WHAT IS TOUR DE FRANCE?

Cycling has never been a popular sport in India and doesn’t seem like it would become one in the immediate future. Traditionally, Indian’s have always been skewed more towards sporting activities like Hockey, Kabaddi and Cricket which is now become a religion in almost every household. But the scenario is fast changing with cycling as a sport finding acceptance. The trigger being entry of notable cycling brands in the country, increase in number of cycling events held each year and more importantly rise in people participation. Technology is also helping people to establish communication across local groups and create awareness.

The cycling bug is quietly catching up amongst the millennials and the middle-aged groups who are fascinated to explore, compete and test the roads on a bicycle. I can easily classify myself as one of those affected by this captivating sport and this blog site is a natural evidence to it. However, i am not too serious about competitive cycling and more focused on leisure rides and using it for commuting. And more importantly, cycling advocacy also remains a matter of interest for me.

Having promoted my blogs and actively posting on social media platforms, i realized that the internet world is following me, especially the cycling fraternity. I actually mean the brands trading into cycles and related products, and companies who are into health and fitness space as they find some potential in targeting my social accounts. So more recently, i observed a lot of feeds about a major cycling event on my twitter handle pedalandtringtring. The Social chatter amongst the internet community and the buzz was about the ‘Tour de France 2019 route’. I made an attempt to follow the presentation live on facebook but it was all in French. Little disappointed. With my curiosity to know more about this grand event, i decided to do a little study on What is Tour de France? or Le Tour – in French. Because i felt maybe there are more souls out there with limited or no knowledge of it like me and can benefit out of this article. So let’s pedal together and discover the trail of Tour de France.

Introduction: The Tour de France is an annual multiple stage cycling race primarily held in France with occasional passages through nearby countries. Conducted over 3 weeks in july, it’s a gruelling test of human endurance covering approximately 3500 kms and stretched over 21 stages over multiple types of terrains.

Early days: The race history dates back to 1903, when Geo L’ efere a 26 year old cycling journalist for the daily sports newspaper L’ Auto suggested the idea of a bicycle race to his editor Henri Desgrange to promote his paper and boost circulation. Henri got impressed with his suggestion and the inaugural race was held over 19 days from july 1st to the 19th. The event attracted 60 competitors who each shared a prize money of 20,000 francs, 6075 of which went to the winner Maurice Garin. Lucien Pothier was the 1st Runner-up while Arsene Millocheau secured the 3rd place. Out of 60 riders, only 21 could reach the finish line. And it is said that the race was more gruelling in those times compared to its modern day version.

Competition: Competitors pedaled the dirt roads of France through day and night on fixed geared bikes evading human blocades, cars and nails placed on roads by fans of other riders. The first tour was open to whoever wanted to compete. Most riders were organised according to the bicycle brands who looked after them. The private entrants were called ‘touriste-routiers’ which means ‘tourists on the road’. Some of the tours more colorful characters have been tourist-routiers. There was no place for individuals in the posts 1930’s tours and the original tourist-routiers mostly disappeared while some others were absorbed into original cycling teams created by Henri Desgrange.

Format: The modern edition of the Tour de France consists of 21 day long stages held over 23 day period (2 days of rest in between). The format of the race stays the same every year and only the route changes. The final winner of the tour is always the cyclist who manages the lowest cumulative time across 3 different types of stage categories.

Stages: Time trials where the cyclist competes individually against the clock using an aerodynamic bike and gear. Flat stages usually high speed sections across the french countryside and 3rd one is the Mountain stages, which mostly takes place in the Pyrenees and Alps and makes it the hardest part of the tour. All other stages are timed to the finish with riders finishing time compounded with their previous stage times. The rider with the lowest aggregate time becomes the leader of the race and gets to wear the much desired yellow jersey. Although the holder of the yellow jersey can change throughout the race depending on who is leading at the end of each stage, the ultimate winner is the rider who is awarded the yellow jersey at the conclusion of the final stage of the race. As a tradition since 1975, the race ends on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

Jerseys: Why a yellow jersey? The original L’ Auto newspaper was published in a distinctive yellow shade and so was a way to promote the paper in the early days of the race history. The yellow jersey is also known as ‘maillot jaune’. The yellow jersey garners the most attention as it is awarded to the winner of the overall classification.

