place, as my schoolgirl crush on him kept me watching the Tour until the very end and motivated me to continue after it had ended. So he will always rate high on the Feelings Index. I’m very nervous about his form coming into the Tour- he has not had a very impressive season so far. I don’t think his lack of results means too much, but I wasn’t very impressed with his climbing during the Tour of California or the Tour de Suisse. I’m also concerned with the growing pains his team seems to be experiencing. I don’t know if I can point to a specific incident, but overall I wonder the stress and expectations of starting a new team built around him is a bit much. Now, I wasn’t around last year when Sky was starting its inaugural year, but based on reports, expectations were sky high (see what I did there?) and there wasn’t much delivery. This year, they’ve mellowed out, reevaluated their goals and had a much better year. I’m seeing a bit of repeat with Leopard-Trek- expectations are high but there hasn’t been much delivery. My fingers are crossed that this whole season has been a big bluff and Andy’s gonna shred it up those mountains and make Bertie wish he’d never ridden the Giro.

Feelings Index rating: 10/10

Alberto Contador

If you had asked me last year where Bertie fell on my feelings index, I would’ve said right at the bottom. He was Andy’s sworn enemy! But after watching him climb in the Giro this year, he’s also climbed up my Feelings Index as well. I’m trying not to think too much about the whole doping issue. While it drives me crazy to think that his wins might get stripped, denying another deserving rider a chance at the podium, I can’t really blame him for this, as it is the UCI/CSA that seems to be dragging their feet in deciding the final verdict. So, I’m going to put that out of my head and enjoy watching him ride. He’s clearly a man who loves to race and ride his bike and dang has he got some skill! I don’t care what others said; I loved watching him dominate this year’s Giro. Normally I’d never say this, but you never knew when he was just going up and leave the peloton in his dust, and that was so exciting to watch. Now, do I want him to do that at the Tour? Not really. I’d like the competition to be a little closer!  However, if he can hold over his form from the Giro, I feel he’ll be hard to beat. But, riding the Giro like it was his last race on Earth might have sapped precious strength and prevent him from being at his best. Not to mention that pretty much his entire support squad rode the Giro as well, and I can’t imagine they’re all ready to ride the Tour at top form.

Feelings Index rating: 7/10

Chris Horner

I will admit. Horner does not rank high on my Feelings Index, despite the fact that he is an American rider that everyone seems to love. In fact, I really don’t love him. I do not know why this is. Maybe because everyone else does? Maybe because I don’t love RadioShack? I’m not sure. While I know he is a nice guy that everyone loves, and he doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body (even his pain face is surprisingly pleasant), I cannot get excited about him. In fact, once he got the leaders jersey in California, I stopped caring about the race and how it would end. However, I cannot deny he’s been having a great season and seems to have the legs and the form for a great Tour.

Feelings Index rating: 3/10

Cadel Evans

I would say I’m indifferent towards Cadel. He seems to have a lot of intense fans, but I’m still not sure what the fuss is all about. I do follow a lot of Australians on twitter and they are loyal to Cadel to the death, which might be why it seems to me that everyone loves him. When I ask people why they love Cadel, most cite his defense of the rainbow jersey last year and his performance at the 2010 Giro. As I was not watching cycling last year, I did not get to witness his panache-filled performances of last year and even though there have flashes panache this year, it hasn’t been much to make an impression on me. Plus, he’s a very strange looking man. I get so distracted about how strange looking he is when I see him, that I often can’t concentrate on anything else.

Feelings Index rating: 5/10

Thor Hushovd

Poor Thor has been getting some flack this season. Many people feel he isn’t defending the world champs jersey as he should, but I’m not really sure what that means. I mean, sure, it seems that Cadel really became a different racer when he was wearing the jersey, but I’m not sure that means everyone needs to. He was doing what he was doing before- riding and winning when he could. It seems to me that Hushovd is very good on a very specific type of course and then is just middling on anything else. He’s got speed and he’s got power, but not enough speed to beat the fastest on the flattest courses, and not enough power to beat the best climbers. So, he wins on the courses he’s suited for- like last year’s worlds course! Anyway, I think he’s a classy rider and a classy guy (even though his teeth drive me crazy). I think maybe he could win a stage, but that’s about it. (Oh and I also love him because of this.)

