The world champion is a guy you’ve never heard of, he won with a gutsy gamble in a place you couldn’t find on the globe, and his name is impossible for Americans to pronounce: Kwiatkowski.
As we sit today in the glow of the Super Bowl and on the precipice of March Madness, it’s hard to conjure up another championship in the United States that might attract more eyeballs worldwide.
One will: The world championship of bike racing comes here in September.
This is no small deal. The organizers figure the global TV audience will number 300 million. The Super Bowl, billed as a worldwide attraction, may get 115 million viewers, 98 percent of them in the United States. The final game of March Madness will get 20 million.
And the world championship bike race will be held — not in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago or scenic Colorado — in Richmond.
Yes, all eyes on Richmond.
Folks there expect 450,000 people to line the streets — maybe you? — and the race will be broadcast to millions of Americans — maybe you?
Maybe, yes, if you want to learn a little bit about the deadly serious craziness that is bike racing.
What’s the cliche for something hard to forget? “It’s like riding a bicycle.”
Bike racing is not like riding a bicycle. Contrary to what you might think, neither is it like running a 10K or the Boston Marathon. Those races are won by the person with the most stamina, the most endurance, the best finishing kick and the most luck.
Bike races are won with a mix of guile, deception, hubris and teamwork. Back-stabbing, sandbagging and collusion among enemies are part of the intrigue. The rider who works hardest rarely wins. Put your money, instead, on someone who does the least pedaling.
Why is Richmond hosting a race that has strayed from European soil only three times in two decades? How did a modest East Coast city lure an event that could have landed anywhere? Simple: The city shelled out about $7 million to get it.
Read more: UCI Road World Championships 101.
“This is really the biggest thing there’s ever been in Richmond from a global perspective,” says Tim Miller, chief operating officer for the race, who adds that the city always has lived in the shadow of Washington.
He’s been to three UCI Road World Championships in Europe and noticed that people turn out to watch, then head home. Richmond’s planning something different, a party with the racing as its centerpiece.
“I lived in Atlanta during the Olympics,” says race marketing manager Lee Kallman, “and I know people who did an Olympic-related thing every day and never attended an Olympic event.”
The average American knows three things about bike racing: the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong and doping.
Richmond won’t resemble the Tour. The Tour goes on for three weeks, with the treasured yellow jersey going to the guy with the lowest cumulative time. The World Championships will last a week, with a bunch of different races for junior-age riders and women pros, and the big one Sunday, when 200 pro men compete.
If you’re going to dial in, for starters you need to know one word: drafting. No mystery there: It’s the same thing NASCAR racers do when they go bumper to bumper at 180 mph, tucking behind another driver to cut wind drag and save fuel.
The Richmond race is 160 miles , and if anything’s certain, it’s that the guy you see in the front of it anywhere but at the finish line isn’t going to win. (Guys who make this mistake are usually described as “Strong like bull, smart like tractor.”) The riders tucked in behind him — drafting — are saving a lot of energy. When the tractor-smart rider finally runs out of gas, one of them will saunter by to take the win.
But what if nobody wants to blow his chances by towing everybody else around?
That’s where teamwork and tactics come in. Everybody in the week of racing, including the women and juniors, is a professional bike racer, and they all belong to pro teams, which have riders from several different countries. But unlike the Tour or any other pro race, at the World Championships you race for your country’s team, not your professional team. (And in the end, there most likely will be charges of collusion, but let’s not get ahead of our narrative.)
If your team tactics call for riding at the front of the 200 or so riders, you send one of your guys up to pull the pack. It’s called, quite literally, pulling. You can line everybody else up behind him, but more likely, the rest of the team will ride within striking distance, gathered around the teammate they think is most likely to win the race.
When it’s time for the race to get serious — usually, but not always, closer to the finish — the team will designate a rider or two to tow the anointed wannabe winner to the front.
Drafting is all about saving your numero uno’s legs until it’s time for him to win the race. Sounds like a perfect plan, but for every team but one, it’s going to go wrong. Listing all the reasons would take us dreadfully deep into the weeds of cycling tactics, but here are some basics.
The other teams have race plans, too, and one is to disrupt your plan. A group of riders breaks away off the front. Are they a threat to win? A decoy? Should you send one rider to join them, just in case?
Chances are that a two-rider break early in the race is doomed. Four riders? Don’t bet on it. But seven or eight is another matter.
Why? Drafting. If a good-size bunch of riders take turns pulling, they have a chance of staying up the road to the finish line. Of course, they don’t always agree to take turns.
If a breakaway rider’s teammates start to block and slow everybody else in the main pack, that’s often a sign they think he could be a winner. That may prompt another team to bust to the front and start pushing the pace to reel in the breakaway. Or they might send a single rider to bridge over to the breakaway, where he might be positioned to win but, more likely, will try to disrupt the rhythm of the breakaway until it slows down.
All of this and many more tactics can result in finger pointing, obscenities and, in one race last year, fisticuffs.
At the World Championships, things get particularly screwy. You ride on your pro team nine months a year. You ride on your national team once a year at the World Championships. Sure, you want a guy from your country to win, but if you’re going to help anybody else, it’s likely to be your best buddy from your pro team, who probably is wearing the jersey of some other country.
How do you help him in plausibly deniable ways? There are many, but two you know about: You let him draft on you if you get separated from the pack, or you conspire with him to stage a breakaway.
And there have been plenty of times when denial was needed. Two years ago, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde was in the hot seat. He didn’t react when his pro teammate, Portugal’s Rui Costa, set out to chase down another Spanish rider who was leading, Joaquim Rodriguez. Costa nipped Rodriguez in the final sprint. Valverde took third, and with it grief from countrymen who questioned his loyalty.
Which brings us to the means by which Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski won the championship last year in Ponferrada, Spain, a coal-mining town with a spectacular Templar castle that is so far from the nearest big airport that hardly anybody showed up to watch.
Kwiatkowski is 24 , young by cycling standards, and had been tagged as a star of the future after a string of nice races leading up to the championship. Costa, Rodriguez and Valverde were back. The Tour de France winner was set to go. Most of the mega-cycling nations — France, Australia, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Great Britain — looked stronger than the men in red from Poland.
When the Poles went to the front early in the race, “everyone thought, ‘What tactic is this?’ ” a Belgian rider said later.
The red team wanted to control the early tempo of the race, which looped on a circuit through Ponferrada, just as it will in Richmond. Kwiatkowski tucked behind his teammates, saving his energy.
As Kwiatkowski’s team began to crumble under the stress — six of the nine wouldn’t even finish — the Italians launched an electrifying uphill attack that caused several of the favorites to fall behind. With 11 miles to the finish line, an Italian and three others broke away.
Kwiatkowski caught them just before the five-mile mark. While the others were expecting a mass sprint to the line, he knew he wasn’t enough of a sprinter to match them. So he abandoned caution as he plunged down a slippery final hill in the rain. After racing 158 miles, he won by a single second.
Two reasons: Guts and teamwork gave him the freshest legs in the end.
If you tune in for Richmond, remember the key word: drafting.
E-mail us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.