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Cycling Rules & Regulations

Road Races

Criterium

Following the major races each season (the Tour de France, world championships and the like) many cities hold criteriums, largely as a way for the public to see their cycling heroes up close. These races are almost purely ceremonial with even the finishing result part of a scripted plan. In contrast, criterium racing in the United States has evolved into its own brutally fast relation to traditional road racing.

According to the USA cycling rules, a criterium is a special kind of mass start road race run on a very short loop that is between 800 meters and 5 kilometers in length. It is typically characterized by an urban setting, tight turns, and fast racing. Unlike a standard road race, in the event of a mishap, such as a flat tire, a pit is available and the rider, once repaired, receives a free lap allowing reentry into the race without losing ground.

Races are either a fixed distance (or number of laps) or timed. In timed races, the officials calculate how fast an average lap is taking. As the race draws to a close, the officials will put up lap cards showing how many laps are left in the allotted time. In any criterium there is a period, usually with around 5 laps to go, when the officials will close the wheel pit and no more free laps are available.

Circuit Race

A circuit race is a road race run on a loop course of at least 5 kilometers in length. While nominally similar to criteriums with their shorter length and multiple laps, circuit races are nevertheless considered road races. Thus there are no free laps for mishaps and the length of the laps widely varies.

Road Race

A road race is the defining competition of, no surprise, road racing. While the terrain can vary, road races are always run on longer courses—circuits, loops, or point to point—where endurance and aerobic fitness are valued more than explosiveness and top-end speed. Road races reward those with deep all around fitness who have the ability to survive repeated climbs and many miles, but can still produce enough power at the end to attack or out sprint the survivors.

Stage Race

A stage race is several connected races run over sequential days. The winner is typically the rider with the lowest total time. The Tour de France, for example, is a stage race. Unlike single day races, if you do not finish one stage, for whatever reason, you cannot start again the next day. The end result is a race that tests a rider’s ability to recover, their long term strategy, and outright strength and fitness.

The overall, or general classification, winner is decided based on the lowest overall time. This means that most gains are made on stages where everyone has to work hard and drafting is not an issue –time trials and mountain stages. Even on the flatter stages, however, savvy riders with strong team support can still gain time on their rivals. Strong crosswinds, twisting narrow roads or sections of cobblestones can derail the overall hopes of inattentive riders with weaker teams.

To To keep the race speed higher, each stage has a time cut off that eliminates all riders finishing outside of a determined percentage of the winner’s time. The cutoff percentage is higher or lower depending on the difficulty of the stage. On long and difficult days in the mountains, riders not contesting the overall or for the stage win get together in a pack, called the autobus or grupetto, and ride at a tempo that will just make the time cut.

To ensure safety at the finish, all riders finishing together are given the same time. Thus a rider could finish 65th, in the middle of the peloton, and still get the same time as the winner.

Time Trial

One rider against the clock, the race of truth, contre la montre (against the clock)—whatever you call them, time trials are the races that define the best of the best in cycling. Riders start off one at a time and compete against the clock to post the fastest time on courses ranging from a few kilometers to over 60km in length. There is no drafting is allowed, so riders times are defined by their ability, pacing and mental strength.

The truth in this race of truth is that winning requires the ability to stay focused despite all the pain in your body, the variations of the course, or concerns over your competitors. You must learn to ignore the voice that tells you to slow down, stop, you can’t do this and keep pedaling as fluidly, quickly, and powerfully as possible.

Modern time trials are also defined by an almost obsessive war by riders against the wind and by cycling regulators against the riders against the wind: Riders seek every aerodynamic advantage to allow them to go faster when they are pedaling as hard as they can; the regulators step in to stop the innovations for the sake of purity of sport.

It is beautiful to watch footage of Laurent Fignon putting the hurt on in the time trial during the 1983 Tour with pony tail flying and not one article to help him fight the wind aside from his grace and power and a will (or ego) that cannot accept defeat. But the reality is that the sport has moved on and at the highest levels the arms race is equal. This equality, ironically, requires even more focus on time trials to permit the riders to adapt to the different equipment and positions used on time trial bikes.

Time trials, despite the inexorable march towards aero, have achieved a sort of awkward modern purity and parity. And while different than Fignon’s pony tail, watching Fabian Cancellara rip the field apart is still just as amazing.

