Friday 24 June 2011

Tour de France for beginners

It's that time of year again for us cyclists when the biggest event on the cycling calendar, the Tour de France, is just around the corner and we're going round like kids in the run-up to Christmas all over-excited. Friends from the non-cycling fraternity don't get what it's all about, so we try to help them out - after all, the only reason they're not interested in cycling is because they haven't realised how interesting it is yet, right? - by telling them all about it. Save yourself the time and effort by printing this handy guide to Tour tactics and forcing them to read it.

Now, this Tour de France, it's a load of blokes on bikes racing around France, right? Therefore, all you need to do is be the fastest, right?

Ah, well, you see, it's a little bit more complicated than that. First off, the Tour lasts for 21 days and covers 3450.5km (this year - there've been much longer Tours). Nobody can be the fastest for that long. Not only do we all have off days, if you ride hell for leather for a certain number of days you're going to start feeling tired sooner or later and then someone else, having been taking it easy for several days, is going to leave you standing. What's more, if you try to lead the race the riders behind you will be in your slipstream which means they'll use less energy and you and, as soon as you get tired, they'll overtake you. Then you've got crashes and bike faults to take into account, and your speciality - although there are roleurs (all-rounders), no roleur can beat a sprinter on a good day in a sprint, nor a grimpeur (climber) up a hill. On the other hand, yeah: being the fastest is what counts. Your time taken for each day's stage is recorded and then added up - if you can do it in the shortest time, you've won it.

What's all this points business I keep hearing about got to do with it then?

Being the fastest to the finish only wins you the General Classification title. Points are awarded for various things, such being the fastest through sprint sections or winning stages - in flat stages, 35 points for 1st, 2nd gets 30, 3rd gets 26 and the following riders are awarded various numbers of points right down to 25th who gets 1 point, but this changes on intermediate, mountain and time trial stages. So, you can win on points even if someone else finishes the race before you do so long as you've ridden well throughout the race, as was the case last year when Alberto Contador won the General Classification (his total time was 91h 58' 48") but Alessandro Petacchi won on points with 243 (Contador was 11th on points with 115, Pettachi was 150th on time, crossing the line 3h 44' 38" after Contador). Hence, the points competition is sometimes termed the sprinter's competition.

There's also the points awarded for being the quickest up the mountains, this being known as the Climber Competition, Grimpeur Competition or King of the Mountains - however, since sprinters and climbers are entirely different beasts, they're kept separate from spring and stage win points and added up to decide the King of the Mountains. Some races favour sprinters and so the winner of the Points competition will usually be near the top of the General Classification. Others - like the Tour - favour climbers, so the eventual King of the Mountains will usually do well in the General Classification: in 2010, Contador was 4th among the climbers and Andy Schleck - who took 2nd in the General Classification just behind him - was third. There's a separate category for Young Riders (under 26) too - Schleck won that one last year. And in 2009. And 2008. Oh, and there's an award for Combativity, given to rider who "most animates" a stage by trying to accelerate away from the peloton, chasing down anyone else who attempts to do so and following after leading riders so they have to go faster and tire themselves out (known as attacking). The rider judged to have most animated the overall Tour is awarded the Super Combativity prize. To decide the winning team, the overall times recorded by the three fastest members are combined and the team with the lowest total wins.

Oh, so that explains the jerseys too, does it?

Yeah, that's the one. The fastest rider for each stage wears the yellow jersey on the next day's stage, the fastest sprinter wears a green jersey, the King of the Mountains wears a white jersey with red polka dots and the best young rider wears a white jersey (which sometimes confuses older fans because up until 1975 the white jersey was worn by the rider with the best combination result, ie in the General, Points and Climbs competition. The last Combativity winner can be spotted by having a white number on a red background and members of the leading team by their black numbers on a yellow background.

There used to be two other jerseys, too. The first was the red jersey, awarded to the winner of intermediate sprints - however, as these also contributed points towards the green jersey, it was decided that the red jersey was redundant and it hasn't been awarded since 1989. Then there was the Combination classification that we've already mentioned, for those with the best combined result in the other classifications. When the white jersey changed to the best young rider, the combination award disappeared for a few years up until 1980. It then vanished again in 1983 and 1984 before showing up again in 1985 with a combination jersey featuring elements of all the rest to go with it. It was last worn in 1988 and hasn't been seen since. This may be at least partially because the jersey was so ugly it had actually become illegal.

But what's the Lanterne Rouge?

