So if you’re like me, you’re a Cubs fan, which means it’s a slow summer and you’re watching the Tour de France. And like me, you probably understand so little that it’s almost an anti-climax watching someone cross the finish line.
Feels like I could have done it myself, right? Get on a bike, pedal the bike, traverse the prescribed distance, complete the distance, throw your arms wide and shout at the sky. That’s just any old Sunday on the Lakefront Path, right? WRONG.
In one of the most talked about stages of the Tour so far, a little used but highly effective tactic called “the Echelon” was implemented on the fly, as the members of the Saxo-Tinkoff team seemingly read one another’s minds and caused race leader Chris Froome to lose a full minute in Stage 13 because he got stuck in the wrong echelon— the second echelon, not the first. Hold on. Strategy? Formations? Fancy names for tactics? Are you kidding? It’s just a bike race, right? WRONG AGAIN.
After watching the first 15 stages of the Tour, I finally tired of looking at fairy tale European countryside and started wondering how these teams puzzle out who does what for who, for how long, and why. Lucky for me, my brother Timothy Gotsick (the one with the sick ‘stache) is a competitive cyclist who rides with The Lupus Racing Team out of Atlanta. I called him to ask about the Tour and about team cycling strategy in general.
In a further mindbend, Timothy says regarding the Echelon, when you get caught outside the correct one, there’s nothing you can do about it as a rider. You have to manage your ride such that you are: (1) in the right position to take advantage of doing it to someone; or (2) in the right position to avoid having it happen to you. It speaks to the heightened awareness of riding that makes the difference between strength and strength-plus-strategy.
Wow. There’s brainwork in those legs. I needed a little Tour de France Cycling Strategy for Dummies. Here are 20-some things I learned during the rest of our conversation:
THE TOUR DE FRANCE FOR DUMMIES:
The Tour de France, along with the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, comprise cycling’s three Grand Tours. Side note: Bradley Wiggins, who won last year’s Tour de France, crashed during the Giro d’Italia and then was further injured such that he did not even start this year’s Tour.
You compete in these tours as part of a nine-man team.
There are usually 20-25 teams competing in any given Tour.
Each of these tours spans three weeks. The Tour de France includes 21 separate races, or stages conducted on 21 separate days.
There are four major competitions in the Tour de France:
The Yellow Jersey (lowest elapsed time over all the stages), aka the General Classification (GC) winner.
The Green Jersey, aka the Points Classification winner. There are points given for your finish at the end of every stage. Whoever gets the most points wins. (For this jersey, it just matters that you consistently finish in the top 20 of each stage. It often goes to sprinters.)
The Polka Dot Jersey or Mountains Classification winner, aka “King of the Mountain,” go to the best climber. It includes the climbs and the intermediate climbs.
The White Jersey or Young Rider Classification winner, given to the best rider 26 years old or younger.
The Team Classification has been added in recent years but my brother tells me it’s confusing at best and kind of a yawn.
These stages are comprised of several different kinds of cycling races:
Time trials (individual and team)
A time trial is not a race against other riders, it is a race against the clock. These are the stages where the riders dress like spacemen.
In an individual time trial, each rider starts by himself, out of a chute in one-minute intervals and ride as fast as they can. These courses are generally flat and riders gain advantage here by making himself and his bike as aerodynamic as possible, so there is a lot of gadgetry at play in both the bike and the racewear. Spacemen.
In a team time trial, all nine riders start at the same time and can create aerodynamic conditions such that they go speeds in excess of 35mph. My brother says these stages are beautiful to watch. They are well-choreographed ballets with cyclists riding in a tight cluster, taking turns pulling from the front, then falling back and drafting until their next turn up front. As such, all riders expend maximum effort, then conserve maximum energy and ultimately remain equally strong through the finish.
Pretty straightforward. These generally flat stages find riders mass-starting and competing against each other to finish first. The sprint stages are usually the ones with all the biggest, ugliest crashes. You see guys giving one another head butts, throwing elbows, riding into each other at 40+ mph. It’s hard to imagine the terror of the frenzy at the end there. And keep in mind that the ‘sprint’ is done after riding 100 miles or more, so it is very different than what Usain Bolt does. By physiology and temperament, some riders (like for instance, Timothy) are poorly suited to sprinting and usually just sit up and let the real sprinters go at it, picking their way through the carnage afterwards.
The transition stages are generally flat with some moderately challenging hills. They favor the riders who are good climbers and will weed out the pure sprinters.
The climbs are exactly what they sound like. For instance, the legendary Mont Ventoux climb sees riders bike 242km and end the stage by riding up Ventoux, an elevation of 6200+ feet. Climbs are punishing, relentless and exhausting, a true test of a rider’s character and will to win.
