Guest BLOG: Background on the TOUR DE FRANCE from Dave Nicholson

Published on: September 8, 2020

Filled Under: Blog, Entertainment, Guest Opinions, Worth Reading and Watching

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One of my friends going back to high school wrote a post on the TOUR DE FRANCE that was so interesting and informative that I felt obliged to share it. I know little about the cycling world beyond the fact that they are insane (and fearless) athletes and that doping scandals run deep. So with Dave’s permission, here is his primer on the Tour de France.

The Most Grueling Event in Sports

You may not know it, but we’re currently in the middle of the Tour de France. Here’s a (relatively) short guide to the Tour de France so that friends of mine who are not cycling fans can follow along. Otherwise it just looks like a bunch of skinny guys in colorful lycra riding through France.

What is the Tour de France?

The Tour de France (“the Tour” from here forward) is a “Grand Tour”, which is a particularly grueling type of road cycling race that lasts for a little over three weeks. There are many other types of road cycling races, the vast majority of which are not three week long events like the Tour. In fact, there are only two other Grand Tours: The Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) and the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain), both of which are very prestigious if slightly less so than the Tour. Races like the Tour are suited to a unique type of rider who may not succeed in other types of racing. Still, the Tour is the most famous road cycling race and forms the heart of the road racing calendar each year.

The Tour consists of 21 separate races called “stages” held on consecutive days. With the 21 days of racing and two rest days, the total event length is 23 days. 

Each stage is different and they vary widely. There are three primary types of stages: mountain stages, flat stages and time trials. As the name implies, mountain stages involve climbing multiple mountain passes in one day. The enormous mountain passes climbed in the Tour usually force separation in the group (the group of riders is called the “peloton”) and as a result mountain stages usually are the deciding factor in the race for the overall win. Flat stages unsurprisingly do not include large climbs. The peloton generally stays together and flat stages generally finish with a chaotic mass sprint. Time trials are races against the clock, either each rider individually or with the entire team. Stages also vary widely in length from 150+ miles to less than 5 miles.

The entire Tour route is different each year. Each year, the Tour organizing committee designs the route carefully to include different types of stages that will form a unique challenge. The route is announced several months before the Tour begins and teams begin planning for the race (more on this later). Still, there are some commonalities between years: every year the Tour roughly circumnavigates France and every year the Tour includes the Alps and the Pyrenees, the two primary mountain ranges in France. Many of the mountain passes in the Alps or Pyrenees have long histories in the Tour, the most famous being Alpe D’Huez.

How do you win the Tour?

Each stage is timed. The winner of the Tour is the rider at the end of the race who has the lowest cumulative time over all 21 stages. The competition for the overall winner of the Tour (again: lowest cumulative time) is formally called the “General Classification” competition, or “GC” for short. 

A critical thing to realize is that the vast majority of riders racing the Tour are not trying to win the entire Tour. Each rider has a specific role and reason to be in the Tour. For example, some riders are racing to win just a stage or two. Each stage has an official winner and winning just one Tour stage is very difficult and prestigious. Other riders are racing for the “Points” competition or the “King of the Mountains” competition. These two competitions are similar: each involves multiple checkpoint lines along the route of the stage and riders win points by being first (or second or third etc) across those lines. The difference is the checkpoints for the “King of the Mountains” competition are always at the top of climbs (as the name would imply) while the “Points” checkpoints are generally on level ground and require a sprint to win.

How do I keep track of who’s leading a given competition throughout the Tour?

The Tour uses a system of uniquely colored jerseys that are awarded each day to the rider leading each of the competitions mentioned above. The overall leader of the Tour (again: lowest cumulative time) wears the most prestigious jersey: the “Maillot Jeune” or Yellow Jersey. The “Points” competition leader wears the Green Jersey and the “King of the Mountains” leader wears the Polka-Dot Jersey (seriously). The rider that wins the Yellow, Green or Polka Dot Jersey on the last stage wins that particular competition for the entire Tour. There’s a fourth jersey as well: the White Jersey, which is awarded to the best young rider. The lead for each jersey can obviously change after each day, so each jersey is custom printed on the road each day with the leader’s team’s logos.