Feelings Index rating: 7/10

Tyler Farrar

Speaking of Garmin-Cervelo and their awesome Tour argyle, there’s also Tyler Farrar. I’ve always felt a little bad for Tyler. It’s “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” with him. Or more accurately, “always the slightly late wedding guest who misses the important bits, never a bride.” He just can’t quite seem to keep up with the fastest guys and their lead out trains. Or his lead out train keeps getting jostled out of position by the other sprinter’s lead out trains. Either way. While he’s usually a top 5 finisher of the sprint stages, even if he’s got a good position going into the sprint, something always happens and he’s boxed out. But I still like him. He seems like a super chill guy, he’s American, he’s a ginger- all wins! I’d love for him to get a stage win, although I’m not holding my breath.

Feelings Index rating: 8/10

Mark Cavendish

And now speaking of sprinters! I. love. Cav. Love him. Yes, he’s brash. Yes, he’s obnoxious. Yes, he thinks very highly of himself as a sprinter. But he looooves his job and he loooves his teammates. And he’s very emotional- he wears his heart on his sleeve and I like that. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even if it makes him sound a bit stupid sometimes. My first memory of him is him crying after he won his first stage at the TdF last year. I didn’t understand it, but I loved it even then. And let’s not forgot about the fact that he’s a fabulous tweeter

Feelings Index rating: 9/10

Ivan Basso

I mainly like Basso because he tweets awesome pictures of himself getting massages and such. I really have no opinion of him as a rider, as I’ve yet to see him race. Although, I was watching highlights of last year’s Giro on Versus awhile ago and the little I saw of him was impressive. So, between his awesome tweets and the fact that he’s pretty cute, he gets a higher ranking on my Feelings Index.

Feelings Index rating: 7/10

Philippe Gilbert

When the season started, I didn’t have an opinion on Gilbert. And even as the season progressed and he started winning a lot, I was still pretty indifferent towards him. I saw that everyone loved him, but didn’t really understand why. I also found him to be pretty unattractive (yes, I’m shallow). But then he was winning, winning, winning. And he started bringing his little baby on the podium with him. And he had awesome helmet hair. And he seemed genuinely excited about winning. And he was FUN to watch! After he won the Belgian championships and you could feel his excitement, I was sold. He’s such a strong, silent rider that is capable of animating a race to the fullest extent. There’s a lot of talk about “panache” in the peloton, and I think he’s got it. He attacks, he’s not afraid of racing hard, he knows where his strengths are and he’s not afraid to use them. It would be fun to see him win a TdF stage!

Feelings Index rating: 8/10

Alexandre Vinokourov

I don’t like him. He creeps me out with his eyebrow-less face and his seemingly emotionless face. I hope he doesn’t win anything.

Feelings Index rating: 1/10

Photo: Fitzalan Gorman

US Pro Championship Road Race: Busche beats Hincapie

This is a reprint of the article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

It took Matthew Busche (Radioshack) about 5 minutes to find out that he was the new owner of the stars and stripes jersey. During that 5 minutes, Busche had plenty of time to think about whether his bike throw to the line was enough to beat George Hincapie (BMC). Both Busche and Hincapie were part of a four man break that got away after many, many attacks from the field. When Hincapie sprinted for the line, it was only Busche who was able to go with him, and he took the win through a photo finish.

Under oppressive heat, the 99 riders took the start in Greenville, SC. The route was the same as it had been the past few years, with three 4.2 mile laps around town, then four 22.5 mile laps around the Paris Mountain loop, finishing with three short laps around the town. After last year, when breakaway which allowed Ben King to solo to a win got a 17 minute gap, the peloton was not going to allow that to happen again this year. The pace was kept high, and breaks were chased down.

First break

Right before the first ascent of Paris Mountain, a break with Cameron Cogburn (Jelly Belly), David Williams (Bissell), Julian Kyer (Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Nick Frey (Jamis-Sutter Home) got away. However, by the top of the climb, they only had 10 seconds on the group, with Jeff Louder of BMC pulling the peloton up the climb.

This high pace destroyed the field and caught the break. Out of a group of about 40 who made it to the top of Paris Mountain, Brookwalter, Jason McCartney (RadioShack), Timmy Duggan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Jesse Anthony (Kelly Benefit Strategy), Quinn Keough (Exergy), and Robert Bush (Chipotle Development Team) attacked and caught Williams (the only original break member left) on the downhill.

High pace

The pace was kept high, even though they got over two and a half minutes on the group. By the last ascent up Paris Mountain, only Duggan, Bookwalter, Anthony, and McCartney were left. They had a minute, but that didn’t last long. From the field emerged a chasing group of Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad), Matthew Busche (RadioShack), George Hincapie (BMC), and they were soon joined by Louder, Jason McCartney (RadioShack), Ted King (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Pat McCarty (Spidertech).