Mountain Bike Races

4-Cross

4-cross is a mountain bike gravity event where four riders start at the same time and race on a course with berms, jumps and other obstacles. Like dual slalom, the race is run over a number of 4-rider heats, with the first two finishers advancing to the next round. Unlike dual slalom, there is only one course, and riders must compete to gain a positioning advantage, which often leads to bumping and spectacular crashes. The start of the 4-cross is key, since getting out in front sets you apart from the other riders for the first position.

Cross Country

Cross country competitions are endurance focused and run on course with varied amounts of climbing. The focus is on a balance of fitness and technical skills. At the international level, cross country races are almost always run on multiple laps of shorter courses (less than 10km.

Downhill

Downhill’s are gravity mountain bike events where riders compete for the fastest time on an extended downhill course—mountain biking’s equivalent to skiing’s downhill competition. It emphasizes speed, nerves, strength and skill.

The riders do one run, with no seeding or heats, and the fastest time wins. The course will usually cover a wide variety of terrain – paths, trails, roads – and features like jumps, rocks, ledges and berms. Unlike dual slalom courses, which tend to be man-made, downhill courses usually feature mostly natural terrain with occasional man-made obstacles thrown in.

Dual Slalom

Dual slalom is a gravity mountain bike race where two rides compete on short, parallel, jump-and-berm-filled downhill courses. It is usually run with a starting bracket and successive heats. Each heat has two riders competing in two runs, switching courses for the second run. The winner is the one with the lowest elapsed time over both runs.

Marathon

The marathon is technically a mountain bike race between 60 and 100 km (in international competition), but the broader category also includes more so-called ultra-endurance type events like the Leadville Trail 100 (a 100 mile race in Colorado), and 24-hour races where riders compete to ride the farthest distance over a lapped course in one 24-hour period.

Short Track

A short track is a mountain bike cross country race run on, naturally, a very short track. It is analogous to road racing’s criteriums. The short track race typically lasts less than a half hour and rewards quick acceleration, bike handling, and fierce aerobic and anaerobic endurance.

Super D

The super-D is a hybrid mountain bike gravity event that adds distance and a bit of climbing (though still a net loss of elevation) to the typical features of a downhill or dual slalom.

Trials

Trials is an off-road cycling competition that is focused solely on technical skills and bike handling. The riders are required to navigate what is essentially an unrideable obstacle course. By bunny hopping, track standing, and otherwise moving the bicycle in fits and starts, the winning rider passes puts his or her foot down, or dabs, the fewest number of times. Also know as observed trials.

Track Races

200m

The 200m is a track time trial with a flying start that is used to seed riders for the match sprint. Though typically ridden over a total distance of 1000 meters, only the last 200 meters are timed. The rider gradually ramps up speed through the distance and ideally crosses the 200-to-go timing line at top speed.

Keirin

The keirin is a track sprint race over roughly 2km where riders compete in heats of six or so with the first rider across the line winning. The difference is that the race starts out behind a pacer (usually a motorized derny) at 25 kilometers per hour, increasing to 45 kph (for women) and 50kph (for men) before pulling off with about 700 meters to go. Once the derny is gone, the riders start a sprint for the line.

The pacer changes the dynamic by providing a draft and forcing the riders to fight for position immediately behind the pacer until the pacer pulls off. Thus the race has two layers – the fight for position and the sprint for the line. As with the match sprint, the race takes place over successive heats, usually with the first two riders automatically advancing, and losing riders entering a repechage race.

The Keirin originated in Japan, where there are dozens of tracks that allow people to bet on the races, just as people in the United States bet on horse races.

Madison or Americaine

The Madison, or Americaine, is a track points race contested by teams of two riders. The riders take turns participating in the race, usually with one rider favored for the sprints and the other favored for the longer efforts like trying to lap the field. A tag team wrestling match at 30 mph, the Madison forces the riders to exchange places in the race through hand slings or pushing, in an effort to transfer the racing rider’s momentum to the relief rider.

The race is named for Madison Square Garden, where the event started as part of six-day races. Because of this American origin the event is called the Americaine in French. The Madison is still the featured event at modern six-day races, and two Madisons typically happen during each of the race days. The Madison is also part of the Olympics and World Championships.

