July 22, 2004

The Tour De France, a Primer

by psu

Now that we're more than two weeks into this year's race, I thought I'd write a short primer on the basics of what is going on in the race so you all can keep it in mind for next year.

I know I should have done this before, but I was busy. Sue me.

The Tour De France is a three week race organized into stages. Each stage goes from a start point to an end point. The position of the riders in the overall classification of the race is computed by the cumulative time they take to finish each stage. In addition, there are various points in the race where a rider can pick up "time bonuses" of a few seconds which reduce the total time for that rider for that stage.

There are three major types of stages:

1. Road stages: the riders all start at once and the time is measured from there until the end line.

2. Individual Time Trial: the riders start in intervals and must ride alone. The total time from the start to the end is the time for that rider for the stage.

3. Team Time Trial: the teams start in intervals, must bring five riders to the end line, and every rider gets the time of the fifth rider across the line.

Sometimes the ITT is on flat land. Sometimes it is uphill (like yesterday's stage).

The leader of the overall wears the Yellow Jersey so you can pick him out easily. In addition, there are several sub-races going on for other jersies:

1. The Green Jersey: this is given out to the rider who gets the most "sprint points". You get these by finishing each stage close to the front and also at various intermediate towns in flat stages. Generally sprinters go after this jersey.

2. The Polka-dot Jersey: this is given to the rider with the most "mountain points". You get these by being the first over the hills.

3. White Jersey: best time for a young rider.

That's basically it. To make sense of each stage, you have to know what the goals of the teams are and some basics about tactics. Day by day, the main things you need to understand about bike racing tactics can be summed up in two sentences:

- You do less work drafting.

- It's hard to chase people down alone.

Examples: When the long breakaway gets caught at the end for the bunch sprint, it's because the big group could share the work in the wind better than the small breakaway. Similarly, if you have two people on the same team in a break, they can trade turns jumping off the front of the group and forcing the group to chase them down. This gets the group tired, giving the pair on the same team a better chance to win. Note that in an earlier stage of this year's race, the Euskatel team completely botched this tactic when they had two guys in the final break and let victory slip away from them.

If you keep these things in mind, and watch what Lance Armstrong's team does, you'll note that they have been almost perfect tactically:

- Over the flat roads, they protect Lance and keep him near the front and always behind someone else doing the work. He doesn't have to waste any more energy than necessary to get to the end of the day.

- Over the mountains, they keep riders with him in every important group over all the big hills until he rides alone to victory at the end. Lance was never alone and therefore never at a disadvantage.

- They completely dominated the team time trial.

Now, to win the race, Lance still has to be among the best climbers in the race and among the best time trial riders in the race, but having the awesome team around him certainly makes his job easier.

Next time: another short bit on what goes on in the various stages day by day.

Posted by psu at July 22, 2004 10:00 AM | Bookmark This

A few minor points/corrections:

The green jersey usually isn't won by someone staying in front consistently. It's won by the actual sprinters, whose teams do the pace-setting on the flat stages to chase down the breakaways, allowing their star sprinters to fight it out to the finish line in what's called a "field sprint." After the first week, there are very few sprint points as the race goes into the mountains, and even the finishing line sprint points don't matter because *none* of the fast guys can hang with the climbers for long enough to cross in the first 10 positions.

The second basic strategy is really a corollary of the first. Since larger groups are able to take turns drafting, they have a greater chance of success breaking away. A one man breakaway is very uncommon, and usually only happens on the mountain stages where aerodynamics aren't as important.

Another core factor is the incredibly dangerous first week. This year's Tour highlighted just about every way the first week can be treacherous. Since the first week is always fairly flat, the stages usually end in a peloton finish, as the sprinters' teams chase down the breakaways. As a result, the times in the General Classification are very close, and it's possible for anyone to wear the yellow by simply having a good day. Since the peloton is so fast in this first week, crashes are frequent -- and sometimes the crashes are even caused by people jostling around to get to the front in order to avoid crashes, like what happened leading to the narrow cobblestone streets a week ago. This year had a lot of big crashes, and major contenders were taken out of the race due to bad luck in where they were positioned. All of this leads to a lot of tension between riders and even more jostling for position.

One more tactic that USPS used flawlessly was in giving away the yellow jersey. Lance rode in yellow after his team dominated the TTT, but they didn't want to bear the burden of riding in front all the time and chasing down breakaways to keep in yellow. Instead, they allowed a large breakaway with more or less unimportant riders to cross the line more than 10 minutes ahead of the peloton, thus ensuring that the lead rider in the breakaway would wear yellow until they reached the mountains.

I know you know all this, but I thought some of these little points might benefit the audience. Hope I didn't spoil anything you were going to talk about next time.

Posted by Joel at July 21, 2004 11:38 PM

Nice clarifications. I was trying to keep the piece short, so my description of the jersies was a bit oversimplified.

Posted by psu at July 22, 2004 06:33 AM

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