Years ago our son got me and my husband hooked on the Tour de France. I started watching it mostly for the gorgeous pictures of the French countryside, the chateaux, the cathedrals, and castles that were featured to accompany the race. The bicycling itself didn’t interest me. But I gradually was sucked into the intricacies of the race itself, which proved to be fascinating.
Prior to this I knew the Tour de France existed and heard about it occasionally. But it sounded ultimately boring. A lot of cyclists racing around the country. Whole lot of pedaling. Yawn.
There are long stretches that are fairly boring, too. That’s one of the reasons you get all these lovely views of the countryside and sites of historical or esthetic interest. They do need something to fill in some of the time.
(By the way, all images here are from my television screen.)
Like a lot of things that appear simple on the surface, however, cycle racing is much more complex than it appears at first sight. There are a lot of things going on and it’s been fascinating to learn about some of them.
These are just some random thoughts about the Tour de France:
Grand tour racing is a team sport. (The Tour de France is the best known of three Grand Tour races – those that are 21 days long and include a variety of types of courses.) A single rider cannot hope to win one without a huge support staff, including team-mates riding with him. Although teams may come into the race with different goals, most teams have a single intent and build their team around it.
A good part of the team advantage grows out of one simple principle of aerodynamics. Because a rider can ‘draft’ off other riders, maintaining the same speed without having to do the same amount of work as the person in the lead, a group working together can generate more power for a much longer time than a single rider on his own.
There are races within the races within the races. Of course, there is only one overall winner, but there are other prizes available. The overall winner gets a yellow jersey, but there is also a green jersey for the best sprinter, a polka dotted jersey for the best mountain climber, and a white jersey for the best young rider. Each stage has its own winner as well, and those are coveted prizes.
The long and relatively flat sections of the race normally end with a furious, all-out sprint for the finish by riders who specialize in just that. They’re racing for the stage win, but also points are awarded to the top ten or fifteen finishing positions and the total of those points decides the green jersey competition. Some stages also have “sprint points” within the course that award points to the first few people across that line.
Probably the most brutal stages are those that include several long mountain climbs and the even more terrifying long, winding descents most riders take at speeds that wouldn’t be wise in an automobile, let alone on a bicycle.
There are also stages that are just time trials, where riders race against the clock rather than each other.
Unexpected things can always occur. On a long flat stage, a crosswind can play havoc with the peloton. The bicycles are complex, finely-tuned instruments and they sometimes break. Flat tires are common. Chains sometimes come off the gears. Teams are set up to respond quickly to these, but it can still cost a rider time, especially if it occurs near the end of the stage.
Crashes happen. At least some of the race is on narrow roads. Sharp bends and the frequent roundabouts of European roads can create havoc. The competitors tend to ride bunched tightly together so they sometimes just run out of road space. And when one goes down he usually takes several more with him.
Not all the riders who start the race can finish. Some become ill during the race, but most withdrawals are the result of injuries suffered during crashes.
Although tactics plays a huge role in how the race plays out, the amount of courage, strength, stamina, and sheer guts all the riders need to compete is almost beyond imagining.