Slate's Explainer: Cycling Team Tactics

Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how riders on cycling teams help one another. Tour de France favorite Lance Armstrong credits a strong Discovery Team for helping him win six consecutive titles, and he retains the lead and the yellow jersey as he strives to win a seventh time.

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Also supporting Armstrong are the men from 15 countries who ride with him for the Discovery Channel team. Many readers of our online partner magazine Slate have been wondering exactly how cycling teams work. So here with an Explainer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

One member of the team serves as its leader, and the others do everything they can to help him win. In the major races, each team leader works with eight other riders called domestiques, who don't have much chance of winning the race themselves. Top teams typically have 20 or more cyclists on their rosters from which team managers can choose a nine-person team suited for each event. By tradition, the winner of a race like the Tour de France splits his cash prize with the members of the team and its staff.

What do the domestiques do? For the most part, they ride in front of the team leader. Cycling team strategy revolves around the notion that it's easier to peddle when there's someone in front of you to cut the wind. Cycling experts say that drafting like this can save you between 20 and 40 percent of your energy in a long event.

The various teams in a road race tend to ride in one tight clump called a peloton so everyone gets the benefit of drafting, except for the guy in the lead, of course. He's said to be pulling the pack. The puller tires more quickly even as he sets the pace for everyone else. After a short stint in front, he'll move back and let another rider take over. Team leaders like Lance Armstrong tend to hang back in these clusters to conserve energy while their teammates take turns out in front.

More advanced strategy comes into play when someone tries to break away from the peloton. If a competitor of Armstrong surged ahead of everyone else, Armstrong's teammates might take on the burden of quickening the pace of the peloton. On the other hand, if Armstrong himself were the one in a breakaway, his teammates could attempt to block rivals from mounting a chase.

BRAND: That Explainer from Slate's Andy Bowers. It was compiled by Daniel Engber.

(Soundbite of "Tour de France")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing in French)

BRAND: An oldie, but a goody.

DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and I'm Madeleine Brand.

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