by Stan Purdum
Ever wondered how far cyclists go in a typical road bike race? It depends a lot on the exact type of race. There are several types of road bicycle races, including criteriums, traditional road races, time trials, stage races, gravel races, gran fondos and even cyclocross races.
The distances really depend on the type of race and which category of bicycle racer you are. Cyclists in the beginner categories of 4 and 5 ride races that are significantly shorter than cyclists in the 1, 2 and 3 categories.
Let’s get more detail by looking at the specific categories.
Traditional Road Races
A traditional road race is generally the longest kind of road bicycle race run by USA Cycling. These races are run on paved roads and follow a course of a specific length, which is often from 30 to 60 miles in the amateur categories. They can be point-to-point or loop routes and can be run on closed, partially-closed or open roads with or without controlled traffic safety measures in place.
A beginning racer in the category 5 and 4 will tend to race the shorter courses, and the top category racers will typically ride longer distances.
A one-day race for professional cyclists can be 150 or more miles.
The most common formats for road races are 1) mass start events, where riders start together and race to set finish line, and 2) time trials, where individual riders or single teams race a course against the clock. Time trials usually cover shorter distances than the mass start events, but there is no standard distance for them.
Stage races, also called “tours,” are multiple-day road races, where several mass-start stages and one or two time-trial stages are strung together. The Tour de France is the most well-known stage race. It consists of 21 day-long stages over 23 consecutive days, with two of those being rest days. That tour typically covers 2,000-2,200 miles in that time.
A criterium, also called a crit, is run on a circuit of paved roads that are closed to traffic. The length of the race is determined by either 1) a specified number of laps on the course or 2) whatever number of laps riders can complete in specified amount of time, typically an hour. Each lap can be as short as a half mile or long as about 6 miles, though commonly, the course is no more than a mile long. The first rider to cross the finish line without being “lapped” wins.
Because the course and race time is so much shorter than traditional road races, competitors can afford to go all out, making the average speed and intensity of crits higher than traditional road races.
Gravel grinders are generally similar to traditional road races except that the course includes both paved and gravel roads, making the competition not only about who finishes first, but also about what sort of bike, tire and tire pressure is most advantageous given the demands of the dissimilar road surfaces. As gravel grinders are the newest form of road racing, participants are still experimenting on these races with various types of bikes — mountain bikes, road bikes with fat tires, cross bikes and gravel bikes.
There are no prescribed lengths for gravel grinders, but they are typically loop courses anywhere from 35 to 75 miles long — though you may find some at 200 miles — and they generally include plenty of climbing.
As originally practiced in Italy, where the gran fondo originated and where the name means “big ride,” the race is a long-distance event, often 75 or more miles, often in scenic areas. Although gran fondos begin with a mass start, the participants are electronic-chip timed and compete in categories (usually age and gender) and race against the clock for personal best rather than against each other. Gran fondos are open to both recreational and professional riders.
There are two types of gran fondos.
The traditional format features a closed course where riders are timed from start to finish. Prizes are awarded to the fastest rider in each category.
The modified format is held on open roads, where riders must follow traffic rules, but only certain sections are timed. Thus, participants can ride more leisurely in the untimed segments if they wish, but their official race time is calculated cumulatively based on their speed through the timed segments. The untimed sections may feature aid-stations and refreshment stops, and riders may stop to take in scenic views.
Courses are typically offered with 30-, 60- and 100-miles options, so entrants can choose the one that best matches their ability.
Gran fondos have been described as a group ride, race and tour, all in one.
Cyclocross combines elements of other cycling events: road racing, criteriums and mountain biking. It’s run on a closed course with a variety of surfaces and terrain, which may include pavement, sand, gravel, dirt, grass, mud, snow, ice, off-camber sections, wooded trails and steep hills. The course also includes obstacles, whether natural or manmade, at which riders may need to dismount and carry their bike to negotiate.
Cyclocross courses are usually less than two miles long.
Races consist of several laps of the course, with each lap taking five to seven minutes. Experienced riders usually race for an hour. Riders in other categories often compete for 20, 30 or 45 minutes. Race officials time the first two laps and from those figures calculate an average lap time and the number of laps competitors must still ride to fill the allotted time for the race. The winner is the rider who first completes that number of laps within the allotted time.
Cyclocross races proceed in all weather conditions. When the weather is inclement, that becomes part of the challenge for competitors.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.