The Amazing Race: Demystifying the Tour de France
Forget the doping. Forget the scandal. Forget Lance Armstrong. Don’t get distracted by the noise. The Tour de France is the world’s most fascinating race. For 80-plus hours over 20-plus days, the world’s fittest men bike over 2000 miles through the hallowed French countryside, through the Alps and the Pyrenees, towards the finish-line on the most famous of boulevards, Paris’ Champs-Élysées.Contrary to the popular American perception of the Tour, it isn’t just a single competition. The Tour is actually made up of several concurrent competitions, known as classifications: the points classification (green jersey), which awards points to riders for reaching designated checkpoints and finishing stages in or near pole position; the mountains classification, which awards points to riders for climbing designated hills and mountains at or near pole position (polka dotted jersey); the young rider classification, awarded to riders under 25 with the best overall time (white jersey); and of course, the general classification, awarded to riders with the best overall time (the famous yellow jersey). Sprinters compete for green and (limited) climbing specialists for polka dots. The most complete riders–really, the best climbers and time trialists–chase the coveted white and yellow jerseys.
Cycling is unique among sports–it bends our understanding of the difference between “team” and “individual”. The Tour is an individual competition that requires the participation and selfless sacrifice of an entire team. The race is made up of roughly twenty teams of nine riders. Even though each individual rider is nominally competing for the same titles, each team is usually built to support just one individual–known as the team leader–in his pursuit of either the green or yellow jersey, the two most important classifications. The other riders on a team are known as domestiques, which literally translates to “servants”. Their sole purpose is to support the team leader in achieving his individual goal, protecting him and doing whatever is necessary to help him in his quest for individual glory–in the end, a domestique is only as successful as his leader.Sometimes, though, team hierarchy can be cloudy. For instance, in 2009, Astana featured the heavily favored 2007 champion Alberto Contador, and an older but no less confident version of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong, nominally Contador’s domestique, was certainly seeking to win the Tour for himself in his comeback bid. Over the first week, the two attacked each other on and off the course until Contador was able to assert himself in the Pyrenees–against team orders–late in the Tour’s seventh stage. Still, Armstrong did not truly cede team leadership until Contador definitively proved himself to be the Tour’s strongest rider with a phenomenal solo attack in the Alps in stage 15. Contador went on to win the Tour, with a defeated Armstrong finishing third.
Occasionally, the team leader isn’t even a team’s best rider. In 2012, two of the Tour’s top riders, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, were both on Team Sky. In this case, team hierarchy was clear–Froome was there to help Wiggins. However, as the Tour progressed, it also became clear that Froome was the stronger rider in the mountains. Having worked hard all Tour for his team leader, on the final climb of stage 11 Froome put in a kick that threatened to drop his leader and propel himself towards the yellow jersey, only to be held up by his team director in an effort to aid the struggling Wiggins. Wiggins, whose greatest strength was in time trials, won the Tour by just three minutes over his lead domestique. Though Froome watched his teammate don the yellow jersey in Paris, many felt he had been the stronger rider, that he had been shackled by his team leader.
If a team leader has a bad stage or gets injured, he is often forced to pass that mantle on to a teammate in a better position to win, and is either relegated to the role of lead domestique or dropped altogether. Because of this, on unstable teams, leaders are constantly looking over their shoulders, unable to fully trust their teammates. This year, to avoid the kind of internal conflict that might jeopardize the chances of a top contender, two of the world’s strongest riders, the aforementioned Wiggins and Nairo Quintana–runner-up in 2013–were left out of the race altogether.
In no sport is the push and pull of team vs. individual so strong, are the interests of “teammates” so clearly at odds. Nevertheless, in order to win the Tour, a rider well and truly needs the support of his team, his domestiques. No rider, however strong, can bike it alone–riders travel faster in packs and packs are perilous without support.
The Tour de France is made up of 20ish stages spread out over three and a half grueling weeks of biking up to and over 5 hours a day. There are four types of stages: flat stages, hill stages, mountain stages, and time trials. Most stages (non-time trials) follow the same pattern: riders start the day grouped in a giant clump known as the peloton. In French, peloton literally means “pack”. Many remain in this pack for the entire stage. The peloton is the motor of the race, its pace, its rhythm, an amorphous blob shifting to conform to the shape of the road, stretching and contracting as the course’s contours demand, speeding up and slowing down as teams and leaders dictate.
