For me, no July is complete without partaking of the epic Tour de France.
Starting each year on the first Saturday of July, July 3rd this year, and continuing through 3 Sundays to end on the 4th Sunday of the race (July 25th) in Paris, the spectacle of 198 cyclists working in teams of 9 is, for me, a joy to behold.
The usual drama unfolds slowly, as each stage of the 21 day race is a single day race in its own right. Small groups of cyclists usually take an early lead each day, only to have the remaining larger group struggle, with varying amounts of effort and success, later in the day to catch the leaders before the end of the stage that day. Accidents, just as in NASCAR races, make for sudden, unexpected drama, that sometimes turns the entire 21-day saga on its head.
One common point of confusion about le Tour, for spectators and entrants alike, is that the entire Tour has many separate goals that a rider or team might work toward. Lowest overall time accumulated through the individual stages grants the supreme prize. There are individual prizes for winning an individual stage, being consistently near the front of most stage finishes, and being consistently near the front as the cyclists peak the variety of mountain passes along the way. There is even a team prize. No team shows up expecting to have any reasonable chance at all the prizes.
Another point of confusion are the rules for how the ranking for each prize is calculated. Points are awarded for peaking a mountain pass first, more points for tougher mountains. Points are awarded for order of finish for a stage, and some checkpoints along the way, more points for flatter finishes, designed to favor the sprinters in the race. Finishing time at each stage is calculated by group, giving all the riders in one group the same time makes for a safer finish for the cyclists interested in the overall prize. Still, the points ranking for sprinters almost always makes for a dramatic finish.
A third point of confusion is something else familiar to NASCAR fans: drafting. Cyclists draft like crazy, because the efficiency benefit for drafting versus not is around 30%, IIRC. And they are not using energy they can just refill like a gas tank, but energy they fueled up some time earlier. Cyclists eat on the go, early in a stage so they have fuel for later in the stage – later in the stage gives fuel for the next day, as does the usual high calorie dinner they will have after the day is done. And don’t get me started on the water management issues.
Back to drafting. Cyclists are most efficient at energy spent vs average velocity when they take turns in the lead, giving the others in the group a respite from the headwind. This makes for wonderful drama that is just hard to imagine without seeing it unfold with your own eyes. If a small group of cyclists approaches a flat finish ahead of the rest, the teamwork of the small group will break down as the finish nears because being in front is a disadvantage. Mind games start to get played as the group’s speed goes up and down. And the remaining cyclists are usually going full-bore to catch the small group, which adds pressure to forego the mind games if there’s to be any chance at all of an individual win. All too often, mind games cost the small group the victory that one of them could have had – sometimes only a few meters short of the finish.
There are also unwritten rules that may or may not be followed, as the situation warrants – slow down, to allow cyclists that crash time to catch up, allow cyclists to answer nature’s call or even just to say hello on the occasional circumstance that le Tour passes through the home town of some rider. Cyclists that crash out are also allowed to draft from the trail of cars that follow the race, as long as they’re using them to catch up to the main body, and only for a short time.
Oh, and about those cars. Teams usually have 1 or 2 cars that follow the race. The cars are there to provide emergency assistance in the case of a flat or other mishap. The race doctor and any team’s mechanic might be seen each day providing assistance to a rider while the cyclist is still in motion on his bike. Usually that goes well, but accidents happen there too.
So, for the next three weeks, my mornings will, except for the latter two Mondays of the race (rest days), consist of an enjoyable viewing of the 22 teams vying for the prizes they think they contend for. I will admit that some days, the drama never quite unfolds to a sufficient level to keep me wide awake – I have pepsi for that – but I will enjoy each day just the same.
Vive le Tour.