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Le Tour de France rides again

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The Tour de France starts in Britain tonight (our time), before crossing the Channel on Tuesday.

The Tour de France – it’s more than a load of blokes with their junk on display, writes Lachlan Barker, who conveys a sense of the majesty and history of this signature world event.

I first began taking an interest in The Tour in 2006, when I was unemployed and living in a rustic shack outside Bangalow in the north of NSW.

Due to lack of money, I drove my car as little as possible and instead began riding my rattletrap bike around the green hills.

With no job to go to, it also meant that I could watch the Tour de France each evening, broadcast times here on the east coast of Australia are usually about 11pm through to 2am.

At first, I just gained relaxation from watching those kilometres disappearing under the contestants’ wheels, but then I began to get a feel for the teams and their tactics, and I became an avid fan.

The purpose of this article, then, is to try to convey to the lay watcher of bike touring races, why they do what they do.

I have been asked questions along the lines of

“Why doesn’t the fastest rider just get out in front and stay there?”

Well there’s almost more answers to that question than there are letters on this page, but I’ll do my best.

The Tour de France is a bike race held each year, usually in July, around France, and often in nearby countries.

This year for instance, the first three stages are in England.

As such, it’s a marathon – not a sprint – and, like all long-distance events, either on foot or wheel, the trick is to pace yourself over the 21 stages, so you have plenty in reserve for the finish-line run into Paris.

The race covers around 3,500 kilometres each year, thus the average stage length is 166k.

Any of you who have ridden 20 kilometres in one go and had to spend the next day glued to your living room couch in stiff-legged agony, will get some feel for the energy expenditure needed for the whole three weeks.

The riders race in teams, commonly there are 22 teams, with nine riders in each.

So, the first part of tactics is team racing.

Each team will have a number one rider, the goal of the team is to get this rider into the lead. Thus, the team can usually be seen clumped together in the 100+ pack of riders as they move along.

The team members take turns to head their little team pack. By doing this, they (please excuse me for this expression) “break the wind” and thus the leader of the team can ride along in broken air behind, using less energy.

As the stage approaches its finish for the day, the team will move forward as best they can and, at the last moment, the number one man will break out of his little pack and go for the finish line, achieving the best position on the day he can.

All clear?

But of course, even that simplification is immediately complicated as follows.

The “winner” of the Tour is the leader in the General Classification, he wears the famous Yellow Jersey.

However there are other classifications, the best sprinter on the Tour wins the Green Jersey, the King of the Mountains claims the Polka-dotted Jersey.

There is also the White Jersey for Best Young Rider — or Rookie of the Year as the Americans would say.

Where things get complicated, causing various shufflings and siftouts in the pack, can occur like this.

Team A may not have the best chance in the General Classification, but they may have a good rider in the Sprint classification.

Thus, Team A will forego the chance to win the Yellow Jersey and concentrate on the Green.

So, on the stages with a flat, sprinter’s finish, Team A will move up to launch their Green Jersey sprinter over the line.

The next day, though, may be a hill-climbing day and so team A will contentedly ride along at the back of the pack and let those nuggety-legged mountain men have their head.

For this reason, sometimes loose shifting alliances between teams may form.

So Team B, with a good chance for the General Classification, but no sprinter, may team up with Team A.

They support Team A on the sprint stages and then Team A will support them on the General Classification stages.

But then Team C, also with a sprinter, will observe this alliance and form their own alliance with another team to counteract the alliance of teams A and B.

So it becomes a kind of rolling game of chess.

The leaders in any particular category watch their near rivals like a hawk and mark them closely.

If team A’s General Classification rider moves up toward the front of the pack with his team members around him, then his rivals will notice that, and likewise pull their teams forward, to stop team A getting away.

It does take some watching to start getting the hang of what they are all up to, but once a bit of time has been invested, it becomes fascinating stuff.

Of course watching from home gives no real sense of the mammoth amounts of energy being expended, but here are a few stats to try to convey what these guys can do.