TEAM CYCLING FOR DUMMIES
Strategically, a team is organized around getting a single rider to win one of the major competitions of the Tour de France. He is called “the protected rider.”
Anyone who is not a protected rider is called a “domestique” and rides only in service of the protected rider. This means that if the protected rider gets hungry, a domestique will fall back to the support car and bring them food. If a protected rider needs to take a whiz, a domestique will literally push their bike along by the saddle as they pull their protected wiener out the top of their protected shorts and do their protected whizness. My brother says that sometimes stage fright will make this process last too long and tire out the domestique, thereby being counterproductive. The point? A good protected rider is cool with having his dong out.
The team itself does not decide who is a protected rider and who’s a domestique. Each team has a Directeur Sportif, or DS, who is in charge of the team. They act like the head coach of an NFL football team, setting strategy, planning tactics, juggling lineups, and handing out assignments.
The DS and other “managerial” members of the team ride along in support cars, carrying extra bikes, repair, and food / hydration supplies. There is a small TV in the support car and a support team member monitoring all riders on the road communicates with the entire team much like a NASCAR spotter does.
The whole team — DS, riders and support team alike — is linked by communication gear. The riders have speakers in their helmets and microphones in their jerseys. My brother says that sometimes you can see a rider doing something that looks like he is pinching his nipple. Really, he is pressing the “talk” button on his microphone. Right after that, you’ll see them dip their head to speak into the mic. What they say is transmitted to the entire team and the support car.
In addition to the DS, each team usually has a “road captain,” or a rider who is empowered to make split second decisions on the fly from their bikes. You can tell the road captains because they often have the number “one” on their bib. For instance, Chris Froome, currently leading all other Tour riders, is the road captain of the Sky team. Since Sky won the Tour last year (Wiggins is a member of Sky), they were allotted the first nine bib numbers, so Froome wears #1 and the rest of his team wears number in descending order through #9. The next team of the docket begins with number 11 so that the road captain can have a number “one” on their bib.
TEAM CYCLING STRATEGY FOR DUMMIES – DRAFTING AND ATTACKING
Everything in team cycling is planned around conserving the protected rider’s energy while making his competitors expend maximum effort.
“Drafting” is the easiest way to conserve energy on the road. When you are nestled in directly behind a rider in a headwind, you are drafting off of him, thereby using about 30% less effort than you otherwise might.
A peloton (a French word which translates roughly to “squad”) is an organically formed group of riders who cluster tightly together, each rider drafting off of the riders in front of them. A peloton is naturally created in each race. It is a perfect jumping-off point for cycling strategy.
Once a peloton is created, a strategy is to send riders to the front to “attack” or “break away.”
In theory, the peloton does not want any rider to break away, so logically they would speed up to keep up with the attacker. Side note: my brother says that sometimes the “group mind” of the peloton knows the attacker is weak and lets them ride ahead, betting that eventually they will tire and fall back.
If the peloton speeds up with the attacker, then all those riders are necessarily using more effort and should theoretically weaken and fall back. A strong team might send several attackers to the front one after the other to weaken the peloton while their protected rider is drafting in the middle of the pack, conserving maximum energy. Side note: my brother says that if you are nestled in the middle of the peloton, you’re essentially riding in completely still air. He also tells me that riding in the peloton is incredibly close. You are literally rubbing elbows with the rider next to you. You must stay lined up perfectly with the bikes in front and back of you. If you overlap wheels with the bike in front of you and that person moves over just a few inches, it will take your front wheel out, you will go down and you will take the entire peloton with you.
Once the peloton has weakened and most riders have fallen back, only the protected riders are left to compete at the end of a race. From there, it is all up to them.
TEAM CYCLING STRATEGY FOR DUMMIES – THE MOUNTAINS
In the mountains, three or four of the team’s members will be assigned to “pace” the protected rider. One will ride to the front of the peloton and keep up a furious pace, compelling the peloton along with him.
When the first pacer tires, another will take his place and another and another until hopefully, the entire peloton has been weakened. Lance Armstrong’s famous(ly corrupt) U.S. Postal teams were known as “The Blue Train” for their ferocious pacing skills, sending breakneck pacer after breakneck pacer up the mountains on the Tour.
Meanwhile, your protected rider will have been sitting in the back of the pack, drafting and resting.
Once the peloton falls away, only the protected riders are left, same as with a sprint.
My brother described Sunday’s Mont Ventoux stage as a prototypically strategic race — it went exactly like the DS’s from Sky and Saxo wrote it up. The peloton went from 200 riders to two: Chris Froome of Sky and Alberto Contador of Saxo. Then Froome broke away so decisively, it will only add to the doping conversation that’s already simmering around him. But that’s another conversation. Point is, I can now talk to strangers about cycling. Unfortunately, I’m still a Cubs fan.