As the Tour de France enters the final stretch this week after kicking off on July 1, an opportunity presents itself for most Americans, who are unfamiliar with the specifics of this incredible sporting event, to join the large global following of this annual sport that is broadcast in 10 countries to billions of people worldwide — second only to the Olympic Games.
The Tour de France consists of 21 stages over 23 days covering 2,185 miles, the distance from Dexter to Oregon. The route changes every year, but the format remains the same – the cyclist with the lowest cumulative time overall wins.
Much more than simply toodling about the French countryside on a bike, the Tour is about physical endurance, mental toughness, and team dynamics over varied terrain. There are flat stages that showcase speed, mountain stages which push a cyclist to the limits of human endurance, and time trials where riders compete individually without the aid of their team.
Cracking is when the rider figuratively hits a wall. Stored glycogen energy reserves are depleted and cyclists experience dizziness, elevated heart rate, burning lungs, and heavy legs. The most intense moments of the Tour are when two riders fight for the lead in a one-on- one battle each mercilessly trying to force the other to crack.
The yellow jersey is worn by the current leader. If the lead changes, so does the yellow jersey. There are other contests within the Tour as well: The green jersey is for the best sprinter. The polka dot jersey is for the best climber. The white climber goes to the rider under age 25 with the best overall time.
Riding in a large group, or peloton, is advantageous in that it reduces drag by shifting its shape according to conditions – tail wind, head wind, cross wind or no wind – a strategy known as drafting. Riding in the middle or back of the peloton can save a rider 40% of energy expenditure. This is how team leaders conserve energy for a strong finish.
A cyclist cannot win the Tour by simply riding along in the peloton. Strategies are employed to gain advantages over other riders. The most visible strategy is the breakaway where members of different teams race ahead. There are numerous reasons for breaking away from the safety of the peloton.
A cyclist could breakaway to attack, or gain time on, the overall lead. A rider posing no threat to the overall lead may breakaway just to gain some camera time for their sponsors. Alliances between members of different teams are made in a breakaway to support each other in their efforts to stay ahead of the peloton beast. With alliances come betrayals as riders suddenly turn on each other in their efforts.
The climax of competitive drama in the Tour comes when the peloton decides whether or not to chase down the roguebreakaway. Because of drafting, a large group can ride faster than a small group and it turns into a thrilling predator running down its prey scenario.
The Tour is a selfless sport for team members for the sake of their Team Leader, the strongest rider designated to post the best time and possibly win. Team members will expend their energy drafting their leader, running down breakaways threatening his lead, carrying food and water, and even giving him their bike if needed.
It takes nerves of steel as cyclists ride mere centimeters from each other in varied terrain and weather conditions with speeds on descents in excess of 60 mph. The Tour de France is a contest of will, endurance, and mental toughness.
How the average avid rider compares to a professional Tour de France rider:
Average length of ride:
Avid rider: 23 miles
Professional: 104 miles
Average time of ride:
Avid rider: 1:30:00
Drinks per ride:
Avid rider: 1-2
Nutrition per ride:
Avid rider: 1-3
Power output in 5 second sprint finish:
Avid rider: 600-800 watts
Professional: 1200-1400 watts
Average speed for a 23 mile time trial:
Avid rider: 18-20 mph
Professional: 29-31 mph
Average speed in a 120-mile flat stage:
Avid rider: 14-16 mph
Professional: 25-28 mph
Climbing Le Mont Ventoux, 14 mi, 1014 ft:
Avid rider: 1 hr 53 min
Professional: 58 min
Sit back and think about the differences in those stats. It would be a good starting point for appreciating how truly incredible a sport cycling is and how remarkable its athletes are, and then tune in throughout the week to follow the last leg of the event as the action reaches its climax and a this year’s global cycling champions make themselves known.
Doug Marrin covers education, business, and lifestyles reporting for WeLoveDexter.com, while occasionally blogging about the outdoors and religion from local perspectives. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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