One of the most common misconceptions of cycling is the fact that it is a one man show. Cycling is very much a team oriented sport. I was quite surprised to learn this when I first got into cycling. Most people think that in major races, especially the Tour de France (TdF), that if Lance Armstrong is favored to win, he wins the race all on his own. Let me explain why this is far from true.
Let's take the TdF for example. The TdF is a three week race that spans over 3,500 kilometers. (Approx. 2,175 miles) Each day is, what they call, a stage. There are many different kinds of stages. There are flat stages, time trial stages, mountain stages, etc. Each professional rider is a part of a team. Each team in the TdF is made up of 9 riders. Each team will pick a designated rider, if you will, to win the tour or win certain stages of the tour. For example, in the 2010 tour, team Radioshack began the tour with Lance Armstrong as their best rider and the rider that the entire team was going to support and help win the tour. (Let's not talk about how that ended.) Team HTC Columbia (HTC Highroad now) began the tour with Mark Cavendish as their best sprinter/stage winner. Now the question may be... well what do the other riders do then? If they have no shot at winning the tour, why on earth are they racing? The answer is, to help their team win.
Each rider in a team has a specific duty. We'll use team Radioshack as an example because everyone is familiar with Lance Armstrong. Each rider, especially on mountain stages, has a duty to "carry" Armstrong up the mountain until it's time for Armstrong to make his breakaway. Let's say Lance has zero help up the mountain. Do you have any idea how fast his energy would be depleted going up an 10 - 15% grade hillside with zero help? I know he could do it, but his breakaway, or "attack" as we call it, would not be nearly as significant.
The moments when the tour is really decided, and is arguably the most exciting, is during the mountain stages. If you haven't experienced it; I cannot explain to you how exciting it is to watch a mountain side attack. If you want to see the most epic attack possibly in cycling history, watch this video. The best part starts at 1:25. Jan Ullrich was a main rival to Armstrong for years. This is a perfect example of how Armstrong's teammate carried him up the mountain. You'll notice that Lance is behind his teammate, riding on his wheel. This gives him the ability to draft off his teammate and use less energy. You'll also notice how the announcer, Phil Ligget, said at the beginning that Lance had been in the back all day. He was conserving his energy for his planned attack against Ullrich. My very favorite part of this video is when Armstrong looks back at Ullrich as if to say, "I'm leaving... you comin?" You'll notice that Lance exploded up that mountain and Ullrich had zero answer to Armstrong's attack.
Just to give you an idea of how impressive that is... imagine climbing up a (roughly) 10% grade for hours. Then imagine standing up, out of the saddle, and attacking. Keep in mind you have quite a few kilometers left until the finish but you have to make a breakaway at the perfect time so you can gain some time on your competitor but also be able to make it to the end without exhausting yourself completely. I think it would be marvelous if I could just keep a steady pace up the Alpe D'Huez... much less ride up it and attack - BY MYSELF - for the remaining kilometers. Think about it... pretty impressive.
The reason I say the TdF is decided during the mountains is because that's when the time is made up on other riders. You'll notice for the first week in the 2009 TdF, Fabian Cancellara wore the yellow jersey, meaning he's in the lead of the tour, for the entire week. That means he finished all of the stages with the fastest overall time. Those stages happened to be time trials and flat stages. All riders have different strengths. Some are sprinters at the finish line, some are incredible at time trials, and some are climbers. I can promise you that if you can't climb up a mountain, you'll never win the Tour de France. That's why Cancellara lost the lead, and the yellow jersey, once the mountain stages arrived. All of the time that needs to be made up, by the person who hopes to win the tour, and to take the yellow jersey, is usually done so in the mountains. The mountains weed out the riders who have no hope of winning the entire tour. That's why the stage featured in the video linked to above, was crucial. Lance had to attack Jan because he knew that if he gained a few seconds or minutes, that he would have the lead of the tour and Jan wouldn't be able to take it back. Time is very hard to make up once you're out of the mountains due to the fact that the stages aren't very hard and everyone tends to keep up with each other pretty well. That's why mountain attacks in the tour are extremely important.
I hope my passion is coming through my writing. I can't sit here and tell you enough how much I love cycling. It is the most exciting sport once you get to understand what's happening and why. Teams are crucial in this sport. Without them, you will not make it. Attacks up a mountain side, when you know what's at stake, are more exciting than the last 2 minutes of a football game where your favorite team is down 5 points and all they need to win is a touchdown. (And believe me, I love football.) You can't understand how much I root for these riders... and when you see them crash or have technical difficulties on the bike, it literally breaks your heart. (Side Note: To see a perfect example of that, watch this video. I am a huge fan of Andy Schleck and I can't stand Alberto Contador. Andy was making a move and his chain popped off. Contador took advantage and attacked. When Contador attacked... I was livid. You don't attack when a rider is having technical difficulties. It's an unwritten rule and people were quite upset after. I don't think I'll ever forget this. This was a tour deciding stage and one of my favorite riders lost the tour due to this stage completely unfairly in my opinion. A year and a half later and watching it still gets me irritated.)
This is why I get out an ride my bike. The passion I feel pouring out of me for this sport is why I ride my bike. It's nothing I can describe, but I can try and make the rules and the game clear in hopes of instilling some of my passion into you. Once you start watching and understanding the sport, you won't have a prayer. You'll be just as addicted as I... that's the pure beauty of it.