Monday, July 15, 2013

Apple #644: Tour de France

You may have noticed that the Tour de France is on every freakin' NBC channel practically all day long.  When Lance "Uniball" Armstrong was competing, I never had much interest in it because, duh, who's going to win?  Now that he's out of it, I find myself kind of curious.

But as I'm watching the horde of men riding their bicycles, none of them apparently that much faster than the others, I realize I understand nothing about this event.  They all travel in a pack, so how is this a race?  How come the guy leading the pack today isn't the guy they're talking about as the race leader?  When the guys at the front of the pack switch off taking the lead as if it's all choreographed even though none of them are on the same team, I ask again, how is this a race?

With all these questions going unanswered even while I watched NBC's coverage, I thought it was time to find out for myself how the Tour de France works.

The Tour de France peloton. That guy adjusting his chin strap doesn't seem to be working very hard.  Neither do many of the other riders.  So what's going on here?
(Photo by Graham Watson from Cycle Sport Online)

The Course

  • The Tour de France is a series of races that total in the neighborhood of 3,550 km (2,200 miles).  The race lasts for 3 weeks, beginning in early July and ending in Paris on the Champs Elysses at the end of the month. 
  • It's considered one of the most grueling -- er, athletically challenging sports events in the world. That's like riding your bike from New York to Las Vegas, but with more mountains.  The race is so long and challenging, it would be impossible to complete it without teammates.
  • I thought the race followed one path from point A to point B, start to finish, but no.  The race course stops and starts and moves and jumps all over the place.  The course also changes from one year to the next.

Tour de France course map from 2011
(Map from Le Tour de France

Here's the course in 2012
(Map from Le Tour de France)

This is the course in 2013.  This year, the race started on the island of Corsica.  You know, where Napoleon was born.  And as you can see, sometimes the distance from one stage to the next is so large that the competitors have to fly to get there.
(Map from Velo Peloton)

  • The course travels over a mixture of types of terrain.  This year, there are 7 flat stages, 5 hilly stages, and 6 mountain stages with 4 finishes on the summit.  There are always 21 stages, but the number of them that are flat or hilly or mountainous varies from year to year.  (My numbers don't add up to 21, but I'll get to the parts I'm leaving out in a bit.)
  • There are also 2 rest days.
  • Each stage is timed.  The winner of the Tour de France is the person with the lowest time of all the stages added together.  
  • This is why one person might be leading the pack on one particular day, but the guy the broadcasters are talking about--the overall leader--may be somewhere else in the pack.  If current overall race leader has a huge time lead from previous stages, it might not matter if he's a ways behind in a current stage.

Races within the Race

  • So there's the overall prize, which is to win the entire race by having the lowest cumulative time.  Race officials keep track of who has the lowest overall time from one day to the next, and that person gets to wear the yellow jersey.  If someone else has the lowest overall time the next day, that person gets the yellow jersey.  And so on until the end of the race.  
  • The person wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the race / the person with the lowest overall time wins € 450,000 (~$588,000).  Traditionally the winner splits the prize money with his teammates.
  • The yellow jersey for lowest total time isn't the only thing you can win in the Tour de France.  Because the race is so long and contains so many challenges, there are lots of mini-races.
  • You can win a stage of the race.  You get  € 22,500 (~$29,400) and bragging rights for winning a day's stage.  It is possible to win a stage, or even several stages, and not be the overall race winner.
  • In addition to the flat, hilly, and mountainous stages, there are also time trials.  In French, these are called contre le montre, or CLM, stages.  Most time trials are about 35-50 km, and the riders compete against the clock, riding special aerodynamically-designed bikes.  Usually the time trials are individual events, so you could win a time trial.  There are also team time trials, in which case your personal time would only matter in the sense that it's added to your teammates' times, and your team's overall time is used to determine the winner.  
  • This year, there are 2 individual time trials and 1 team trial.  Time trials could be held on flat or hilly or mountainous ground.

