Though the objective of a race is quite simple – to be the first rider to cross the line – a number of tactics are employed. They are based on the benefit of riding in the slipstream of another rider and thus making it possible to save a considerable amount of energy. A group that breaks away (break) from the main field, bunch or peloton, has more space and freedom and can therefore be at an advantage in certain situations. A small group of riders can work together smoothly and efficiently to maintain a higher speed than the peloton, where the remaining riders may not be as motivated or organized to chase effectively. Usually a rider or group of riders will try to break from the peloton by attacking and riding ahead to reduce the number of riders competing for the win. If the break doesn’t succeed, and the body of cyclists comes back together, the winner will often be a sprinter. Teamwork between riders (both pre-arranged and ad-hoc) is important in many aspects: to prevent a break from getting away, helping riders in a break get clear of the bunch, and sometimes in delivering a sprinter to the front of the field.
Races often feature difficult sections such as tough climbs, fast descents, and sometimes technical surfaces to make the course more selective. Stronger riders will be able to drop weaker riders during such sections to reduce the number of direct competitors able to take the win. In order to be successful, riders must develop excellent bike handling skills in order to be able ride at high speeds in close quarters with other riders. Individual riders can approach speeds of 70 mph while descending winding mountain roads and may reach speeds of 40-50 mph during the final sprint to the finish line.
In all road racing, drafting is a very important concept whereby one rider can save a lot of effort by closely following the rider in front in order to stay in his slipstream. Riding in a peloton can save as much as 40% of the energy employed in forward motion when compared to riding in the wind. Some teams will designate a leader, while the rest of the team is charged with keeping that rider out of the wind and in a good position until a critical section of the race.. This can be used as a strength or a weakness by competitors; riders can cooperate and draft each other to ride at high speed (a paceline or echelon), or one rider can sit on a competitor’s wheel, forcing him to do a greater share of the work to maintain the pace and potentially tiring earlier. Drafting may not be employed in a time trial, unless it is a team time trial.
While the principle remains of the winner being the first to cross the line, many of the riders are grouped together in teams, usually with commercial sponsors. On professional and semi-professional teams, names are typically synonymous with the primary sponsors. The size of the team varies, from three in an amateur event for club riders to a dozen in professional races. Team riders decide among themselves, before and during the race, which has the best chance of winning. The choice will depend on hills, the chances that the whole field will finish together in a sprint, and other factors. The rest of the team will devote itself to promoting its leader’s chances, taking turns into the wind for him or her, refusing to chase with the peloton when he or she escapes, and so on.