This group was away and out of it, and as the group came into the last 3 town circuits, the formative four person break emerged.

The last break

Van Garderen’s atack attempt enabled him to pull away with King, Hincapie, and Busche. There were no real attacks out of this group, as they watched each other carefully. There was a fear of going to early and not having enough to stay away, then being dropped, or being caught by the chase group as well. So, the group stayed together until the last 300 meters. It was then that Busche attacked. Hincapie was soon able to jump on his wheel and at 250 meters to go, he pulled around Busche. But he couldn’t shake him. Busche hung on his wheel and surged again, but Hincapie still lead by about 20 meters. However, one last surge from Busche, and a desperate bike throw, let him take the win from Hincapie. The finish this close wasn’t able to be called right away, and the officials had to look at the photo finish before they called it officially for Busche. So, the Stars and Stripes jersey stays in the RadioShack team and another young pro takes it for the 2nd year running!

Top 5 results

  1. Matthew Busche (RadioShack)
  2. George Hincapie (BMC)
  3. Ted King (Liquigas-Cannondale)
  4. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad)
  5. Kyle Wamsley (Bissell)

Tour of California Wrap-Up

Let’s talk Tour of California. 

First, I was SO excited for this race. It was so cool too see all these big riders and teams talking about coming to the US and California. I was reeeally sad that I wasn’t able to go to Cali to have a chance to see some of the riders I love so much. 

It was crazy weird to see the peloton racing on American streets- I’m so used to watching them navigate small European roads, with roundabouts and weird road furniture. But I LOVED seeing the domestic teams and riders racing! Jeremy Powers, Jamey Driscoll, Ben Jacques-Maynes, Mike Creed, Mike Friedman, Bissel, UnitedHealthcare, Kelly Benefits Strategies- guys and teams I followed on twitter and read about in news were racing ON MY TV! So cool. And man, did they work their butts off. They were in all the breaks and worked hard in the bunch. I would’ve loved to see one of the domestic teams take a stage win or see a domestic rider in the top 5, but no luck. 

The race did not get a lot of love at the beginning. What with the first stage being cancelled for weather and the second stage being shortened, the start of the race missed a lot of the fabulous scenery that is standard for bike races. The majority of the shortened second stage was raced through suburbs, so there wasn’t too much to see. Many watchers were not impressed. There were lots of complaints about strip malls, parking lots, etc. I don’t know if I was especially sensitive because it was a race in my home country, or if people were being extra mean, but all the hate was pretty upsetting! I mean, yeah, it’s not super exciting and scenery isn’t awesome, but don’t a lot of bike races have this? Strip malls, parking lots, malls- the US isn’t the only country to have those! And the race has only just started! Give it time! But as the race went on, and as it moved into the more mountainous and more scenery-laden stage, it definitely improved. 

However, once Chris Horner soloed to the win on stage 4, I kinda lost interest. His lead was so big that it was clear no one was going to be able to catch him. All the riders I supporting were really far down on the GC, with no chance of even breaking into the top 3. Andy Schleck, my top favorite, barely seemed to be riding! And, I don’t really care for Horner. Or Levi. They both seem like a nice guys, but they just doesn’t do it for me. In addition, while it was cool to see RadioShack lead the race so decisively, I also don’t really like RadioShack. Of all the American teams, it’s the one I care for the least. So, after stage 4, I watched, but wasn’t invested. BUT, it was still fun to watch, I loved seeing my American cyclists ride their hearts out, and seeing the top 5 spots occupied by Americans was pretty awesome! I’ll watch again next year, hopefully from the sidelines.

OH, let’s talk about the Shack Tour Tracker! Now, I don’t like RadioShack much, but they had an awesome set up that allowed people to stream on the web AND on their smartphones/tablets. It was a great way to share the race and allow those without access to Versus a way to watch. I hope more races follow their lead!

Photo:  Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America

Tour of California Stage 8: Goss sprints to win, Horner takes overall

The writers over at US Pro Cycling News (myself included) will be doing daily recaps of both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of California.