  • Within certain stages, there are areas designated as sprint sections.  Points are awarded on the basis of who finishes the sprint sections in what order, meaning the first sprinter to finish the mini sprint section wins the most points and so on.  The sprinting sections could occur in the middle of a very long 100km+ section, so all of a sudden the racers will bust out the speed and start cycling like mad, jockeying for position and trying to pass each other to finish the sprint first.  The points leader of the sprint sections wins a green jersey. At the end of the race, the rider wearing the green jersey is awarded € 25,000 (~$32,600).

  • Similarly, in the mountain sections, points are awarded to the people who are the first to reach the summit of a mountain section.  The "king of the mountains" wears the polka-dot jersey.  The final polka-dot jersey winner is also awarded € 25,000 (~$32,600).

  • The white jersey is awarded to the best rider under 26 years old.  Like the other jerseys, the wearer of the white jersey may change from one day to the next.  Since relatively few riders can compete for this, it's not as highly coveted as some of the other jerseys.  The white jersey winner is awarded € 20,000 (~$26,135).

  • There's also an award for combativity. This distinction is a little harder to define.  It's been described as "most effort," "puts on the best show," or "most aggressive."  The winner of the combativity award is determined by a jury of 8 cycling experts at the end of each stage.  The combativity winner may or may not be the stage winner.  This person is awarded a race number with a red background and a white number, and at the end of the race is awarded € 20,000 (~$26,135).

  • Your team can also win awards.  Most teams start out with 9 people, but some or many often drop out as the race progresses.  So the team award recognizes the best 3 riders of a team in each stage (team time trials excepted; those get a different award).  Team winners get a race number with a yellow background and a black number.  The winning 3-person team at the end of the race gets € 50,000 (~$65,345).
  • There's also a joke award called the Lanterne Rouge (red light).  The very last man in the stage gets called this, after the red light on the caboose of a train.  The name is a joke, but if the last rider falls too far back from the pack, he can be eliminated from the Tour. Some also say that there's no dishonor in being the red light, since many riders never finish the Tour at all.  So even being last, but finishing, is still a remarkable achievement.
  • Leave it to the French to come up with a sport where the prizes are clothes, eh?

 Strategy Basics

  • By now you're getting the picture that the Tour de France is more complicated than just a bunch of guys racing their bikes from one point to another.  Some people are sprinters and are hoping only to win the green jersey.  Some people love the mountains best and only want to win those stages.  Some people have a goal of winning a certain number of stages -- like, maybe one.  There's a whole lot of stuff going on in that pack of bicyclists.
  • But knowing that different people are shooting for different goals doesn't really help interpret what's going on when you see a pack of riders all bunched up and maybe four or five guys strung out at the front.  So what is going on in that pack of riders?

The peloton.  Egad, I hope none of those riders tips over and knocks someone over that ledge.
(Photo from The Epoch Times)

  • First of all, the pack is called the peloton (the word means "herd").  "Peloton" can refer to the main bunch of riders, or it could be used to refer to the entire field of competitors.
  • In general, especially in the flat sections, the peloton tries to stay bunched together.  This helps the riders reduce drag and thus conserve energy.  Riding in the middle of a peloton can help a rider conserve as much as 40% of the energy required to keep pace.
  • The peloton will shift shape to adapt to shifting headwinds or crosswinds.  It's kind of like how a flock of birds will change direction on the fly. 

This gives you some idea of how the line of riders can move and shift as they're drafting, or compensating for wind resistance.
(Photo from Zimbio)

  • A disadvantage to sticking with the pack is that sometimes a rider will crash, and in that packed peloton which can be shoulder-to-shoulder, it's likely that a falling rider will take others down with him.  
  • An advantage to sticking with the peloton is that when the whole pack crosses the finish line, it's too difficult for the race officials to figure out who crossed exactly at what millisecond, so every rider in the pack is awarded the same time.  If you're at the very back of the bunch, you get the same time as those in the middle of the bunch.
  • The only exception to this rule is that the first three in the pack will get a time bonus, or deduction, from their individual cumulative times. This encourages people to break away from the pack, especially toward the finish of a stage.
  • But often it's not just one person who breaks away, but his entire team, or maybe a few people from different teams.  When this happens, the drafting technique changes, but still operates with the goal of conserving energy.  Members of the same team will allow one person to ride in front for a while, then drop back and let another person move forward, and so on.
  • If the breakaway pack is comprised of people from different teams, one team may still cycle through the different leaders, but they will do so in a way that tries to trap the members of the rival team so they must slow down or can't assume the lead.  
  • Sometimes a breakaway pack will allow one rider to zoom ahead while the rest of his teammates stay with the breakaway pack and trap a rival team, thus allowing their team leader to gain a significant time advantage.
  • (If you want to see a visual representation of these drafting & trapping strategies, check out this super-informative animated video about the Tour de France. The explanation of drafting methods starts around 5:19.)

