Most Americans have an intimate relationship with bicycles as a rite of passage in childhood and then, sadly, a subsequent and gradual divorce from the pleasures of two wheeled travel. Missing almost completely is an understanding of the true nature of the sport and dynamics of bicycle racing, with a misplaced attribution to running races used as a rule of thumb.
In reality, a cycling races are absolutely unlike running, swimming, or other human powered racing events for one simple reason: drafting. Drafting is the process of wading into the slipstream of the rider/riders in front and in the process gaining a 30%+ reduction in required energy output. This means that unlike running or swimming where differing abilities cause the racers to separate and string out in order of their effort and ability, in cycling all riders within a 30% level of aerobic capacity will form one large group. Drafting also allows for a couple of other things:
Why cycling dynamics are different:
1) Races to travel at very high speeds - higher than any individual to ride by themselves. Average pace will likely be in excess of 30mph in the pro races - including braking and slowing for numerous corners, faster than any rider can ride alone.
2) Large groups will form and the eddies and swirls of a "complex adaptive system" will constantly change the shape and organization of the peleton (pack of riders) meaning that you cannot interpret very much from who is in front at any given time (unless they have a gap on other riders)
3) Specializations emerge depending on the course, conditions and unfolding of the race dynamics - most notably breakaways (small groups or individuals that escape the large peleton), and field sprints (a high speed conclusion to the race at speeds well in excess of that of any one individual as the draft is used to "slingshot" riders forward in excess of 40mph)
4) The riders in the back are not necessarily out of contention: unfit, lazy riders with an abundance of fast twitch muscles may ride in last place throughout much of the race, yet still have a reasonable shot at winning*
*This is my strategy by the way - I am often in last place for more than 90% of the race - I usually only move up w/ 2 laps to go. Friends watching for the first time often commiserate with each other, "poor guy - still in last place" thinking that it is not intentional and that it is reflective of the likely outcomes. They then are sometimes surprised at the end, "but... you were getting killed out there... how did you end up in the front?!"
(picture - holding down last place... someone has to do it...)
American cycling, unlike European road races provides a unique forum - instead of a long point to point race with large mountains (both unavailable in Illinois: mountains and untrammeled roads) the most common form of American cycling is the "criterium" or circuit race, typically around 4 square blocks in a small to medium sized town, with all the roads blocked, and a course length from 0.6 to 1.2 miles. It will usually be humid and hot, the roads will be bumpy often with soft patches of tar that are particularly dangerous. The corners, speed, and rough roads mean that falling feels and is exactly like sliding across a superheated frying pan covered with sandpaper. Most riders that race often crash several times a year and sport scabs and scars. I have been racing bikes since I was 8 (my estimate is more than 4000 races) so I'm usually able avoid trouble but you never know.
What to watch for and how to watch:
1) First, walk the course in the opposite direction of the riders, stop at the corners and watch 80+ riders squeeze through the gauntlet presented by the barriers, leaning inward hip-to-elbow at 25+ mph - far faster than a car would take the corners (in fact most races feature a "pace car" whose tires will squeal around every corner)
2) Recognize that the riders that are not up front are working 30% less hard than those up front - the riders up front are incessantly trying to get away and there are generally only a dozen or so strong enough to make it happen, another dozen strong enough to go with, and then the rest of the pack is along for the ride - about 60% being "pack fodder" - neither strong enough to get away, nor able to sprint fast enough to win. Then, there are few outliers in the back, "sprinters" who make it their job to do as little effort as possible the entire race with the hope it will end in a "field sprint" with a mass of riders striving for the line at the last second (that would be me)
3) Notice who the riders pulling at the front are and whether small gaps form. If a small group gets away, their goal is to get "out of site" of the peleton - usually 25 seconds or more. If that happens, the peleton often gives up and then those riders have to fight each other for the win and the pack is then fighting for 5th or 10th place.
4) Finally in the last 2 laps, the race dynamics often change. The riders attempting breakaways that have not succeeded give up, the pace often slows which causes the pack to swell and become extremely dangerous - make sure your hands and feet are out of the road at this point. Crashes are common and the stress is very high within the pack as everyone wants to be NEAR but not AT the front. There is constant turnover and it is a delicate and tricky maneuver to be in the top ten as they ring the bell for the final lap. This is where skill and courage are essential to success. Despite the danger and crack and boom of crashes I almost never feel any fear at all, just an intense focus and awareness.
5) With one lap to go, a leadout often begins - a rider, often terrified of all the maneuvering, throws in the towel and picks up the pace to get out of the mayhem. The pack then strings out single file or two abreast, and then the sprinters jockey for a position around the 5th to 8th spot on the backstretch. There is bumping, there is cursing, sometimes there are pushes and shoves and headbuts. They all know the winner usually leaves the final corner in 3rd to 8th position as it is too far to lead up front at 40mph, but too fast and too far to come from beyond 10th position. Sometimes the pack will line up 10 abreast for the final corner at 40mph and only 3 will get through, leaving a massive skin burning pileup in their wake.
6) At the finish expect 60 riders to zoom across the line barrier to barrier at more then 40mph and the breeze from the peleton will feel like that of a half dozen semi trucks. It is exhilarating.
If you come watch me race, I will be in the back. I might get dropped and drop out (meaning I'm more than 30% less fit than the riders up front). If I don't' get dropped I usually finish in the top 6. When I win it is usually by the tiniest of margins - read here if interested: