How Do Cycling Teams Work: Individual roles and racing tactics


Casual cycling and road bike racing can seem almost alien to one another. I for one have never taken part in a bike race with a team around me. I always found large events such as the Tour De France interesting though, and so decided to take a deeper dive into how cycling teams actually work?

Cycling teams typically work around one individual rider called the “leader”. This is the rider who has the best chance of winning the race. The other 8 members do their best to help them however they can, be that by providing a slipstream, carrying water, or even giving up their bike if the main rider has a fault.

So, bike teams design themselves around a team leader, but how do they pick the team leader, and what tactics can these other cyclists use to help them? On top of this, what other staff are needed to help the team function?

How do cycling races work?

In order to understand how bike teams work, you first need to understand how you earn points in a race. The method of scoring points is the whole reason that teams are designed in the way that they are.

A road bike race is made up of a mix of different stages. These can be flat or mountainous and some will be “time-trial sections”

Each of these different sections can score you points, not just the overall winner of the race. And so teams are constructed to maximize their ability in each section, not just overall.

Individual races will allocate points in different ways, so let’s take the most famous bike race in the world, the tour de France, as an example. This is a month-long racing event, so there are many different competitions going on at the same time.

CompetitionDescription
Yellow JerseyThe person with the yellow jersey is the overall race winner. As the tour de France goes on, the current race leader will wear a yellow jersey. This is the person who has taken the least overall time so far in all the different stages combined.
Green JerseyThis is the jersey for the person who has the most overall points. Points are earned at various times during the race for sprints and time trials. While sprinters win a lot of separate stages they never win the whole race, as they are not well suited to climbs or mountains.
White JerseyThe fastest young racer, basically the yellow jersey equivalent but for riders under the age of 25.
Polka Dot JerseyThis jersey is worn by the person who has won the most points during mountainous sections of the race. Effectively this is a marker for the best climber in the race.

So, you get points for finishing in the shortest time overall, or by winning points in specific sections like climbs or sprints. The only other thing you need to know about bike races is that each section has a time cut-off. For each section of the race (remember some races last multiple days), there will be a section-time cut-off.

If you fall out of this time (normally an additional 10-25% added onto the winner’s time), you will be ineligible to earn any points for that section, and in some races, you may be removed from the event entirely.

What are the different members of a road bike team?

So now we know what a racing team is aiming for, what are the different members of a racing team?

Each team is made up of a roster of around 20 cyclists. 9 of which will be picked for an individual race, along with a whole load of support staff.

The Race Leader

This is the “main” rider (also called the yellow jersey contender). They are the one that the team and its sponsors think has the best chance to win the race overall. This is the person that all the other team members will work around to try and win the race outright.

These riders have a great amount of stamina as they need to perform well in the multiple different time trials, flat stages, and mountain stages. They won’t be the fastest in each section but will be the best overall.

Most teams have a clearly specified yellow jersey contender, however, others may be a little more flexible as the race goes on.

The Domestiques

Literally translating to “servant” in french, the domestique’s main goal is to help out the race leader. In most large races, you will have 8 domestiques to every race leader.

Domestiques typically will have to give up their chance at winning the race overall to give their team the best chance. This might involve cycling with their yellow jersey contender, or cycling back down the hill to go and grab them some water. In some cases, domestiques will even give their race leader their bike if one becomes faulty.

Traditionally, the race winner will split their prize money with all of the members of the team, so while they are giving up the chance of glory, no matter who wins they are all working towards the same goal.

Some riders will be classed as “superdomestiques”. These are riders that are good enough to be a yellow jersey rider in their own right but instead have chosen to take a role in helping the team.

While a domestique’s primary goal is to help the team leader, they often have certain subspecialties themselves. This can include being the team’s “time trial specialist”, “all-rounder”, “sprinter”, or “climber” who will all try to earn the team extra points at different sections.

Support Staff

In the Tour De France, teams have a minimum of 17 support staff. These support staffs fill a variety of roles, be that from a chef to a doctor and each has their own individual tasks.

TitleRole
SoigneursWhile their formal role is as massage therapists for the riders. These aids often end up performing many other support tasks such as carrying “Musette bags” (bags containing food and water for break stations).
MechanicService and maintain all the bikes. Will be expected to prepare any parts and tools required and keep stock of them. They also have a replacement bike on hand for the race leader.
General ManagerMakes large decisions for the team including race tactics, roster picks, and handles general management of the team
CookProvide the riders with food both during and after a race. Have to be well-educated in sports nutrition to ensure all the meals have the right proportion of different micro and macronutrients.
Press OfficerManages all team communications through social media, tv, and radio coverage. Will also be involved in advertising deals and partnerships.
Hospitality ManagerInvolved in arranging hospitality events such as VIP events, ticketing, and room/venue coordination  
DoctorQuite self-explanatory, as with all professional sports, you need a team doctor on hand to manage aches, pains, and injuries
PhotographerThe team photographer will work closely with the press officer to sell pictures and advertise the team.

What tactics do bike racing teams use?

We now know all the different people involved in the well-oiled machine of a bike racing team. But how do they all come together to try and win a race?

