One of the first questions people ask when they first learn about cycling is, “How long are road cycling races?”
The short answer is roughly 20-120 miles. But that doesn’t tell us anything. It’s such a huge range!
You also have to realize that what you see on TV does not always reflect reality. Almost every human on earth has heard of the Tour de France, and many assume that road cycling is.
But despite what you may have seen on the TV, the Tour de France is not your typical road cycling race. Of course, the Tour de France is the most famous bike race in the world. It is one of the most popular sporting events in the entire world.
The Tour de France is about three weeks long, with 21 days of racing in total. But most road cycling races are not three-week stage races. This is called a stage race, which is one of the kinds of bike races that we’ll discuss in this post.
Most road cycling races are 40- to 100-mile road races, circuit races, or shorter criteriums. We’ll discuss all these road cycling races and more in the rest of this article.
Complete Beginner’s Guide to Road Cycling Races
In this post, we’re going to give you a beginner’s guide to road cycling events. First, we’ll discuss the length of most bicycle races. Then, we’ll talk about all kinds of road cycling races. Of course, we can’t leave out a quick mention of other kinds of bicycle racing.
Lastly, we’ll run through a quick guide for preparing for your first bike race. Let’s get started!
Everything You Need to Know About Road Cycling Races:
How Long are Road Cycling Races?
- Typical Road Race Length
- Road Race Distances for Amateur Cyclists
- Women’s Road Cycling Race Distance
Different Types of Road Bicycle Races
- Mass Start Races
- Road Races
- Circuit Races
- Time Trials
- Stage Races
How Long are Road Cycling Races?
Typical Road Race Length
When we’re talking about road cycling races, the typical race length will be 70-140 miles for professional riders. These distances are decreased for amateur riders, with beginner road races lasting just 15-20 miles.
Road race distances can vary wildly depending on the course terrain and whether the race is part of a stage race.
The hillier or more mountainous a road race, the shorter it will be. Most road races are meant to last 4-6 hours, and hillier courses lead to slower average speeds.
For example, a pan-flat 130-mile professional road race in Belgium may only last four and a half hours at an average speed of 28-29mph.
In contrast, a mountainous 90-mile professional race in the French Alps may also last four and a half hours because the average speeds are much lower on a mountainous route.
Road Race Distances for Amateur Cyclists
Road races are much shorter for amateur cyclists and divided into different categories. For example, amateur cyclists are ranked in the USA from Cat 5 to Cat 1, with Cat 5 for brand new racers and Cat 1 for top-ranked amateurs.
Here is the typical road race length for amateur cyclists, ranked by category:
- Cat 5: 15-25 miles
- Cat 4: 25-40 miles
- Cat 3: 40-60 miles
- Cat 2: 60-75 miles
- Cat 1: 75-100 miles
Women’s Road Cycling Race Distance
Women’s road cycling races are typically shorter than the equivalent men’s races by 30-50%. For example, we can look at one of the biggest one-day cycling races this year, the 2022 Tour of Flanders. The women’s Tour of Flanders was 100 miles long, whereas the men’s Tour of Flanders was 170 miles long.
The men’s and women’s courses covered the same main circuits and significant climbs. The men’s race added more miles and loops around the entire course.
Women’s race distances are a hot topic because there are two different thoughts on the issue:
- Women should race the same distance as men
- Women should have reduced race distances (as things are now)
Those who think women should continue racing shorter distances than men cite field sizes as a supportive argument. It is true that a professional women’s race typically has 80-120 riders, whereas a men’s race will have 130-160 riders. However, the topic is still up for debate.
Different Types of Road Bicycle Events
Mass Start Races
The vast majority of road cycling events are mass start races, meaning that all the riders start together. This is what you would see in a mass start triathlon or marathon when the entire race starts simultaneously.
Time trials are the main exception in bicycle road racing, as each rider will start individually. In downhill mountain biking or a team pursuit on the track, riders will start separately rather than en masse.
Throughout this article, we have mainly focused on road races, mass start bike races lasting from 15-100 miles for amateurs or 70-140 miles for professionals.
Typical road races take place on point-to-point courses or around one big loop. From mid-level amateurs to professionals, you can expect most road races to last 3-6 hours.
Road Race Terrain
Road race courses can be flat, hilly, or mountainous and are held almost any time of year. As long as the weather is good enough to ride outside, someone is probably organizing a bicycle road race.
The typical road racing season runs from March through September. Still, professionals have the most extended calendar as their season runs from January through October.
Does the Winner Always Cross the Finish Line First?
As we continue through our list of bike races, it’s important to note that not all of these races are decided by the rider who will cross the finish line first. This is only true for:
- Road races
- Circuit Races
- Mountain Bike – Cross-country and Short Track
- Track – Scratch Races
In time trials, stage races, and other kinds of mountain biking and track racing, the winner is decided by something else. Sometimes it is the rider with the best time, the lowest time, or the rider who has accumulated the highest number of points.