On the last day of the Tour of California, during a stage that was destined to end in a bunch sprint, Chris Horner’s top podium spot was in no danger, but his team did not just sit back- they worked on the front for much of race. Their work contributed to the break being pulled back and the inevitable bunch sprint. While Sky started out the perfect lead out for their sprinter, Greg Henderson, Leigh Howard of HTC-Highroad was able to start his lead out for Matt Goss in front of them, and slow them down enough to allow Goss an uncontested sprint to the line. Check out Fitzalan’s recap!

Top 5 Stage results

  1. Matt Goss AUS (HTC-Highroad)
  2. Peter Sagan SVK (Liquigas-Cannondale)
  3. Greg Henderson NZL (Sky)
  4. Oscar Freire SPA (Rabobank)
  5. Kevin Lacombe CAN (Team Spidertech)
Top 5 Final GC
  1. Chris Horner USA (RadioShack)
  2. Levi Leipheimer USA (RadioShack) at 38 sec
  3. Tom Danielson USA (Garmin-Cervelo) at 2:45
  4. Christian Vande Velde USA (Garmin-Cervelo) at 3:18
  5. Tejay Van Garderen USA (HTC-Highroad) at 3:23
Top 5 Final Points Classification (Sprint jersey)
  1. Peter Sagan
  2. Greg Henderson NZL (Sky)
  3. Ben Swift GBR (Sky)
  4. Matt Goss AUS (HTC-Highroad)
  5. Juan Jose Haedo ARG (Saxo Bank Sungard)
Top 5 Mountains Classification (King of the Mountain jersey)
  1. Pat McCarty USA (Spidertech)
  2. Levi Leipheimer USA (RadioShack)
  3. Chris Horner USA (RadioShack)
  4. Tom Danielson USA (Garmin-Cervelo)
  5. Andy Schleck LUX (Leopard Trek)
Top 5 Final Best Young Rider
  1. Tejay Van Garderen USA (HTC-Highroad)
  2. Andrew Talansky USA (Garmin-Cervelo)
  3. Rafal Majka POL (Saxo Bank Sungard)
  4. Peter Sagan
  5. Timothy Roe AUS (BMC)
Top 5 Final Best Teams
  1. Garmin-Cervelo
  2. RadioShack
  3. BMC
  4. Rabobank
  5. UnitedHealthcare

Photo: Swetnam

Tour of California Stage 7: Mt. Baldy delivers pain

The writers over at US Pro Cycling News (myself included) will be doing daily recaps of both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of California.

The queen stage of the Tour of California happened today, and boy, did it deliver. Once the race reached Mt. Baldy, a high pace and attacks from the field shattered the peloton and attacks in the front shattered the breakaway. Ultimately, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer were the only breakaway riders able to maintain a pace up the mountain and crossed the line together. With this stage, Horner solidified and secured his lead, with Danielson now over 2 minutes behind him. Check out Fitzalan’s recap!

Top 5 Stage results

  1. Levi Leipheimer USA (RadioShack)
  2. Chris Horner USA (RadioShack)
  3. Laurens Ten Dam NED (Rabobank) at 43 sec
  4. Tom Danielson USA (Garmin-Cervelo) at 1:01
  5. Steve Morabito SWI (BMC) at 1:21
Top 5 GC
  1. Chris Horner
  2. Levi Leipheimer at 38 sec
  3. Tom Danielson at 2:45
  4. Christian Vande Velde USA (Garmin-Cervelo) at 3:18
  5. Tejay Van Garderen USA (HTC-Highroad) at 3:23


Tour of California Stage 6: Dave Z, Americans with strong TT showing

The writers over at US Pro Cycling News (myself included) will be doing daily recaps of both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of California.

Today’s stage was an Individual Time Trial in Solvange. While Taylor Phinney put up an impressive 2nd place, the riders after him were consistently good, pushing Taylor down to 21st by the end of the stage. In the end, Garmin-Cervelo’s TT specialist, Dave Zabriskie killed the competition and won the stage.  Check out Fitzalan’s recap!

Top 5 Stage results

  1. Dave Zabriskie USA (Garmin-Cervelo)
  2. Levi Leipheimer USA (RadioShack) at 14sec
  3. Tejay Van Garderen USA (HTC-Highroad) at 40sec
  4. Peter Velits SVK (HTC-Highroad) at 48sec
  5. Maarten Tjallingii NED (Rabobank) at 49sec
Top 5 GC
  1. Chris Horner
  2. Levi Leipheimer at 38sec
  3. Rory Sutherland at 1:38
  4. Christian Vande Velde at 1:39
  5. Tom Danielson at 1:44

Photo: Casey B. Gibson/