Oh, now this where cycling is different to other sports, in its celebration of the loser. How many football fans can tell you which team scored the lowest points in the World Cup? Not many, if any. But anyone who has been following the Tour de France knows who the Lanterne Rouge is.

The name means the Red Lantern, as you'll probably have worked out for yourself if you paid any attention in French at school and it's derived not as many people believe from the red rear light of a bicycle but from the red lantern once hung on the last carriage or wagon of a train. Conductors at stations and operators at level crossings would watch out for the red lantern as a train passed and, if they didn't see one, would raise the alarm that one of the couplings had come undone and there was a wagon left on the track somewhere.

The Lanterne Rouge became so celebrated that he would often receive offers of sponsorship from cycle companies and one who was skilled at milking it could make more money from giving speechs and opening public events than the General Classification winner would take home after the race. This led slower riders to actually compete for last place, which didn't impress Tour organisers one bit because they wanted the race to encourage excellence, so new rules were introduced stating that the last rider across the line in stages 14 and 20 would be disqualified.

Incidentally, there have been no British winners of the Tour, but we've managed two Lanternes Rouge - Tony Hoar in 1955 and and John Clarey in 1968. Belgian Wim Vansevenant managed it three times in 2006, 2007, 2008 - an achievement unlikely to be repeated since Lanternes Rouge are not usually retained on the team.

How about domestiques?

There's a sucky job if ever there was one. Domestiques - the word is French for "servants" - exist only to look after and protect their team's top man and provide for his every need, and they're expected to do whatever is required of them. This can be anything from waiting if he gets a puncture and then taking it in turns to get him back to the main group by riding in front of him so he can ride in their slipstream, riding to and from the food stations and team cars to bring back bidons and musettes, forming a protective wall about him in the peloton so that if it turns rough they'll take the knocks instead of him and even giving him their bikes should his develop a problem. With the exception of an elite few super domestiques who would be in with a chance of winning the tour but instead serve a rider with a better chance, few have even the slightest probability of ever winning a stage, nevermind a Tour. However, for the vast majority of professional cyclists riding as a domestique is the only chance they'll ever get to ride in a Tour.

Where does it start?

Depends - since the start changes every year. This year, it'll be at the Passage du Gois in the Pays-de-la-Loire, a causeway which is underwater twice in every 24 hours. The Passage was used in the 1999 Tour and caused an accident because of its slippery, algae-covered surface so expect more drama this year. Usually, the first stage of a Tour is an individual time trial, but this year it's a normal stage.

Where does it end?

Since 1975, every Tour has ended at the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The stage ends with between six and eight circuits and an insanely fast sprint to the end.

Can women take part?

Not in the Tour de France, I'm afraid. Up until 2009 there was a Tour de France Féminin, but following years of organisational difficulties caused by lack of sponsors, it was discontinued in 2010.

I hear it's been going on for a while now.

It has, since 1903 in fact. This year's race will be the 98th, because it wasn't held during the First and Second World wars. Even Tour organisers consider holding a race through a war zone to be a bit more than they can reasonably ask of riders. Every Tour is a party, so expect something major in 2013 for the centenary.

One thing I've always wondered about - if it's called the Tour de France, why do I keep hearing about bits of it going through Switzerland, Belgium and so on?

Of all the Tours, only the first three took place entirely within French borders - since then, it's been a tradition that at least one stage, or section of a stage, visits a foreign country. In 1906 it was Alsace-Lorraine, then part of Germany. Since then., three Tours have started in Germany and many other nations have seen some of the action including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

They're all on drugs, right?

Touchy subject, that one. There certainly have been some serious problems in cycling due to doping and around 2005-2006 it certainly did seem as though they were all at it. Since then, cycling's governing body - the UCI - and other organisations have made great efforts to prevent it. All riders are tested, during races and throughout the year, for doping and several effective new tests have been developed to combat the problem - it's arguable now if anyone who cheats will get away with it, and if they do it'll only be for a matter of time before they get caught, banned and stripped of their titles. The trouble is, sponsors don't want to be associated with a team known to use drugs and since it costs around 10 million euros to enter the Grand Tours - those being the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, teams need that financial support. As a result, it's in the teams' interests to stamp out doping and they all work with the UCI. There are many riders who have never been shown to use performance-enhancing drugs, including some of the best cyclists in the world. Nowadays, you can assume that this means they probably don't use them.

Can anyone enter?

