With seemingly everyone now a cycling fan, you no doubt getting a ton of questions from non-cycling mates: Why isn’t the bloke at the front in the lead? How can someone win without winning a stage? When do they go to the loo?
In 2009 we asked Tim Moore, best-selling author of Gironimo, to provide some answers. Some of the details have obviously moved on, but we reckon they're just as relevant five years on…
There are few things more dispiriting for the Tour de France enthusiast than a six-hour Eurosport vigil spent in the company of a curious novice. As the riders roll away from the start you’re fired with evangelical zeal, determined to school them in the event’s arcane ways, to bring fresh blood into the Tour-watching fellowship. But the ambitious scale of this challenge makes itself quickly apparent: a minute in and you’re explaining that the stage hasn’t actually begun yet, and won’t until the race director waves a white flag out of the window of his red car a few km up the road.
Every time that you try to make sense of what’s happening, it comes out sounding like that 'rules-of-cricket' tea-towel so beloved of tourists. You know the one: "Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in, and the next man goes in until he’s out, and then everyone pulls down their trousers and pants…"
Soon you’re reduced to poetic generalisations. At the first feed zone, you hear yourself saying that the Tour isn’t so much a bike race as a lovable bundle of infuriating contradictions, along the lines of those described by Charles Aznavour in She.
A sullen silence reigns as the last-kilometre kite hoves into view: any hopes of a conversion have long since died, and with them part of your own love for the event. You’ve looked at the Tour through the eyes of the uninitiated, and in doing so you have seen the object of your fascination as many others see it – just a meaningless waste of an entire afternoon, aptly encapsulated by the impenetrable murmurings of Sean Kelly.
Merely a flesh wound...
So here, to satisfy the genuinely curious and thus spare the diehard fanatic that distressing epiphany, are all the most commonly asked Tour queries, complete with semi-succinct answers. Because some people just won’t take “I’ve already explained that twice” for an answer, you’ll also find the odd ‘wit’s end’ response, to be employed when a questioner crosses the line that separates intrigued rookie from stupid, stupid idiot. Think of the relevant suggestions as an alternative to punching someone until they stop making a noise…
Tour talk #1
What kind of riders win?
Because huge chunks of time can be gained and lost in the mountains, it’s possible for a specialist climber to win the Tour. Typically, though, the winner is the best all-rounder, a sort of road-racing decathlete: a rider who can keep his end up in the mountains, and outpace rivals in the crucial individual time-trials.
Wit’s End Answer
Spanish and American ones. [Ed's note: Who'd have thought, five years on we could add Brits to that list? And we'd have to change Americans to an American...]
Tour talk #2
Where’s Chris Hoy? And why hasn’t Mark Cavendish won the Tour? [Ed's note:Obviously Sir Chris has retired, but they might still ask about Cav. Although this year the answer's obvious...]
Cav and Hoy are powerhouse, bollard-thighed sprinters, explosively lethal over a few hundred metres: the latter from a standing start, the former after a five-hour, 200km warm-up. Sprinters dominate the Tour on the largely flat stages that define the first week, but they’re just not built for the mountains, where performance hinges on stamina, not power. Most specialist sprinters don’t even make it over the Alps, and those that do generally band together in the ‘autobus’: a peloton of the damned, creaking up the mountains half an hour behind the leaders. If you don’t know what the peloton is, why not send Phil Liggett an email…
Wit’s end answers
a) Cavendish’s prospects of overall victory are blighted by jaunophobia – a crippling fear of yellow, brought on in childhood when he crashed his tricycle into a skip. Ironically, the condition doesn’t preclude him wearing the leader’s jersey, which Cavendish has always perceived as ‘more of a sort of a goldy-brown’. In fact, it’s the overbearing sunflower fields of Bordeaux that sap the burly Manxman’s resolve: “Evil big buggers. They do my bloody head in.”
b) As for Chris Hoy, a relentless dedication to training means the Tour is just one of the many facets of contemporary life, along with golf, the £2 coin and parliamentary democracy, whose existence has simply passed him by. Informed at a pre-Olympics meet-up that the team would be travelling to Beijing without touching the ground, Hoy burst out laughing.