So far, a lot of the photos I've posted make it look like these rides are like strolls in the park. But riders can reach speeds in excess of 100 km/hr -- 60 to 65 mph -- on mountain stage descents.
(Photo from the Winnipeg Free Press)

  • The one rider who zooms ahead of the pack gets a lot of glamor and glory, but he wouldn't be able to do that and stay there without help from his teammates (domestiques).  The teammates often ride at the front for the majority of a stage, essentially doing the grunt work and allowing the team leader to conserve energy until the end of the stage.  Teammates can also drop back to the cars that are following, collect water & food, and bring it up to the team leader.  If the leader crashes and ruins his bike, the domestique will give the leader his bike.

One of the many things the domestiques--helper teammates--will do: drop back to collect water or food from the team car, then zip up to where the team leader is riding and give him the water.
(Photo from Bike Radar)

  • All the work that the supporting teammates do is yet another reason why the winner of the Tour de France, if he's any kind of decent person at all, splits his winnings with his team.
  • Then there are the mountains.  Simply and crassly put, the mountains kick people's ass.  Riders who specialize in sprinting tend to drop out of the race in the mountains.  Riders who have trained long and hard for the Tour may still overextend themselves in the mountains, "hit the wall" as runners say, and find themselves simply too burned out to continue.
  • Many Tour winners in the past dominated the mountain sections, building up enough of a lead in those stages to compensate for slower times in the time trial stages.  Lance Armstrong was known for blowing away his competitors in the mountain stages, and he was also fast in the time trials.  Now we know how he managed to do that, but this tells you how dominant he was in the sport, that he excelled at both.

Graphical depiction of the changes in elevation of one of the mountain stages, from the race in 2006. Yeah, it's only 182 km (113 miles) long.  Piece of cake.
(Graph from Climb by Bike)

OK, so now these guys are working hard.  This is the first of several mountain stages.
(Photo from

One Last Question

  • Why is the winner's jersey yellow?  
  • Answer: The Tour was originally conceived as a way to promote the French newspaper L'Auto.  At the time, that newspaper was printed on yellow paper.  The yellow jersey reinforced the idea of the yellow paper.  Branding, ladies and gentlemen, in 1903.

Where are the Riders Now?

  • As I type this, the Tour has completed its 15th stage.  Only 6 more to go.  British cyclist Christopher Froome is currently wearing the yellow jersey.  He's been the race leader since the 8th stage, though he's only won 2 stages.  He's been either 1st or 2nd in the competition for the polka-dot jersey, which you now know means he was killing it in the mountain stages.  Which you also now know means this guy may turn out to be the Tour's winner.

Christopher Froome in a polka-dot jersey in 2012.  There are lots of photos of him wearing the yellow jersey, and that may be how he appears after the finish this year.  So I thought I'd give you this one for some variety.  Froome is 28 years old, and he was born in Nairobi, but he rides for Great Britain (his father is British).
(Photo from the Telegraph)

Oh, there are also the many nutjobs who line up along the course, ready to cheer on their favorite athletes.  These are some of the more sane ones.  You don't wanna see the Swiss guys in the green sling Borat-bikinis. Or maybe you do.
(Photo from Total Pro Sports)

Now that I know all this, I want to watch it.  What about you? 

Le Tour de France, 2013 Route, Sporting stakes / rules
Cathy Gellis, UC Berkeley, The Tour de France Explained
Infobytes.TV, Tour de France animated video
BBC Sport Cycling, Tour de France
BBC Sport Academy, How does Lance stay ahead of the pack?
Bike Radar, Tour de France glossary 

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