Match Sprint

A match sprint is a track sprint between two riders over three laps. And while the nominal length of the race is three laps, the reality is that the first two or so laps are really just shadow boxing. The riders size each other up, attempting to feint each other into taking the first position. This can lead to extended periods of “track standing”, where the riders literally stop and balance, trying to force the other into making a mistake. After this initial sizing up period, the riders will begin making real efforts towards the last lap, sometimes trying to start early to surprise the competition or ramping up into an all out sprint over the final 200m.

The match sprint starts off with the 200m time trial to seed the riders, with number one against number 16 and so on. The race is then run in a series of paired heats, and the winner advancing by taking two out of three possible sprints. This leads to a semi final where the remaining four riders compete to make it into the finals while the defeated riders in the semi-final ride against each other for third place. In larger races, riders eliminated early on in the heats will have a chance to get back into the brackets by competing against a number of eliminated riders in a repechage, or second-chance round.

Miss and Out

A miss and out is a mass start track race and the last rider on each lap is pulled until only three remain to sprint out the victory.

Points Race

A points race is a mass start track race where riders sprint for points on designated laps, typically over a longer distance than most track races (over 20km). For example, sprints could be every 5 laps with 5 points for first, 4 for second, and so on, with no points for sixth. Usually, the final sprint is worth double points. In a tactical wrinkle, a rider that gains a lap on the field is awarded a sizeable amount of points, which makes that achievement a critical aspect of the race.

Unlike many other races, the first rider across the line at the end is not necessarily the winner, since it is the rider with the most cumulative points over the course of the race who claims the victory.

Pursuit

In the individual pursuit, racers ride against the clock over a fixed distance – 4km for men, 3km for women. The team pursuit is identical, but contested by teams of 4 (for men) and 3 ( for women), with the time measured by the third or second rider to finish, respectively. Traditionally, the pursuit is a contested by two riders starting on either side of the track. When matched in ability, the riders strive to eek out a better time, minutely gaining and losing ground in the process. But if there is a disparity, the faster rider will catch the slower rider, thus completing the “pursuit” and giving the victory to the successful rider even if the catch happens before the end of the race.

In competition, the riders first ride a qualifying round, with the two fastest riders competing for the win and the third and fourth riders competing for third. The qualifying round is all about time, so even if one rider in the pairing overtakes the other, the rider must still finish for the fastest time. In the finals, however, the tactics can change. A rider with an explosive start can attempt to catch his opponent quickly in the hopes of ending the race early—a risky strategy because if it fails, then the rider will have nothing left to withstand the ensuing onslaught from the more conservative opponent.

Scratch Race

The scratch race is basically a criterium on the track – a fixed distance (say 10km) with the first rider across the line winning. In theory, a rider could win the race by just lapping the field. In practice, however, lapping in the scratch race is more difficult since there are no intermediate sprints to tire out the riders. Thus, scratch races often come down to one final and furious dash for the line.

Cyclocross

Cyclocross is a stepchild discipline of road cycling that arose in the early 20th century. Riders seeking to keep fit over the winter took their bikes into the woods and fields, on courses that often required dismounting and carrying the bikes over obstacles. The sport has evolved into a modern bicycle version of the steeplechase. The races take place on short, closed circuits over multiple laps. Typically short, lasting no more than one hour, cyclocross races start at a very high pace is so that the riders can have the advantage of being first into the early difficult sections. And the sections are, often, very difficult. Covering steep dirt hills that must be run up, barriers that force riders to either dismount or jump their bikes, pavement sections requiring speed, twists and turns that require finesse and myriad dirt, sand, gravel, mud and other natural features, cyclocross requires a require combination of power, speed, finesse and more.

More Resources & Links

Unione Cyclist Internationale (UCI) Rulebook
National Federtions with the UCI

Major Cycling Federations & Rules

Australian Cycling Federation
BikeNZ (New Zealand)
British Cycling Rules
Bund Deutscher Radfahrer
Canadian Cycling Association
Federation Francaise de Cyclisme
Federazione Ciclista Italiana
Koninklijke Belgische Wielrijdersbond/Royale Ligue Velocipedique Belge
Real Federación Española de Ciclismo
USA Cycling Rulebook

This guide covers all aspects of the rules & rugulations of cycling races. Road races, mountain bike races, track races, and cyclocross races are all adressed.
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