Teams jockey to get their sprinters into position as the lead elements of the peleton thunder into Steamboat Springs in 2011 near the finish line for the fourth stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. This year's is expected to finish at about 4:45 p.m. Wednesday in downtown Steamboat.

Joel Reichenberger/file

Teams jockey to get their sprinters into position as the lead elements of the peleton thunder into Steamboat Springs in 2011 near the finish line for the fourth stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. This year's is expected to finish at about 4:45 p.m. Wednesday in downtown Steamboat.

What to watch for: A guide to cycling races and the Pro Challenge's Steamboat stop

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— If all you know about bike races is that the first one across the finish line wins, don’t worry.

Here’s a guide to help you know what your friends are talking about and what to look for as you line the race route for Wednesday’s third stage of the USA Pro Challenge.

Key words

Peloton: French for “ball” or “platoon,” the main group of riders in the race is known as the peloton. They ride together, packed tight, to conserve energy. Riders in the pack can save as much as 40 percent of the energy typically required to ride the 25 or 30 mph at which the group will be traveling. That’s huge in a race, and anyone separated from that group won’t be nearly as efficient.

Breakaway: A rider or a group of riders who separate from the front of the peloton. The peloton is more efficient, but the riders at its front aren’t always going as fast as possible, prompting some riders to break free, hoping they can outrun the big group to the finish line.

Getting around

Daily road closure information during the event will be available by calling 511 or by visiting www.cotrip.org.

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There’s a lot of strategy involved in a breakaway group. If one of the race’s overall leaders is in the group, it becomes the priority of other teams to push the pace in the peloton and catch the breakaway.

Riders in a small breakaway group enjoy some of the same efficiency benefits the peloton riders enjoy, but there are fewer riders to take the lead and bear the brunt of the work, so they tend to tire and slow toward the end of the race.

When to catch a breakaway group is a key part of strategy for teams with good sprinters. They don’t want to catch them midway through the race because that leaves too much time for another group to get away, and that group could be more difficult to catch. Instead, they want to catch the first group near the very end of the race.

King of the Mountain: A contest that stretches throughout the race to crown the cyclist most skilled at climbing steep terrain. Checkpoints are set out on many of the courses atop mountain passes. The first riders through those spots earn points toward the King of the Mountain contest. The leader in the King of the Mountain competition wears a special jersey and is recognized at each day’s awards ceremony.

Sprinters: As Rabbit Ears Pass won’t likely be steep and tough enough to allow the climbers to pull very far away from the peloton, Stage 3 is likely to end in a sprint. A sprinter is a rider especially good at going really fast for a short stretch, and setting that rider up to be going his fastest for the last 100 meters of the race will be the focus of many teams in Wednesday’s stage.

Leadout train: A sprinter doesn’t do it alone. Things rarely work out perfectly, but the idea is that as the peloton begins to close in on the finish, most of the sprinter’s team members gather around and in front of him, ensuring he is using as little energy as possible to ride. Then, one by one, the team members charge ahead, going flat out as fast as they can, allowing their teammates to follow along behind more efficiently. As each racer tires, he peels off to the side, the next teammate stepping into his place. Finally, there’s one man in front of the sprinter and, if everything worked out correctly, he peels away 100 or 200 meters before the finish and the sprinter flies to the front, having saved as much energy as possible for the final desperate surge toward the finish line.

What to look for

The breakaway: Stage 3 is likely to feature a breakaway group that will split from the main field, stay away through much of the race, then be caught. It’s possible they could stay away and someone from that group could win the race, but it’s very unlikely. There’s simply too much flat terrain leading up to the finish where the efficiency of the peloton will overcome any gap the breakaway riders are able to build. If it doesn’t happen just before Rabbit Ears Pass, it could happen on top, and if it doesn’t happen there, the seven miles of flat highway between the base of the pass and the finish line provide ample opportunity for the peloton to catch up.

The climb: The climb up Rabbit Ears Pass might not be enough to split the peloton, but the best climbers still will surge to the front. There will be a King of the Mountain checkpoint earlier in the day on Swan Mountain and another on Rabbit Ears Pass.

The setup: Teams with the top sprinters will have organization in their minds all day long, and they will get down to business lining up their leadout train once the peloton is down from Rabbit Ears Pass and is approaching Steamboat Springs. By the time the race is passing Mount Werner Circle, some teams likely will already be out of position, behind other sprint-focused teams that will be leading the peloton and pushing the pace. The race for the sprint certainly will be on by the time they swing into downtown and pass Old Town Hot Springs.

The sprint: The leadout train will be functioning at full strength by the time it hits downtown. The last leadout teammate likely will still be charging at the front past Third Street, then the sprinter will jump into the picture for the final two or three blocks to the finish line at Sixth Street.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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