The science behind the dynamics of the peloton is fascinating, but I’ll leave the complex explanations to scientists. Simply put, at high speeds wind resistance becomes increasingly prominent. When surrounded, a cyclist is shielded from the wind; in particular, riding on the back wheel of another cyclist significantly reduces drag (wind resistance), the leader leaving a slipstream in his wake that effectively pulls the trailing, or “drafting” rider along. In a large group of riders, individuals take turns in front, facing the wind. All things being equal, a rider in the peloton will travel faster while using less energy than one riding alone or in a small group. Riders who are struggling cling to the back of the peloton, knowing that if they fall behind the stage is lost, and if they lose touch completely their Tour might be over. The crowded peloton can be treacherous, so team leaders and contenders–surrounded by as many domestiques as possible–often try to make their way towards its front, where the effects of crashes are limited and dangerous escape attempts can be monitored and quickly reeled in if necessary.During a typical stage, a group of cyclists–rarely yellow jersey contenders–break away from the peloton over the first climb or two to form a leading “escape” or “break-away” group. Clear of the peloton, these riders will have to work harder to maintain their speed. Over the next hour or so, more riders break from the peloton, splintering off the front to form “chase” groups. Escape and chase groups frequently consist of riders seeking some small glory for themselves and their teams, having been given license by the team director to go it alone for a stage–even if they don’t win (and they probably won’t) they get precious camera time for themselves and their team’s sponsors. Occasionally, domestiques are sent out in front of the peloton by the team director to protect their team leader, and serve as a potential aid if, later in the stage, the peloton fractures, and the leader manages to bridge the gap. Green and polka-dot jersey contenders will often join escapes to cross check points littered throughout the stage in positions that garner themselves as many points as possible. Yellow jersey contenders (there are usually only ten or fifteen riders who have any chance of winning) rarely instigate or join escapes. Leaders and their teams keep a close eye on one another, making sure nobody gains an advantage. So when a contender does break off the front of the peloton, the rest of the contenders and their teams work hard to chase down his escape group and nip it in the bud before it can truly form. If the escape does come off, it’s still a risky play–the contender may ultimately be at a disadvantage. He’ll be stranded with just a few teammates, if any, and with few riders to share the load he’ll have to work harder. Do this for too long and he’ll wear himself out–at some point over the course of the long Tour he may well feel the effects of the extra energy expended. For this reason, race leaders spend much of their time in the friendlier, if treacherous, confines of the peloton–on most stages, even they can’t do any better, which is why, after 80 hours, just a few minutes separate the champion from the pretenders. Riders in an escape only have a legitimate chance to succeed in more mountainous stages, those in which the peloton thins as its momentum is minimized–once the speed slows and rolling friction and gravity become the primary obstacles, the peloton’s advantages are diminished. But toward the end of flatter stages, the tremendous machine that is the peloton swallows up chase groups one by one, picks them off as if they are sitting still. These stages are usually won by sprinters–bigger, stronger riders who often struggle in the mountains. On level ground, they are carried along by the peloton, saving enough energy to allow their superior sprinting speed to shine through at the end. In the closing kilometers, a sprinter’s domestiques carve out space for their leader towards the front of the peloton and then peel off one-by-one in an effort to put him in position to surge from the peloton for victory in the stage’s final meters.
To me, the peloton has always seemed a little unfair, forever dashing the hopes of dreamers who dare set off on their own to put their stamp on the Tour. It gives me a hopeless, sinking feeling, watching a surging peloton as its about to catch the last remaining bikers from a breakaway, a giant predator inexorably closing in on its prey. The interval decreases until, in the final kilometers of a stage, the fresh peloton engulfs and spits the exhausted former stage leader out its back, a hard, courageous day’s work for naught.
The tour can be lost at any moment–a single stage caught behind the peloton is enough to sink a top competitor–but can only be won on 5 or 6 stages. General classification contenders make their moves high in the mountains and during time trials, when the peloton cannot carry the day. These are the stages hopefuls circle on their calendars, the stages champions emerge. In time trials, the bikers ride alone against the clock, setting off at three minute intervals with a headpiece in their ear telling them their pace and how much faster or slower they need to go. In the mountains, once the incline is too steep for too long in air that’s too thin, the peloton splinters, its diminished motor no longer strong enough to carry the bigger, weaker riders, who invariably drop from the pack of leaders and their most talented domestiques like flies. The field thins until only the best riders–shielded for most of the stage race by their domestiques–remain to play cat and mouse and attack each other at the end of the stage.
Throughout the Tour, contenders rely on their domestiques to keep them fresh, healthy, and safe. During flatter stages, domestiques shield the leader from the bodies all around him, and make sure he always has a rider directly in front of him. If the leader is having a bad day, crashes, or suffers a mechanical problem, his teammates wait and help rally him back to the peloton. And once in the mountains, the stronger domestiques shield their team leaders from the wind until they can’t anymore, leaving them to try to make time on the other contenders at the very end of a stage.In a sport that so strongly favors the masses riding in the peloton, it takes careful planning, preparation, and execution for a team leader to shine and take home the yellow or green jersey. Still, luck often plays the biggest role. One wrong move, one slip of a wheel, one stomach bug, and the Tour can be over. All of this makes for gripping viewing.
This year’s Tour has been no different. The drama began in the very first stage in England. All-time great sprinter Mark Cavendish, who has won 25 stages since 2008, was primed to win the stage and take his first yellow jersey in Harrogate, his mother’s hometown. But during the sprint, he crashed and injured himself, his Tour abruptly over. Giant-Shimano sprinter Marcel Kittel took that stage, and has taken two more since. Alexander Kristoff of Team Katusha has won two of the flatter stages himself. But both trail Cannondale’s Peter Sagan in the race for the green jersey. Sagan, the two-time defending points classification holder who many consider the most talented all-around rider in the Tour, has built up a nearly insurmountable lead despite not winning a stage. His ability to compete in both flat and hill stages–he finished in the top five of each of the first seven stages, and nine of the fifteen stages thus far–gives him a huge leg up on his competitors; his larger frame is his lone obstacle to competing in the mountains and challenging for the coveted yellow jersey.
As for that yellow jersey… the two presumptive favorites–2013 champion Chris Froome, and 2007, 2009, and 2010 (although his 2010 title was later stripped) champion Alberto Contador, have both crashed out of the Tour, as have several other contenders, including Andy Schleck and the American Andrew Talansky (Froome’s crash has many wondering whether Team Sky made a mistake leaving Wiggins off their roster). In their absence, the Italian Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, former champion of cycling’s other two Grand Tours–the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España–has taken this year’s Tour by its throat, gaining precious seconds off his rivals on the Tour’s flatter stages while dropping the hammer on them in the mountains.
Nibali enters the Tour’s final stretch as the prohibitive favorite. He’s over four minutes clear of his nearest competitors, who include Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and American Tejay Van Garderen of BMC. But as this Tour has already proven, all leads are tenuous, anything is possible, and nothing should be taken for granted. Champions are made in the Pyrenees (stages 16-18), and once again the mountains promise to be decisive.
I know I’ll be watching.