Tour Talk #3
So who’s in the lead right now?
The rider in the yellow jersey is the overall race leader; he’s completed all the stages to date in the shortest cumulative time, and so he stands top of the ‘GC’ – the general classification. Think of the Tour de France as a rally for bicycles. Or, for those confused by Victoria Pendleton’s absence, as Wacky Races without Penelope Pitstop.
Wit’s End Answer
Him – that bloke there. There! Just behind… oh, the helicopter feed’s gone down.
Tour talk #4
Why do those lone breakaways so rarely succeed?
Tactics in professional road race cycling are dictated by physics and feudalism. The field is made up of 20 professional teams, each with nine riders. A team is set up to serve its leader, whose race number ends in a 1: he’s the rider with the best hope of a high overall finish or bagging one of the jerseys. His subordinates must keep him supplied with food and drink, pace him back to the field if he has a crash or other mishap, and if necessary let him have their bike if he gets a puncture and the team car isn’t close enough.
Predominantly, though, it means keeping him fresh for the final sprint or climb of the day, or for tomorrow’s crucial time-trial. Here’s the science part. It’s all down to wind resistance: slipstream the rider in front and you’re using 40 per cent less energy than he is. So a team will line itself out along the road, with the leader given an easy free ride at the back, as his teammates split the work by taking turns at the head of the column.
All this means it’s going to be very difficult for a single rider to ride off the front of the main bunch and stay clear – particularly if he poses a threat in any of the jersey classifications. A breakaway group of a dozen or so lowly no-hopers has the best chance of staying clear on a flat stage, as long as they work together, but it still rarely comes off. The teams with top-name sprinters – ever keen to engineer a mass bunch finish – are ruthlessly calculating, and breaks that have been allowed to build up a 10 or 15-minute lead over the pack during epic 150km escapes are almost always reeled in just before the finish. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy, or at least it should be: because the Tour de France is all about crushing the human spirit, it actually feels like a letdown when the brave loners hold out.
Wit’s end answer
After all those long days spent cocooned in the peloton, following the wheel in front, riding alone up the road is a disorientating novelty for any Tour rider. Most one-man escapees quickly pine for the bluff camaraderie of the bunch, and will often actually turn around and pedal back towards their sweaty chums. Others simply get lost: serial escape-artist Jacky Durand once wound up at an industrial estate in Stockholm.
Tour talk #5
Didn’t you say that the race was won and lost in the mountains?
Wind resistance is negligible when you’re inching up an Alp, so there’s little advantage in being in the peloton. It’s irrelevant on the individual time-trials too, where in the absence of anyone to slipstream the phenomenon can only be tackled head-on, by aerodynamic techniques such as ‘riding a daft bike’ and ‘dressing up like a prannet’.
Tour talk #6
Why did some bloke who’s not winning burst into tears of joy when he crossed the line first yesterday?
Only half a dozen or so riders have any chance of overall victory, and not many more than that are in with a shout of a podium finish come Paris. Most of the 180 entrants approach the Tour as 21 separate one-day races. Bagging a stage in the Tour de France is a career highlight for any rider – think of it as winning a Grand Prix, even if you don’t have a hope of the world championship.
Wit’s End Answer
Didn’t you watch the whole stage? Striking zookeepers let a lioness loose at the 5km banner so the guy was just happy to have finished the stage in one piece. Tom Boonen lost a leg, and two of the Astana mechanics had to be destroyed.
Tour talk #7
When do they take on food?
A Tour competitor burns 8000 calories a day, and though it doesn’t often make the highlights, there are usually two ‘feed zones’ per stage where riders sweep up ‘musettes’ – bags containing energy bars, fruit and small sandwiches. Go to the foot of any big climb after the Tour’s been through and you’ll see the tarmac littered with foil energy-gel sachets.
And how do they, er, offload it?
