I’m fairly new to watching bicycle racing. Last summer for the first time, I watched almost every stage of the Tour de France. I found it fascinating and exhilarating to watch. Turns out that bike racing is the ultimate athletic event. It’s come a long way from the days when riders smoked cigarettes during the race, thinking that it improved their performance. In other team sports such as football or baseball, the players are only in the game part of the time, and some team members never play. Teams that have offense and defense allow half of their players to sit around and rest and drink Gatorade while the other group is up. Not so with bike racing. The entire team is working hard throughout the whole event. This requires a level of athletic ability that is seldom seen in other sports. These bike guys are all lean muscle mass, with cardiovascular fitness well beyond what most athletes can ever hope to achieve. No linemen with sloppy waistlines and big guts in this group. They’re not bad to look at either. Young – most are under 35, although there’s a few “elderly” guys such as Lance in their late thirties to early forties, which is considered old for professional bike racing. So good looks aside, why is it so fascinating to watch young muscular hotties careen around at impossible speeds on bikes? I don’t claim to be an expert but I can offer a beginner’s guide to all things de Tour.
The teams: Teams consist of nine riders, and are sponsored by companies or countries. Don’t expect to see national loyalties though – riders on a team are often a mix of nationalities. The team’s goal is to help their “star” rider to win. For instance the guys who rode with Lance the seven times he won, had no hope of ever winning the Tour themselves. Their jobs was to do everything in their power to help Lance win, and hope that when he retired (will this guy ever retire?) that they would get a chance to be the star.
The strategy: How does a team help their star win? The non-star team members do everything from drafting/pulling, pacing, blocking, to getting water bottles and snacks. When the star is lagging and needs a break, another teammate will ride in front of him. The second rider “drafts” off the first by riding close to the first rider’s back wheel. In that way, the second rider gets part of the pull off the leader’s back wheel and has an easier time riding. (You could try this yourself sometime and you’ll see it works. But be careful – if your wheels touch, you’ll both go down! It takes a lot of skill and practice to draft effectively without crashing.) Pacing is another way of helping the star by setting the pace the star needs to catch up, and offering encouragement along the way. These guys don’t stop to eat or drink – the non-star team members get water bottles and energy food from the support car, and hand them out to the star, so he doesn’t have to slow down to get it himself.
The gear: These guys are not riding Huffys. Each bike costs thousands of dollars, and every team member has more than one bike. You’ll notice that each team has a support car, carrying a back-up bike for each guy on the team. If any problems arise with a rider’s bike, the support guys have the new bike off the car and ready to go in seconds. There’s plenty of money in the gear they’re wearing too. These guys are wearing lightweight carbon fiber bike shoes that cost hundreds of dollars, high-end sunglasses (Oakley anybody?) and the best in clothes, helmets, monitors and accessories. Each rider has a radio earpiece to hear communication from the team coach. They can’t talk to each other, but the coach keeps a running commentary on what is happening to the team, who needs help and so on. If a rider needs anything from a band-aid to a water bottle, he raises his hand and his support car will pull up to find out what he needs. Speaking of water bottles – when they’re empty the riders cast them aside (for delighted fans to pick up) – no recycling or reusing for these guys.
The race: The route varies each year but this year consists of a prologue, time trial, and 20 stages. Riders accumulate points for their times that add up at the end to determine the winner. The overall winner does not have to win every stage to get enough points to win – they win by accumulating more points in their strong areas. The different stages allow the other team members to shine – they might not be able to win overall, but if they’re good at climbing or sprints, they can win the stage that features their strong area. These guys are not just out for a Sunday ride – the TV coverage will show their speed at the bottom of the screen, which is frequently over 30 mph. Going downhill is fraught with pitfalls – they may achieve speeds of 50-60 mph while navigating steep slopes and curves. Sometimes adoring fans (or dogs!) are in the way, and as we’ve seen already this year, if one rider crashes, many others go down with them.
The riders: You’ll usually see a few riders out front, which is called the breakaway, followed by the rest of the pack, aka the peloton. If a second breakaway group splits off behind the first, they’re called the chase.
The drama: As in any sport there’s politics, backbiting, and betrayal. (Remember Floyd Landis?) A good way to catch up on the behind the scenes drama is to watch the TV coverage and check the web site and interview clips. Many riders have Twitter feeds as well.
The jerseys: We all know the overall leader gets “the yellow jersey.” There’s other jerseys too. The green jersey for the highest sprint points, white jersey for the best young rider, and the polka dot jersey for the best climber, aka King of the Mountain.
So don’t be left out. Check out the Tour coverage on your local TV or web, then dust off your Huffy and join the fun. There’s nothing like being out riding your bike during the Tour and imaging yourself wearing the yellow jersey.
(Special thanks to bicycling guru Pete for teaching me so much about The Tour!)