In the cycling world, summer is stage-racing season. The Tour de France is the premier stage race, but countless mini-tours take place throughout the Northern Hemisphere. While stage races run pretty much every month of the year on the international calendar, in the U.S. most of the big races, particularly in the non-professional categories, happen between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Cyclists have pitted themselves against others in grueling tests of fitness and strength since the bicycle was invented. Paris-Brest-Paris, a 750-mile race that debuted in 1891, was considered the toughest test of a cyclist at the turn of the 20th century. It was the road cousin to the popular yet grueling six-day bicycle races held on velodromes since that same year. Both were supplanted by the Tour de France in 1903, an athletic competition that was well beyond the limit of what anyone had attempted until then.
Stage races are configured in many ways. There are two-day, three-day, four-day—up to seven-day races. Amateur races rarely last longer than four days and are usually based around a holiday like the Fourth of July or Labor Day, allowing people who don't ride for a living to race without taking too much time off of work.
Most stage races have a Woodstock-like feel to them. It is a gathering of the tribe. Hundreds of racers, friends, family, support staff and officials congregate in one place for several days.
Often, there are several different fields competing on the same or similar courses at different times and distances, featuring racers of every ability and age. Race location tends to be at or near resorts in remote places because the proliferation of housing makes it easy to find available beds within several miles of each other.
It All Adds Up
Multi-day tours offer a mix of stages—some flat, some hilly, some short, some long—so people with different racing skill-sets can compete against each other. A typical three-stage race has a time trial, road race and criterium. Sometimes, the promoters will run two races in a single day to add intrigue and difficulty to the event. Even stage races in mountainous areas generally have a flat stage for added variety.
Stage races can be scored using time or points. Like the Tour de France, time contests are won by the person with the lowest overall time. Points are a little less simple. Each race is worth a certain amount of points, which are awarded for finishing in the top three, five, 10 or 20. Some races award points to all finishers as a way to create rankings.
The advantage to points-racing is that it's hard to establish an insurmountable lead, potentially making every finish exciting and leaving the overall victory in doubt until the final race. The advantage with time is that people often race harder during the stages because they know that outdistancing a competitor early often knocks them out of contention for the overall victory.
Another popular aspect of stage racing is the inclusion of several different classifications—creating races within the race. In addition to the fight to reach the finish first on that particular day and the event's overall classification, prizes might be given for the best sprinter, climber, young rider or team. This rewards racers who consistently ride well, creating strategy that encompasses not only the day's event, but the results from the day before, that day's course and what riders should expect in the future.
Willing to Ride Through Anything
Preparation is an enormous part of stage racing. It's a combination of vacation, road trip, daily battle and party that racers physically and mentally prepare for months in advance. Training is a constant, but preparing for the event requires registering, lining up places to stay, making sure all your gear is present, planning on-bike and off-bike food and having contingencies and spare equipment. Racers arrive with enough gear to be comfortable on 100-degree days or near-freezing rainstorms.
As essential as training is, often what happens off-bike is as important as what happens on. This is where support really makes a difference. The riders who do the best usually have the least amount of stress and get the most rest. Still, plenty of racers sleep on floors, camp out or hitch rides from stage finishes in an attempt to stretch their budgets. Usually, a stage racer's mindset is that regardless of how well they do, it'll be an unforgettable experience.
Prize money is usually low because these events are expensive to run. As a result, people are competing for pride and bragging rights. Some younger riders compete with the hope of showcasing their talent as a springboard to the next step up the ladder—because until you've won the Tour de France, there are always higher steps.
Many racers view stage racing as a commandment. Like any commandment, the direction makes the pursuit all-consuming, exciting and necessary. Whether professional or amateur, stage racing can be a calling. Check them out.
J.P. Partland has been stage racing for 20 years; his toughest race was Ireland's Milk Ras, an eight-day race against pros and national team riders. He is the author of several books on cycling. His most recent, Tour Fever, is available at Amazon, other online retailers and your local book store or bike shop.