When you watch a bike race from the side of the road, you generally see about 30 seconds of the race as it blasts by and that's it. Even when you watch a race in television, most of the time they will only show the final kilometres and you do not get to see how the race formed in the early stages. It's a shame because the opening kilometres of a race can be the most exciting.
A bike race will generally follow a particular formula... A small break of enthusiastic riders will be allowed to ride away... The peloton takes it easy while the gap grows... The race leader's team or the team with stage victory aspirations take control to chase the break down in time for a sprint finish or the key moment in the finale.
That sounds pretty simple but in actual fact, the opening kilometres of a race can be a challenge for everyone.
If there is a team that is the favourite to win, the others will look to them to control the race and do the bulk of the work. Consequently, the favourite team does not want to let too many riders get away in the break or the job of bringing it back may be too hard. Also, if there are other teams that are contenders for the race win or close in the overall result, they don't want them to be in the break either or that team gets a free ticket to do no work during the stage.
For teams that don't have a rider that can contest the final, they want to have a rider in the breakaway and will often do everything they can to achieve this. This way, they at least get the chance to win and also get some TV time for the sponsors.
So they opening kilometres can be hectic as constant attacks keep the average speed over 50kph and teams chase each other up and down the road. Small breaks will splinter off the front and the teams responsible for bringing it back will try to block the road and prevent any other riders bridging across.
The teams that don't want to miss the break will sneak through and launch themselves off the front in an effort to make it across. This will cause more riders to do the same and eventually the break gets too big so the stronger teams chase it back and it starts all over again.
This can happen over and over before the break forms. Sometimes it can happen in the first kilometre and sometimes it can take the entire race! In Asia, many teams seem to have an almost kamikaze mentality towards getting I the break and they don't care for the traditional formula for a race so the attacking often lasts for what seems an eternity.
Once the break has formed though, and the attacks have stopped, the bunch has a bit of a break or 'pisso'. It is usually signalled by the favourite team or the race leader pulling over for a nature break in front of the peloton. (Well, not literally) Traditionally, it is ungentlemanly to attack while the yellow jersey has stopped so the speed drops to a walking pace while the gap to the break grows.
The team responsible for bringing back the break watch the time gap grow and make sure that it doesn't blow out too much. As an indicator, the peloton can usually bring back around 1min of time every 10km but the bigger the time gap, the harder it is.
When the gap reaches a suitable amount, the 'workers' go to the front to set the pace. This may be the responsibility of a single team or if there are several teams with a vested interest in the finale, they may send a rider each to the front to share the workload.
The middle of the race then becomes boring as the peloton slowly chips away at the time gap. If they go too slowly, they risk not catching the break and missing an opportunity for a stage win or losing the overall lead. If they go too quickly, the break will come back a long way from the finish which will inspire others to try their luck at escaping again. A lot of times, when the time gap reaches around 3mins, the peloton will just slow to the same speed as the break and keep it the gap the same until around 30km to go.
The TV broadcasts normally pick things up around now and this is what most people see. They often cheer for the breakaway to win but in the end, they are just delaying the inevitable.
The break gives everything that they have left (or have been holding back) in a final effort to beat the peloton to the line. Meanwhile, the peloton goes full gas as they work to bring the break back. Teams fight for position near the front of the bunch to best position their selected riders for the finish while at the same time trying to save energy and not do any work themselves.
If there is wind present, the race gets even more chaotic as position becomes even more important and the bunch can potentially break apart as riders struggle towards the back.
In the final kilometres, the break is usually brought back and the strong teams move to the front. Others are left to scrap for the back of their wheels as one lone rider cannot compete with a train of 6-8 riders from one team. There is pushing and shoving and teams yell instructions to each other. If you are someone that is nervous in a situation like this, even a slight touch of the brakes can mean you lose 10-15 positions.
Add round-abouts, traffic island and high speed turns to the mix the potential for a crash is very high. At the end of the day, the best chance of victory goes to those that a brave (or stupid) enough to ride in the chaos at the front of the peloton. They say that it is just part of the sport and if you are not prepared to crash, then you cannot contest the finish.