The peloton endeavours to coordinate comfort stops, hopping en masse behind a hedge to the disadvantage of any resident campers. It’s not unusual, though, particularly in a breakaway, to see a rider simply drop back and hoick up his shorts before the camera spares his modesty. In extremis, riders simply void themselves directly into their gussets. Not such a problem if we’re talking processed Evian, but grim beyond description when digested musette-contents are involved. During the 1986 Tour, no one monitored Greg LeMond’s distressingly graphic gastric woes more closely than the whey-faced podium blondes…
Wit’s End Answer
Ever seen a rider stuff newspaper down his jersey at the top of the mountain? That means he’s run out of Andrex.
Tour talk #8
They're all on drugs right?
The dominant quality in professional road race cycling is an eagerness to flog yourself to the ragged edge of human endurance. At the Tour de France, where that flogging is relentless, and the rewards for enduring it are without parallel, the associated temptations are obvious, and riders have been succumbing to them in droves since the first race in 1903. Back then, and right up to the 1990s, the drugs weren’t so much performance-enhancing as pain-reducing: opiates and amphetamines which fooled the mind into ignoring the shrieking klaxons of exhaustion and muscular distress. Their use was an open secret, and the sympathetic authorities and press invariably turned a blind eye.
Then along came EPO, which raised the pharmacological stakes by actually making cyclists go faster, and for much longer. EPO massively boosted the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, and with it a rider’s stamina: in very crude terms, a course of ‘treatment’ was said to improve a cyclist’s performance by around 15%. It’s now plain that EPO use was endemic throughout the Nineties.
The authorities were eventually compelled to up their game, and recent advances in testing technology, along with a new determination to expose doping scandals rather than hush them up, have forced determined dopers to dabble with ever more obscure EPO derivatives and dosing techniques, or resort to blood-boosting transfusions. Perverse though it might sound, the many high-profile positive tests that have blighted the last few Tours are a sign that the authorities are now winning the battle. There’s good reason to believe the 2008 Tour was the cleanest for a very long time.
So how can you tell who’s doping?
The rule of thumb is to suspect an established rider who suddenly gets much, much better – unless they’re British, of course…[Ed's note: Best we don't mention Jonathan Tiernan-Locke…]
Wit's End Answer
Right. You know those funny time-trial helmets? Drag coefficient my arse – they conceal a cow’s lung, piped directly into the rider’s bloodstream through a hole in the back of his head.
The secret of a good TT helmet
Tour talk #9
Who are the other riders on the podium getting a cuddly toy and a kiss?
Answer: As well as the stage winner and the yellow jersey, there are presentations to the riders leading the three subsidiary competitions. You’ll also probably spot some old feller gatecrashing the podium in the hope of some reflected glory and a quick snog. He’s what Tour insiders call ‘Bernard Hinault’.
- The green jersey is worn by the overall ‘points’ leader, the rider who’s racked up the highest total of points awarded to the top-place stage finishers, and at the intermediate sprints arranged at intervals along the flatter stages. The arcane scoring system is skewed in favour of the all-out sprinters: the green jersey is all about giving riders who hate hills an incentive to get over the Alps. [Ed's note: This contest also helps sustain audience interest in the early part of the race. Nobody would bother watching the first week if it wasn’t for bunch sprints and pile-ups in the peloton.
- The red polka-dot jersey is sported by the current leader of the ‘King of the Mountains’ competition, according to points accumulated on the designated climbs: the steeper and longer the ascent, the more points given to those first over the top. It’s generally considered poor form for a dominant rider to try to bag more than one of these jerseys for himself, though that never stopped Eddy Merckx.
- The rather lower profile white jersey is worn by the highest place rider under the age of 25, and you might also spot a rider wearing a red race number. This is nominally awarded to the ‘most combative’ rider, which is assessed by his prominence in attacks. In practice, though, it’s awarded to any Frenchman who embarks on a suicidal lone breakaway, thereby allowing the host nation to forget, for a glorious but fleeting moment, that it’s now 24 years since they had a Tour winner.
Wit’s End Answer
Just be grateful that I haven’t troubled you with the world road race champion’s rainbow jersey, the various national champions’ jerseys – or the blue cummerbund sported by the ‘most enigmatic’ rider.