The Tour de France is most people's image of road racing. Without a doubt, this is the biggest event in the world. Every year in July, 180 riders line up to race nearly 5000km in three weeks over a spectacular variety of terrain - and through all weathers. The event has colour, drama, excitement and on occasions, scandal and tragedy too.
Just to be selected for this prestigious event is the pinnacle of most riders' careers. Only the toughest reach the finish, others may be forced to abandon due to illness, injury or being eliminated for being too slow on any one stage. Each stage averages around 230km. In the mountains, one day's race may take seven or eight hours. The whole race is completed at around 40kph! But before any rider reaches the 'Grand Depart' line there is ladder of achievement to be climbed.
To start racing on the road, you will need to join a club affiliated to the BCF and buy a racing licence
In the UK, racing is governed by the British Cycling who report to the Union Cycliste International (UCI), which is the world governing body for most forms of cycle sport. To start racing on the road, you will need to join a club affiliated to British Cycling and buy a racing licence.
Racing is organised into categories (colloquially called 'cats') so that you can compete against other riders of similar ability. As an entry-level rider, aged over 18, you will be a 4th category. By getting top 5 places in a race you will earn 'points' on your license and when you have 6 points, you will be promoted to a 3rd cat rider. Again, by doing well in races you will earn points to move up to 2nd, 1st and ultimately 'elite' category. Additional age categories apply to women, under 18s and over 40 year olds.
Most 3rd and 4th category races are approximately 50-90km long. UK elite races may be up to 200km long, but they are frequently longer abroad. The majority of races are just one day affairs, but there are a few stage races of 2-5 days held in the UK.
Sunday has always been the traditional day for racing, but during the summer there are usually shorter races (approx 50km), held on midweek evenings too
Sunday has always been the traditional day for racing, but during the summer there are usually shorter races (approx 50km), held on midweek evenings too. Most races are held on rural roads for least interference from (or to) other road users.
Sometimes, very short races called 'criteriums' are held in town centres. These are very fast with the riders sprinting out of every corner to gain advantage over their rivals. The speed is kept high throughout the race by having intermediate prizes called 'primes' (pronounced 'preems') to discourage all the riders from just waiting for a sprint at the end.
Continental Europe has always been the hot-bed of road racing and the UK has now become an integral part of what is now a true global sport. The big teams are sponsored by commercial organisations and most are very cosmopolitan in their composition, with riders from France, Spain, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, USA, Eastern Europe and Australia. Riders have to earn their place within the team, and even former national champions may have the role of 'domestique' or team rider for a number of years before they are allowed to take the limelight again.
Continental Europe has always been the hot bed of road racing
Britain has had its share of world class riders over the years: Brian Robinson - won stages in the Tour de France in the 1950s; Tommy Simpson - World Champion in 1965, Barry Hoban - eight Tour stage wins in the 1970s, followed by Paul Sherwen, Robert Millar, Sean Yates and Chris Boardman. And then with the creation of Team Sky in 2010 things moved up another level. Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour de France in 2012 and he was followed a year later by teammate Chris Froome while Mark Cavendish has now won more stages in the world's biggest race than any other sprinter. Who knows? Train hard, get some race experience and you could be the next British cycling superstar!