No. In fact, not many people would even be capable of completing the route. First off, you'll need to be good enough to be selected as a member of a UCI ProTeam and for that you need to be damn good. Then, that team needs to be selected by the Tour organisers, for which the whole team needs to be damn good. Then, you'll need to be picked by the team, for which you'll need to be one of the best in the team - and even then, you'll be a domestique unless you're the best in the team. Then comes the tricky part - riding several thousand kilometres around France at high speed for 21 days.

I watched a bit of the Tour on the telly when I came home from the pub one night and there was this bloke dressed as the devil running up the side of the road. WTF?

Oh, that's Didi Senft. He's a 59-year-old German "character" who has appeared among the crowd during every Tour since 1993. He's invented more than a hundred unusual bikes and holds the World Record for the largest transportable guitar, among other achievements. Eccentrics have always been attracted to the Tour and most of them are unpopular with the riders because some of them are a bit too strange and try to get into the road, which slows everyone down and causes accidents. However, Didi has become an unofficial mascot of sorts and is well-liked by cyclists and fans - so much so that he receives small amounts of sponsorship money from various cycling firms. Various "Devil Sightings" websites spring up whenever the Tour (and Giro d'Italia, at which he also appears) is on - to be in with a better chance of seeing him, look out for enormous tridents painted on the road. If you see one, he's somewhere nearby. A couple of years back there was also a man with antlers on his head who would run up the road carrying a huge US flag and who looked set to become almost as iconic as the Devil, but he didn't seem to be about in 2010 - there were a few blokes in mankinis on the mountain stages though.

That reminds me, what's with the paint on the roads?

Another Tour tradition, though it may have started at another race - nobody knows for certain when, where or by whom. The one thing we can be certain about is that it's one of the most noticeable aspects of the Tour and popular among spectators who use it to convey encouragement to the riders, point suspicion at anyone they think may be cheating or just to get their name on television. Often, it's semi-legible scrawling, but good examples are almost art. Of course, it's technically illegal, but is overlooked in the spirit of the event - except in Switzerland, where Didi Senft was fined and forced to remove his painted tridents by police.

What are mass start and time trial stages?

In a mass start, all riders set off together as one large group. The first few kilometres, known as départ fictif, are not raced so as to avoid the enormous pile-up that would result if all the riders shot off at high speed - this allows the field to spread out a bit before they reach the départ réel, marked by a white flag, at which point the racing begins.

There are two types of time trial - individual and team. In an individual time trial, each rider must complete a set course in as little time as possible which has given rise to highly specialised bikes designed with speed and aerodynamics in mind and no concessions to comfort as would be the case with bikes intended for the long stages. The rider who achieves the shortest time wins.

In a team time trial, individual teams set off in relay at increments of two minutes - in most events, the order is random but in the Tour the slowest teams go first. As different riders on a team will have different levels of fitness and different specialities, organising a time trial team has become a very intricate process. Riders are allowed to slipstream one another, which can be used to increase average speed dramatically and team bosses devote a lot of time and effort to making sure the strongest rider spends enough time at the front to keep the others up to speed while also giving him sufficient time behind the leader to recover. A rider who takes more time to recover will spend more time behind the leader than one who recovers quickly and so on.

What's a breakaway?

That's when an individual rider or group of riders - not necessarily on the same team - accelerate away from the main group. There are a number of reasons for doing this. Often, a fast domestique will be ordered to start a breakaway by the team leader if he's feeling especially fit so that other riders will tire more quickly. Sometimes, a team leader will do it just because he can. Other times, lesser-known riders will do it just to show off and get noticed. The longest breakaway in Tour history was by Albert Bourlon who broke away from the group in Stage 14 of the 1947 race and stayed ahead of them for 253km.

Once, I watched the end of a stage and several riders crossed the finish line in a group. Even though there was obviously a first and a last one over, they were all given the same time. Why was that?

If riders cross the finish line like that, they're all recorded as having completed in the same time to discourage sprints in the final kilometre, which can lead to carnage. If a rider crashes in the final three kilometres, he'll be awarded the same time as the group with which he was riding at the point when he crashed if it's better than his predicted time so as not to penalise sprinters who may have performed well earlier in the stage. If there's a pile up in the last kilometre, all riders behind the crash will be awarded the same time. These rules don't apply in time trials or summit finishes (when the stage finishes at the summit of a categorised climb).

Any other questions?

Yes - are you going to watch the football tonight?

The what?

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