Drafting

First of all, it’s important to realize that almost every tactical decision in bike racing is based on the idea of drafting. Drafting is the fact that riding in someone’s slipstream (riding behind them) is much easier than riding normally.

In fact, following behind another rider can reduce the amount of drag you get from the wind by up to 50 percent.

Because of this, almost all cycling races will involve the formation of a peloton. This is where teams will ride in a tight bunch, thereby allowing all the riders to get the benefit of drafting. Obviously, the man at the front will have to be taking on the brunt of the work (called pulling the pack), but they will take it in turns with the 7 other domestiques to lead their group, making the cycle as easy as possible for the main rider.

In extreme cases, you may even see a rider turn around and go back to pace a yellow bib rider back up into contention.

It is this drafting that results in attacks and chases during a bike race. Attacks are when a team tries to break away from the large multi-team peloton. If a race leader attacks (breaks away from the pack), then they will likely use some teammates to “draft” with while leaving others behind to “block” any rivals from mounting a chase. For example, leaving someone at the front of the old pack who sets a very slow speed.

Sprinting

The sprint occurs at the very end of the race, but preparations may take place up to 50km before the end of the route. Each person in the team has their own role. Really it’s just a big game of chicken, no one wants to start early in case they run out of energy before everyone else.

As they get closer to the finish line the pace will slowly increase. In the last section, the domestiques will take turns to sprint in front of their race leader (for as little as 10 to 30 seconds each), giving the race leader as much slipstream as possible before dropping out of the sprint. This continues until only the main team rider is left to finish the race.

While the finish line of the race decides who wins, there are many different locations across a race that will impact your performance and thus lead to separate sprints. During tough hills, rough terrain, or narrow streets, being at the front of the pack offers some key advantages. On the other hand, if you get stuck behind a slow rider for one of these sections of the race you can be put far behind. This is why you may see sprints occurring or battles mid-way through a race and not just at the end

Managing Cross Winds

Cross winds make cycling much more difficult, and can really impair a yellow jersey rider’s ability to keep up with other riders. Crosswinds occur when air from the side comes across and hits the riders, meaning that the riders have to shuffle around and deal with the new aerodynamic challenges this causes.

Road bike teams work around this by forming what is called an “Echelon”. Being diagonally behind another rider offers more shelter from a crosswind than being directly behind them. As riders form this position behind one another it is called an echelon.

Echelons can only be as wide as the road (around 10-15 bikes total). This means that multiple echelons will form as the race progresses. With the riders who were initially left behind forming their own echelons.

Other tactics domestiques may implement

While we’ve focused a lot on positioning and drafting, domestiques are there for more than just aerodynamics.

Sometimes, domestiques will give up their race position completely to go back to the team car and restock on water and supplies for the yellow jersey contender.

They will stay with their yellow jersey rider while they take a drink, go to the toilet, or even if they have mechanical issues, just so they can stay with them to help them catch back up.

In some cases, domestiques will even give their bike to their race leader if there is a mechanical issue that will take some time to fix. Waiting for the broken bike to be repaired themselves and then trying to catch back up.

How do team cars work in cycling?

Teams not only have to bring a large amount of staff to an event. They also have to bring lots of cars, trucks, and equipment. In fact for the Tour De France last year, teams brought with them about 10 vehicles each.

Vehicle TypeQuantity
Truck1
Bus1
Sprinter Car1
Van1
Support Car6

Between these vehicles, they were carrying 45 bikes, 80 pairs of wheels, 2000 water bottles, and 1000 energy bars. This isn’t even starting to look into gel packs or actual items they packed for in-between race sections.

In large races such as the Tour De France. Each team is allowed to use two cars on race day. These cars follow the bike, carrying supplies, tools, and spare parts. They also bring the general manager and other coaches along who can give advice as the race goes on.

These cars have to follow the pack in the order specified by the individual team rankings. The first-place team has a car in the first position and then in the first position after all the other team’s cars have had one.

For example, if you are in the first place you have car positions No. 1 and No. 23, whereas if you are in the last place you would have car positions No. 22 and No. 44.

The position of your car is important. The nearer you are to the front of the pack, the quicker you will be able to get to a rider with an injury or mechanical fault.

How do cars communicate with riders?

Different races have different rules about communication between cars and riders, however, as a general rule, there are 3 types of communication during a major bike race.

Type of CommunicationDescription
Race RadioThis is the official radio communication from the race organizers to the teams. This is what keeps the team cars up to date on the events of the cycle that they can’t see going on ahead of them. Race radio can also communicate directly with individual team cars to break their allocated order and catch up to aid their riders.
Car to Car RadioCommunication between both team cars during a race. This will be used to discuss which car will be helping which rider, and which equipment needs to be prepared for the cyclists on which car.
Car to Rider RadioA channel between the team cars and the riders. The primary reason this was implemented was to talk to riders about possible hazards and current race standings. Some races do not allow this due to fears over unfair tactics being used.

Overall

As you can see, there are many different parts that go into a road bike racing team. Hopefully next time you catch an event like the Tour De France on the TV, you will have a better understanding of all the work people that have gone into that one rider crossing the line.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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