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Learning bike pr0 stratz from cycling management games

Brushing up in The Cyclist: Tactics and Pro Cycling Manager

As much as I enjoy watching the Tour De France, I have a weak grasp of professional cycling's strategic level. While individual riders get the fame, it is a team sport with complex tactics and strategies across each stage and the overall race—which sometimes leave me flummoxed. So to help me better understand, I've been playing two strat-o-management games: the flashy Pro Cycling Manager 2022 (from the makers of the official Tour De France game) and the board game-esque indie game The Cyclist: Tactics.

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I know the broad basics, I think. Most cyclists in the Tour De France are not riding for personal victory, with only a few on each team seriously competing in the various sub-competitions. Their teammates run support: trying to control the pace of the race; helping or hindering breakaways; mounting attacks; fetching and delivering water bottles; and straight-up doing the hard work. Air resistance is killer in this endurance sport, so support riders take the lead and cut through the wind, letting stars draft behind them and save energy for key moments. And that's just on one day. Each rider is a resource to be strategically deployed for the good of the team, their energy consumed intentionally and carefully across individual stages, the weeks-long tour, and the wider competitive cycling season.

It can be beautiful to watch teams deliver their sprinters to the finish line seemingly out of nowhere, the colours of team jerseys congealing into a mass then flaking off as riders burn themselves out one-by-one until only sprinters remain in the desperate final few hundred metres. Sounds to me like a fitting theme for management and strategy games.

The Tour de France races through the Alps in a Pro Cycling Manager 2022 screenshot.
Pro Cycling Manager 2022's version of yesterday's Alpine TDF stage

Cyanide Studio's Pro Cycling Manager is the big name in the genre, started in 2001 and following up with sequels every year since. It's got fancy 3D graphics, the official teams and cyclists, and races including a recreation of the Tour De France. It seems fine?

It's a Football Manager sort of dealio, a game where you pick a team and play through a season. Manage finances, rosters, health, sponsors, training, tactics, equipment, and such. Then you can watch races in a 3D real-time view, issuing orders for riders: telling them when to draft, when to attack, when to share effort pulling with other teams, when to drop back for water deliveries, and so on. What I've played seems fine. This seems what I'd expect from a cycling management game. I'm being a bit unfairly vague and dismissive because I'm more into the other bike strat-o-sim I've been playing.

The Cyclist: Tactics is a spunky little indie effort, released last year. It has no flashy 3D graphics, none of my favourite real riders or teams, no Tour De France license, not even real countries for the setting. But it does have turn-based bikesport with a fun board game feel.

A top-down view of a gruelling uphill bicycle race in a The Cyclist: Tactics screenshot.
A long slog on a rainy day for the riders of Rock Peloton Shotgun

Camshaft Software's game hits many of the same notes as Pro Cycling Manager, with the usual team-managing career mode, but its races take places on courses abstracted into top-down boards divided into nodes. I enjoy seeing the tactics laid out so plainly with numbers: which moves require 'no' effort, the power of the peloton boosting you along, the importance of taking your turn pulling to keep a group happy, the extra effort of climbs or rough surfaces, the recuperative powers of coasting downhill, how to pace yourself across a long course, and so on. I haven't learn whole new facets of tactics from the game but being encouraged to model a race in my head so plainly with numbers does make me think about them more. And it's fun! I am enjoying mulling my moves, even if the fledgling team of Rock Peloton Shotgun are struggling a little under my leadership. Yeah, I need to replay the tutorial.

Playing these games has helped me understand the long strategies of the Tour De France a bit better. While the commentators and analysts on GCN/Eurosport do explain so much, and a pal has been an invaluable source of knowledge for me in all things cycling (thanks Hannah!), learning by doing is great. It's fine if a video game model is a wild simplification of the workings of dozens of organic beings and machines (quick question: do you count as a cyborg when clipped into your pedals?), it can still be useful—and fun.

Pro Cycling Manager 2022 is currently £28/€32/$32 on Steam, thanks to a 20% discount available until the 21st. Or 2020's game is only £4 right now, and I hear not massively different from the latest? The Cyclist: Tactics is £14/€15/$18 on Steam and has a demo up there. It just launched a big ol' overhaul update too (which I'd been playing in open beta).

Several people have recommended the board game Flamme Rouge for the tactics and thrills of bicycle races. I've not played it but your words are tempting. Oh hello, I've just seen Quinns (RPS in peace) reviewed Flamme Rouge with Matt Lees for Shut Up & Sit Down. Hmm!

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