Criteriums (or Crits)
Criteriums are the most popular form of bike racing in North America and Australia. These races are flat and fast, held on short courses on city streets or in office parks. A typical criterium lap ranges from 0.5-1.5 miles in length, meaning most criteriums are 20-50 laps long.
Some criterium courses are hilly, but most criteriums are entirely flat. The typical criterium course is a flat rectangle. Still, there are also technical criterium courses that have ten corners per lap, for example.
The length of a criterium is estimated via lap times rather than a specific race distance. For example, an amateur criterium race may last 30 minutes, while a professional criterium race may last for one hour.
In the first half of the race, the officials calculate the average lap time of the race before they start counting down in ‘laps to go.’ By the second half of the criterium, the officials will display the number of laps to go at the start/finish line.
Criteriums are the closest thing that road cycling has to an extreme sport. In a professional criterium, riders will bump elbows and squeeze into gaps at over 30mph. Crashes are, unfortunately, common in criteriums, but that is primarily due to the typical racing style rather than the design of a criterium course.
Sprints and Lead Outs
Most criteriums end in a sprint, or more specifically, a field sprint when the leading group comes into the finish as one big pack. You may have heard the term “lead out” before, which is when a rider or team goes to the front of the peloton and starts riding very hard.
At this moment, a lead out is not attacking because if they were, they would have made a big sprint to get a gap on the rest of the peloton. Instead, a lead out gradually increases their pace until they go as hard as they can on the front of the field.
A lead out will have the effect of “stringing out the field,” which is when the field stretches into a line of single-file riders. When the pace is slow, the peloton will fan out across the road since it is easy for riders to move up. However, when the pace is high during a lead out, each rider will want as much draft as possible, and no one wants to get stuck out in the wind. That’s why riders go single-file during a high-speed lead out.
Lead outs are meant to put the competition on the back foot. And that’s because the best lead outs will have their protected sprinter, the rider who will launch their sprint for the win with 200 meters to go, right on their wheel. A strong lead out will put their sprinter at the front of the race by stringing out the field and the rest of their competition wheels behind them. Thus, the competition must make up ground before the sprint begins.
A full-speed lead out in a professional bike race can reach 35-40mph speeds. We’re lucky to hit those speeds on a downhill for us mere mortals!
Circuit races are in between criteriums and road racing. They are not long enough to be classified as a road race but not short enough to be classified as a criterium.
As the name suggests, circuit races are held on a closed loop, just like a criterium. A typical circuit race lap may be 2-10 miles long, with the total race length set at a certain number of laps.
It is typical for a circuit race to be 20-40 miles long, and the circuit may be flat or hilly. While it is extremely rare to have a climb in a criterium, climbs are much more common in circuit racing.
Another term for circuit race is kermesse, the most popular form of racing in Belgium. A kermesse is typically flat and fast, with each loop covering a few miles. Kermesse racing is known as some of the most demanding racing in the world. It is often seen as a stepping stone for amateur cyclists attempting to make it into the professional ranks.
Time trials are the simplest and purest form of bike racing because it is just one rider against the clock. The task is simple: go from Point A to Point B faster than every other rider.
The average time trial is 20-40 kilometers (12-25 miles) long. Professional-level time trials may be slightly shorter or longer. For example, many cycling stage races begin with a "Prologue," which is a short individual time trial less than 5km in length (3 miles). Other pro-level time trials may be as long as 50-65km (31-44 miles).
In a time trial, competitors set off individually, spaced apart by either 30 seconds or 1 minute, in most time trials. Drafting is not allowed, so if you start catching one rider, you must avoid their slipstream and give them plenty of room when you make the pass.
Time trialing is all about speed. There are no team tactics or race dynamics, just one rider going as fast as they can.
Team Time Trials
Team time trials are the same format as individual time trials except that a whole team rides together. The team will leave the start ramp at the same time, and use each others' draft to achieve the fastest time around the course.
A typical TTT (team time trial) will be slightly longer than an individual time trial. Whereas an ITT is 20-40km, an average TTT will cover 30-50km (19-31 miles). The longest team time trials take place at the World Championships and they can be as long as 60-65km (37-44 miles).
TTTs are fascinating to watch, and the speeds are ridiculously high (most professional teams average 35 mph in a team time trial). The vast majority of time trials are individual, which means that each racer rides by themself. However, you may see team time trials in professional cycling, where an entire team of 7-8 riders completes a time trial together.
The Tour de France is the most famous stage race in the world. A stage race is a multi-day bike race with daily races and an overall classification. The winner of the stage race is the rider who finishes with the lowest cumulative time overall. This is often referred to as the GC, or General Classification, winner.
Each stage/day is its own bike race, so a rider can win a stage without being concerned with the overall classification or GC.
Stage races can last anywhere from 3 to 21 days. Most amateur-level stage races are 3-4 days long, whereas pro-level stage races are 7-21 days long.
The longest stage races in the world are the three Grand Tours: the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a Espana.
Each day of a stage race typically consists of one stage. However, it is not uncommon to have two stages in one day, such as a short individual time trial in the morning followed by a short circuit race in the evening.