Hello Planetary Pals,
For the past few weeks the biggest race in cycling has been taking place. This year’s race is 3500 kilometers and takes place over the course of three weeks. Now, midway through July, the race is nearing it’s end. The Tour is a lot more complex than most people realize and there are many subtleties in it that can be difficult for newcomers to understand. These factors are critical to making the race what it is, turning a mere hobby into a sport. In this blog post I hope to explain some of the core features of road racing.
The course changes every year, and each year visits different regions and cities throughout France. The course must have balance, and there are days that are relatively flat and other days that are spent climbing and descending mountains. The race also has, on occasion, taken detours into other nations besides France. In this years race, they have visited the mountainous microstate of Andorra, while in races past they have been toured parts of Italy, Spain, Germany, and Ireland amongst others. One thing that always remains constant in the race schedule is that the final day always takes place in a race to Paris, a race to the iconic Champs–Élysées in the heart of the city.
Each stage in the race is long and arduous, with stages usually lasting 4 hours while riding anywhere from 150 to 250 kilometers. On flat stages, riders average roughly 40 kph, climbing mountains roughly at 22 kph, descend mountains at over 100 kph, and sprints to the finish line regularly reach 70 kph. As such, the sport has evolved to feature some peculiarities that may seem odd to people unfamiliar with the race. Riders are not riding on their own, nor do they ride in teams based on nationality (as opposed to how the Olympics work, for instance). Instead, teams of eight riders are curated usually with one or two contenders and filled out with support riders. The riders will ride in a straight line one behind the other in what is known as a drafting formation. The lead rider, usually a support team member, will face the the brunt of the wind and air friction, while the riders behind them will not, allowing them to conserve energy. This allows the riders in the back to save their energy and power for when it matters most, in sprints to checkpoints or to the finish line.
Drafting takes place not only on a team level but also in two other key areas. The large majority of riders ride in a large pack called the Peloton. This is drafting on a much larger scale and allows riders to conserve their energy on an off day where they do not plan on winning/contending.
Besides the peloton, there are usually a few breakaway groups. Small groups of riders, usually 4-15 of them, have goals of winning each stage, so they launch ahead and ride far ahead of the peloton. They must work together, drafting off one another over the course of a stage until it is time for them to sprint to a checkpoint or a finish line. However, because they are cruising at much higher speeds through the long race, they sometimes run out of energy and are caught by the peloton, essentially squandering the hard work they did for hours. For this reason, riders must carefully choose when they want to break away.
Throughout the course of the race, the rider with the fastest time is considered in the lead. This rider has the privilege of wearing the famous yellow jersey, a very prestigious award for leading the race at any point. Of course, at the very end of the race in Paris, whoever has the fastest time, will win the Tour de France. Winners typically are good on both flat stages and mountainous stages (versus, say, a rider who finishes near the lead on mountainous stages, but finishes very far behind on flat stages and vice-versa). One does not even need to win many stages, but just be consistently near the top.
However, there are other races within the race that help keep things interesting, and the winners of these classifications are no less prestigious. Throughout an individual stage, there are various checkpoints that riders can sprint for. These checkpoints, and the finish line itself reward points to the riders who cross first. The leader of this points classification wears the green jersey. There is the King of the Mountains competition within the race. In mountainous stages, there are checkpoints at the top of hills that skilled climbers can ride for. Riders get KotM points for getting to the top of the mountain first. Whoever wins this competition wears the Polka Dot Jersey. There is also a Young Rider classification that ranks the fastest rider who is 25 years old or younger.
There are a few things that I like about watching road cycling. First, it is a very good background video to have on while working, unlike other sports that are constant action that demand your attention constantly. Second, it’s cool to see the beautiful sights all around the country. Lastly, it motivates me to continue biking. Since I’ve been out of quarantine, I’ve tried to bike as much as I can. I’m back to doing 30 mile bike rides a few times a week, and I’m consistently getting faster and stronger (Though the tour de London is noticeably more boring).