There are other classifications also in the tour and most have their own distinctive jerseys. The green jersey – ‘maillot vert’ represents the races best sprinter. The polka dot jersey designates the races finest climber. The white jersey designates the highest ranked rider in the overall competition aged 25 or younger.

Peloton: Together all the riders with their different jersey’s form a kaleidoscope of moving color on wheels called the ‘Peloton’. And it is the image of the Peloton moving from the picturesque French countryside and mountainous regions that makes Tour de France one of the most spectacular sports in the world.

Cycling Strategy: Besides offering a glorious visual imagery, the peloton serves a very important purpose of conserving riders energy. This is because the peloton reduces drag by shifting shape to exploit tailwinds, fight headwinds and cope with crosswinds – a strategy known as drafting. Riding in the middle of well developed groups of peloton, a cyclist can save upto 40% of energy expenditure. But one cannot simply win the Tour de France or get to wear one of the coveted jerseys by simply riding along in the peloton. At some point riders must break away from the pack if they wish to improve their overall standings in the race.

When the group breaks away the drafting strategy changes resulting in what is know as a double-paced line. This is where team strategy can come into play, for example if the break away consists of riders largely from the same team and not a threat to each other then they can work effectively to distance themselves from the peloton and rival competitors. However if the break away consists of a rider from the rival team or threat in the overall standings then riders may work to slow them down or hinder them.

Team Work: Whilst the Tour de France is an individual event in the sense everyman pushes it own pedals to get around the course, the riders individual triumph at least to some degree is a result of selfless teammates. It’s rare for a cyclist to win a stage without acknowledging team mates who put him in a position to ride to triumph. Team members are not in the frame for major awards known as ‘Les Domestiques’ who do the donkey work that enables their leader to thrive or sometimes simply to survive. Their roles may vary from fetching refreshments from support vans to riding in the front of the peloton for hours;  or to even return back to assist a teammate who has left behind during the climbing stage and get him forward.

Fitness: A contender who slips away from all of his teammates in the mountain climb becomes vulnerable and can fall into a position known as cracking. ‘Cracking’ happens when a rider becomes completely exhausted and simply has no strength to carry on. Many potential riders have lost the Tour de France as a result of cracking mainly on the mountain stages. Scenes of riders competing and attempting to outdo each other while climbing mountains makes it the most exciting part of the tour.

And at the end of race stages which can last to 4 to 6 hours, cyclist are required to overcome severe mental and physical fatigue. The riders maintain speeds of more than 60 kms an hour for the last 5 to 10 kms of racing and accelerating to the speeds of 75 to 80 kms an hour towards the finish line. Hence, it goes without saying  that you have to be supremely fit to compete in the Tour de France.

Challenges: But aside from being a supreme athlete and having to overcome the physical  and mental challenges of the race as well as having a good team behind you, you also need some luck and nerves of steel as there are many hazards that can reduce a riders dream of winning the tour and turning into a nightmare. For example, battling with the other 200 odd riders in the race can often result in massive pile ups (it’s a situation where riders crash over one another). Other challenges being the weather conditions – rain, hail, snow and at times blistering heat that can cause dehydration and fatigue. Finally with 12 to 15 million spectators who line up to witness the Tour de France some of them at times get over enthusiastic causing an interruption for the riders.

Recognition: So with all of the above and growing euphoria amongst the fans, many experts have rated Tour de France as the toughest event across all other sporting events in the world. Likewise, it’s also called as one of the most amazing and spectacular sporting events in the world.

 


 

Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai

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