Summer's big road-races may be months away, but every December professional cyclists begin training in earnest for the world's most gruelling annual sporting event, the Tour de France. Road racing has a low profile in this country and correspondingly few competitors, but in Europe millions are spent on the three-week Tours, which draw huge audiences.
At the top level, road racing is immensely challenging, complicated and tactical. During epic competitions such as the Tour de France – which celebrates its centenary next July – riders cover a distance of up to 2,000 miles, which is broken down into about 20 stages, at an average speed of 25mph. Although riders may have different strengths – some aiming to rule the mountain stages (the King of the Mountains wears a red-and-white polka-dot jersey) or win the most points (green jersey) – the teams' ultimate objective is to see their main man in the leader's yellow jersey, worn by the cyclist with the quickest aggregate time.
Teams of up to nine cyclists work together to escort their top rider to the front of the péloton, the main pack, while domestiques create slipstreams and chase breakaways. Team managers dictate strategies by radio from team cars.
Despite the ascetic lifestyle of the best racers, road racing's extensive history of doping is perhaps a result of the extreme physical demands of the sport – Eddy Merckx, cycling's first hero, once said that Tours weren't won on sandwiches and mineral water. The first police investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs by Tour de France racers took place in 1966, while the 1998 Tour descended into ignominy after drug busts. And last year, cyclists in the Giro d'Italia went on strike after dawn police raids.
We may not be as obsessed by cycling as the French, Spanish or Italians, but almost 1,000 road races take place in Britain annually. Next year sees the biggest cycling event in the country for some years, at the Commonwealth Games.
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For more information, contact British Cycling, the governing body of all cycle sport in the UK, who have a database of over 1,100 clubs: www.british cycling.org.uk, 0870 871 2000.
Cycle Plus Magazine, a monthly publication, covers road cycling in great detail: www.cyclingplus.co. uk, 0870 444 8460.
The Bike Show 2002, Britain's biggest bike event, covering every aspect of the world of cycling and featuring a number of celebrity road-racers, will take place 23-25 March at Birmingham NEC: www.thebikeshow.com or 0870 9020444 for tickets.
The old-fashioned system of strapping feet to pedals has been superseded by shoes (costing up to £150) with stiff soles that clip directly on to the pedals. Racing cyclists use this system because it allows force to be created on both upstroke and downstroke. Racers also wear a lot of Lycra – the shorts have a padded groin insert for comfort. Sunglasses protect eyes from wayward flies and gloves minimise blistering.
Usually a teardrop shape, ventilated helmets are designed to draw air across the top of the head. The brand leaders, Giro, test the top end of their range in wind tunnels to ensure maximum aerodynamic advantage. All helmets fasten under the chin. Weight, as ever, is important; the best are as little as 9oz, but regardless of weight all must be discarded after one impact. Prices vary from £35 to £100.
On a racing bicycle, weight is saved at every possible opportunity. Saddles are uncomfortably narrow and even the number of wheel spokes is reduced to the bare minimum. The result is something like Trek's 5900 USPS Team Superlight, the bike on which Lance Armstrong will defend his Tour de France title. The frame weighs just 2.27lb but costs £1,800. Most racing bikes have 18 gears, with shifters on the dropped handlebars.Reuse content