Cycling 101


A criterium is a multi-lap closed-circuit race, usually one mile or less in distance. This racing discipline requires a unique type of rider, one who must demonstrate top speed and bike-handling skills traveling at 30-plus mph. Because of the circular track, criteriums are cycling’s equivalent to NASCAR and are known as America’s contribution to the sport.

Perhaps a better-known type of racing is the stage race, where racers start in one location and finish in another — like the Tour de France.


It may come as a surprise to learn cycling is a team sport. Even Lance Armstrong depended heavily on the strength of his team to win his seven Tour de France titles.

In a typical pro race, teams have eight-12 riders on the start line. Each team has its own game plan for winning, and like pieces on a chess board, each rider plays a different role in that game plan.

Most teams have one leader. His teammates play the role of domestiques, who sacrifice their own chances of winning in support of their team leader. A domestique is the “worker ant” of the team; protecting the leader from the wind or chasing down breakaway riders.

One of the most crucial concepts in team racing is drafting. Riders can conserve energy by riding in the slipstream of another cyclist. As a result, teams try to surround their leader with teammates, keeping him out of the wind and fresh to attack at the right moment.

Different formations can increase the energy-saving benefits of drafting, and wind can necessitate a variety of drafting formations. In a headwind, the best formation is a long straight line that is called a paceline. In a crosswind, riders will form staggered, diagonal lines that are known as echelons.

Teams also develop complex strategies to win specific stages and the “races within races,” such as points for King of the Mountain or Sprint competitions. Not only do teams designate a leader for the overall race, but many also select riders to vie for the best sprinter and best climber titles.


Abandon: When a rider quits during a race.

Attack: A sudden acceleration to move ahead of another rider or group of riders.

Big Ringing It: The chain on the big chain ring, going for maximum speed.

Bonk: Total exhaustion caused by lack of sufficient food during a long race or ride.

Break/Breakaway: A rider or group of riders that has left the main group behind.

Classic Race: A one-day race in which the route travels between two separate points, instead of a circuitous route.

DNF: Short for Did Not Finish.

Domestique: A team rider who will sacrifice his individual performance to help a designated teammate. Duties can include giving up one’s bike for another rider, supplying refreshments to teammates, and catching breakaway riders. French for “servant.”

Draft: To ride closely behind another racer, saving energy by using that racer as a wind break. Riding in front is very strenuous but affords a great energy-saving advantage to the rider behind.

Echelon: A staggered, long line of riders, each downwind of the rider ahead, allowing them to move considerably faster than a solo rider or small group of riders. In windy sections where there are crosswinds, a large peloton will form into echelons.

Field Sprint: A mass sprint at the finish among the main group of riders in a road race.

Gap: The amount of time or distance between a rider or group of riders and another rider or group of riders.

Grand Tour: Refers to three-week major cycling stage races: Tour de France, Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), and Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain).

Hammer: To ride hard. Also, to “put the hammer down.”

Jump: A quick acceleration, which usually develops into a sprint.

Lead Out: To intentionally sacrifice one’s chances in order to create a windbreak and creating an opening for a rider behind. A racing tactic whereby one rider races at high speed to give a head start to the rider on his/her wheel.

Mechanical: Slang for a mechanical problem with the bicycle. “He had a mechanical.”

Off the Back: When a rider or riders cannot keep pace with the main group and lag behind.

Off the Front: When a rider takes part in a breakaway.

Paceline: A string of riders that moves at high speed with each individual taking turns setting the pace and riding in the draft of the others. See also Train.

Peloton: The main field, or pack, of riders in the race. Peloton is French for a group moving forward.

Popped: Blown. Had it. Knackered. Stuffed. Lots of words to describe the legs just going all weak. Loss of power.

Prime (pronounced preem): This is a mid-race prize given to the first rider across some referee-defined line. In a stage race, the prize may be time (i.e. Subtract 5 sec from the rider’s total time) or it may be points (each rider gets points for the places that they finish and one or two more can make a big difference), or it may be cash/valuable prizes. These primes may be offered in a road race or, more commonly, in a crit.

Puncture: Flat tire.

Road Rash: Skin abrasions resulting from a fall or crash onto the road.

Saddle: The bike seat.

Sitting up: When the rider is no longer tucked, or riding in the most aerodynamic fashion.

Slipstream: The area of least wind resistance behind a rider.

Stage Race: A bike race held over successive days, with a different course each day. Stage races can last anywhere from three to 25 days. The rider with the lowest total time (or accumulated points) after completion of all the stages wins the overall race.

Team Leader: The rider for whom the team rides in order for the leader to win a stage or race.

Train: A fast moving paceline of riders.

UCI: Union Cycliste Internationale, the international governing body of cycling.

Wheel Sucker/Wheelsucking: Someone who sticks to a rear wheel ahead of him or her and refuses to go to the front.

USA Cycling: America’s governing body of cycling. USA Cycling supervises the activities of all cycling disciplines (road, mountain, track, cyclo-cross), and establishes criteria for the US Olympic Cycling Team.

Velo: French word for bicycle.

SOURCES: Amgen Tour of California, Tour de Georgia,