The fastest ever recorded speed logged by an on-bike computer was by Norwegian rider Thor Hushovd, 110 kph.

True, it was downhill, but that's still phenomenally fast.

Do it on the freeway in your car — then imagine the same speed without the protection of your vehicle around you.

In 2013, the winner of the Tour, Chris Froome, averaged 40.5kph for the race.

On a recent ride with my friend, who had a speedometer on his bike, we rode the hills between Mullumbimby and Lismore for three hours. Our top speed of the day – downhill, of course – was 50kph; our average speed for the three hours – which nearly killed me, I might add – was 20 kph.

Uphill travel in the Tour is measured in power (watts), not speed in kph, most riders average 450 watts of power going up those heartbreaking hills. After one mountain stage last year, I went into the gym and got on the exercise bike with a computer readout and put it on the hardest setting and pumped for all I was worth. I managed 331 watts at best and could only hold that for ten seconds.

One climb in the Tour, L'Alpe d'Huez , is a heart rending struggle even for those guys.

The climb goes via the D211, from where the distance to the summit (at 1,860 m (6,102 ft)) is 13.8 km (8.6 mi), with an average gradient of 8.1%, with 21 hairpin bends and a maximum gradient of 13%.

Last year’s King of the Mountains, Nairo Quintana, climbed this monster in 39:48 min, at an average speed of 20.80 km/h. Thus, he was outputting around 450 watts the whole time.

The final stage of Le Tour is held in and around Paris. The stage begins in the fields outside Paris, then moves into town. The end of the Tour is on the Champs-Élysées, with the riders going around the Arc de Triomphe and back seven times.

This stage looks flat, but isn’t, there is a gentle gradient up one side. Still, the winner of this final stage in 2013 averaged 43.06kph for the day — and this, mark you, after three weeks of racing and three thousand odd kilometres already behind the riders.

Again, to compare, if any of us got out on a Sunday afternoon and averaged 30 kph for a stretch of flat road, that would be moving some.

Anyway, I’m sure you get the point: THESE GUYS ARE FIT!

Finally, the ultimate magnetic pull of the Tour for me is the commentary team at SBS.

Mathew Keenan is the supporting player; he is brilliantly informed, can tell you who any rider is from a flash of their number, knows what teams are doing what and can inform you of any road incident the moment it happens.

Mathew commentates on his own for the first half hour or so of the broadcast, and then hands over to the masters, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.

If Mathew is good, Paul and Phil are sublime. Witty, informed, eloquent, articulate, historically knowledgeable, you name it, they are it. They genuinely provide entertainment and knowledge.

Mathew, Paul and Phil would be yearly contenders for the Gold Medal if there was a Commentators’ Awards.

Also, part of the joy of watching The Tour is the French countryside, zipping by in the background. Green fields, vineyards, rivers spanned by elegant bridges, chateaus, ruined monasteries — you name it, even if you never take to the bike, it’s worth if for the view.

Paul and Phil, I might add, even take the time to give you a history lesson as you pass an interesting piece of French antiquity.

Finally, there is Gabriel Gaté.

No French sporting event would be complete without discussing food, and Gabriel does this superbly. Whichever region the race is passing through, he will inform you of the dish of the region and then show you how to cook it. Whether it is cheese dip from Lyonnais-Rhône Alps, or Brittany fish stew from coastal Breton, he will enthuse over it, then prepare it lovingly.

Just another symptom of SBS's ability to do more than just show a sporting event.

So, I hope this has helped. If you’re watching and see a small group of riders wearing red and black start to move to the front of the pack, your eye will swing immediately to watch another group in green to see what they’re doing. At the same time, another group in blue will catch your eye and you’ll understand why they have begin to shift into top gear.

So it’s time for the Tour everyone; start reorganising your work schedule so you can come in late — there’s a few late nights ahead of us.

Lachlan Barker blogs at cyclonecharlie88.blogspot.com.au. You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie88.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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