How do cycling teams work in the Tour?

Each team selects eight riders from their roster to race the Tour. Note that most teams have 35+ riders on their full roster and only eight go to the Tour. Selection for a Tour team is finalized right before the Tour and is dependent on many factors: who is strongest, the team’s objectives, health, experience… even personality. As a result, every rider in the Tour is the cream of the cream of the crop, they are all the strongest, most capable road riders in the world. Just making a Tour selection is a huge honor. Every rider in the Tour has a long list of victories and honors.

Why do you even need a team? Many reasons. No one can win the Tour alone. The primary thing to consider is that it’s much (much) easier to ride in someone’s draft than it is to ride in the wind. Also, it’s much easier to win the Tour if another rider is getting you food, water, clothing etc. This is the role of most riders in the Tour: to give their leader a draft, to get the leader food, to stop other teams from being able to execute their strategies… overall to help their leader achieve their team’s goals. Each team will have at least one “protected” rider who other riders will sacrifice themselves for. 

As I mentioned before each member of the team has a specific role. Some are built like linebackers and are able to ride very fast for long periods of time on the flat (these riders are called “rouleurs”). Others are skinny, jockey-like guys with giant lungs who are able to climb mountains at ridiculous speeds (these riders are called “grimpeurs”). Others are extremely experienced and can make quick tactical decisions as the race progresses (these riders are called “road captains”). Et cetera. The point is that the mix of riders each team selects is designed to help the team accomplish whatever they are trying to do in the Tour: win the whole thing, win stages, win the Points jersey, etc.

I won’t go deep into cycling strategy. Suffice it to say, it’s just as complicated as any other sport. Winning a bike race involves looking at the race course, looking at your competition, setting a strategy at the beginning of the race and then improvising as the plan inevitably falls apart on the road. Each team will have a preset strategy for each stage of the Tour that the team has been thinking about for months. In addition, each team will have an overarching strategy for the entire three week Tour. To help formulate these plans, each team has a “Director Sportif” (or “DS”) who sets the strategy and then rides in a team car and uses radios to tell the team what to do as the race situation evolves. Each team also has a fleet of spare bikes and a number of mechanics to take care of bikes if they break on the road.

Who should I watch in this year’s Tour?

I’ll name just three riders to watch:

Primoz Roglic: the Slovenian leader of the powerful Jumbo-Visma team and my pick to win this year’s Tour. Roglic got a late start in cycling because he famously started his athletic career as an elite ski jumper. Roglic won the Vuelta a Espana (the Tour of Spain) last year and has been riding very strongly this year. He possesses the unique combination necessary to win the Tour: he’s a great climber and a great time trialist. Roglic is a bit of an enigma, even to passionate cycling fans: quiet in interviews, his personal life a bit of a mystery, his past a bit cloudy. He kind of showed up out of nowhere a few years ago and started winning stuff.

Egan Bernal: a young Colombian star on the best funded and most powerful team in the peloton: Ineos. Bernal is the defending champion, he won last year not be dominating the race but by riding a careful tactical race. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an unbelievably talented rider: absolutely amazing in the high mountains, but no slouch on a time trial bike. Bernal is als hugely likeable: friendly and intelligent in interviews. Humble but not too humble. Just a good guy.

Peter Sagan: the Gronk of cycling. An unbelievable natural talent who seemingly couldn’t care less about cycling. A master bike handler who can move through a peloton like a panther, rail tight corners at 58 MPH, bunny hop other riders if they fall in front of him etc. He’s powerful enough to sprint with the best sprinters in the world, but can still climb well, get into breakaways etc. Sagan is also an utter goofball in interviews, with a bizarre but hilarious sense of humor. He’s a one-off, don’t miss the Peter Sagan show.

Addenda, some brief history of the Tour and its champions:

How did the Tour start?

The Tour has been raced every year since 1903, with a few years off here and there for world wars. The Tour started as a way to sell newspapers, specifically a sports newspaper called “L’Auto”. “L’Auto” was printed on yellow paper, thus the color of the Yellow Jersey. The Tour is well suited to newspaper coverage: it was cheap to put on, there was news each day and the serialized format would ensure that readers would keep buying papers while the race was on. Given this origin, the Tour is a throwback to old sporting traditions. Note: “L’Auto” is still around, it was renamed “L’Equipe” in 1940 and remains the largest sports periodical in France today.

Who are some of the most famous winners of prior Tours?

The record for Tour wins is five and this record is shared by four riders. Each of these riders is a legend, I’ll discuss each briefly.

Jacques Anquetil won in 1957 and every year from 1961-1964. Anquetil was a famously handsome and charming rider. He rode with great style, never seeming to sweat, always immaculately dressed and coiffed. Make no mistake though, Anquetil was an extremely powerful time trialist and fearless rider. Unafraid to take chances on high speed downhills or attack in terrible weather. He personified “panache”, a combination of courage, toughness, style and arrogance that is a deeply meaningful characteristic to cyclists to this day.

Eddy Merckx won from 1969-1972 and again in 1974. Merckx is, without a doubt, the greatest cyclist of all time. Uniquely, he won everything: Grand Tours, one day races, track races, cyclocross races (look it up). Merckx won an incomprehensible 525 professional races in his career. In 1971, he won 52 races in one year, something completely impossible today. Merckx was nicknamed “The Cannibal” for good reasons. He was an inhuman machine on a bike, always riding on the front, utterly crushing his competitors day by day, fueled by an insatiable internal need to dominate.

Bernard Hinault aka “The Badger” won in 1978, 1979,1981, 1982 and 1985. Hinault is my personal favorite cyclist of all time. An irascible Breton to the core, a man spoiling for a fight at all times. He was a born leader on the bike, by 25 he was already “Le Patron” (“The Boss”) of the peloton. Hinault was utterly assured, utterly fearless and utterly ruthless. He was also a monster of an athlete, able to tear apart pro pelotons and destroy entire teams alone. He’s still a part of the Tour to this day: he’s the stocky guy handing out the prizes after each stage.

Miguel Indurain won from 1991-1995. Spaniard, Indurain is the odd man out in this company. Indurain didn’t look like a typical Tour cyclist: he’s 6’1”, rather heavily built. Indurain also didn’t act like the larger than life personalities above: he was quiet and introverted, humble in interviews and maintained a low profile off the bike. What Indurain could do is absolutely motor on a bike. A time trial specialist, he was the definitive “diesel” chewing through courses like a locomotive. Indurain is one of the most powerful cyclists in history. He also may represent something darker: Indurain’s era marked the beginning of the age of EPO in professional bike racing.

Ah, you say, what about that Texan who won seven Tours? You know, the guy who doped? I have strong feelings about Armstrong, which I’ll spare you from.

Yeah, what about doping?

Doping and the Tour have a long and illustrious shared history. Early riders used cocaine, chloroform and strychnine (seriously). British champion Tom Simpson dropped dead in the middle of the 1967 Tour from a combination of alcohol, amphetamines and dehydration. Anquetil famously called doping a “professional’s prerogative” and openly talked about his doping. Merckx failed at least three doping controls in the “anything goes” 1970s. Hinault furtively discussed “preparation” with his teammates and has repeatedly deflected all doping-related questions about his past. Indurain’s team probably invented modern doping techniques: his coaches and trainers have gone on to be central in every subsequent doping investigation.

To give a sense of the complicated history here: consider that there is no official winner of any of the Tours Lance Armstrong won. Once the governing body of cycling stripped Armstrong of those titles, they have never re-awarded those victories to anyone. Ask yourself why that might be.

Is there still doping in the peloton? Almost certainly. Is it better than it used to be? Almost certainly. I’ll leave it at that.

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