The 98th edition of the Tour de France starts today in Vendée, kicking off three weeks of bicycle racing. Twenty-one teams of nine riders each will have to endure 3,400 kilometers of racing and 23 mountain passes to reach the finish line on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It’s an event full of incredible human achievement and endurance. But it’s also full of geeky goodness. I decided to update my article from 2009 encouraging you to enjoy the race.
Here are my top ten reasons why geeks should love the Tour de France:
10. Aerodynamics. During the three weeks of the Tour, the teams and their riders battle one another. But they also battle against air resistance. In a group of cyclists riding closely together, the rider in front is expending as much as 30% more energy than those behind him or her. That means that a rider doesn’t want to be out in front for long. Bicycling tactics call for a rider to let someone else lead for most of the race, then launch from behind to grab the win. The peloton forms as a way for the riders to share the work of cutting through the wind. A single cyclist out in front riding ahead of the peleton stands little chance of victory, faced with battling the wind alone. This is why breakaways rarely survive.
9. Doping. I don’t think you can ignore the doping problems in professional cycling. Unfortunately, accusations of doping have been part of the Tour since its inception. Early cyclists used alcohol and other substances to dull the pain. Now, the drug use is more scientific and aimed squarely at enhancing performance. The drug testers have also gotten better.
Doping is not something to be taken lightly. British cyclist Tom Simpson died during the 1967 Tour de France on the legendary climb of Mont Ventoux. The post-mortem found that he had taken amphetamines and alcohol.
Several past winners have been accused of doping and returned positive results. Maybe they’re getting caught because the checks are getting better. Maybe more are doping.
8. The Team. A Grand Tour is not just about individual achievement. The best cyclist is unlikely to win the Tour De France if he does not have a strong team. Sure the team leader gets the fame and glory, but it requires team work for victory. The domestiques help keep the leader safe, lead him in the wind so he can conserve his energy, ferry water bottles from the team car, and even sacrifice their bikes. Each team also has a large group of mechanics who keep everything moving smoothly, including quick wheel changes for flat tires and bike changes after a crash.
The team time trial returns to the 2011 edition of the race after its absence last year. The team time trial is the ultimate combination of teamwork, aerodynamics, and outfits. The team suits up in aero helmets, skinsuits, and special time trial bikes to minimize wind resistance. (Remember, its all about aerodynamics.) In true team fashion, it is not the time of the first cyclist across, but the time of the fifth man across the finish line that applies to all members of the team.
7. The Fans. There are plenty of fans lining the race course, especially as the race cuts through cities and towns. Since the race cuts the town in half, its hard to do much except watch the race. For years it was just fans from each country supporting their countrymen and waiving their flags along the course. Then fans started lining the mountain courses, where the riders have to slow down to deal with the steep inclines. With increased television coverage, fans realized that a crazy costume might get you on worldwide coverage for a few seconds. Didi Senft, who dresses up in a red devil costume, was one of the first costumed spectators. You will see him often. The “Schlugs” line the race course, camping for days in prime locations. There are also the “Schmenges,” Belgian or Dutch cycling fans who end up rather intoxicated at the top of mountain passes.
6. Wind Tunnels. Since aerodynamics play a key role in the Tour, many professional cyclists spend time in a wind tunnel to hone their position for maximum efficiency. The wind is as much the opponent as the other cyclists. Positioning is extremely important for a cyclist to be able to maintain a low drag while still producing sufficient power. Since bicycle aerodynamics are very specific to each different rider’s body size and type, a position that works well for one may not work well for another. Its not just the rider and bicycle frame. They test the water bottles, wheels, helmets, handlebars, and clothing. They even designed a special pocket on the back of the jersey to hold the racing number instead of clipping it on. Watch Lance Armstrong in the Wind Tunnel.
5. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. These two Brits have been the voice of professional cycling for years. Expect each day to be full of wonderful quips like “He’s really having to dig deeply into the suitcase of courage,” “Carnage is the only way to describe this ascent,” “The devil has joined in and that’s never a good sign”, and “He’s dancing on his pedals.” The Liggett-isms do tend to carry over from year to year. You might want to play Phil and Paul Bingo to help follow along with commentary. Kidding aside, I think they are the best announcing team in all of professional sports. They offer an encyclopedic knowledge of the race, the riders and the course.
4. The Clothing. Anyone who has seen an amateur cyclist cruising down the street knows that cyclists wear special clothes. During a race, there are special jerseys which denote a rider’s status. The leader in the time competition wears the yellow jersey, the leader in the sprint competition wears a green jersey, the king of the mountains wears a polka dot jersey, and the best young rider gets a white jersey. There are also special purpose outfits, such as the time trial kit. In the time trial, racers compete against the clock (either as an individual as a team) and clothe themselves in the most aerodynamic way they can, with special helmets to cut through the wind. (Remember, its all about aerodynamics.)
3. The Countryside. Over its three weeks, the race winds its way across the French countryside and into neighboring countries. Race coverage is full of helicopter shots, highlighting the racers, farms, castles, rivers and panoramas. Many of the race days are visually stunning. The mountains often loom above, some still speckled with snow. Even in the heat of the summer, French farmers build elaborate monuments to the race as it passes by their farms. Some displays are simple collections of hay bales. Others are elaborate moving displays of bicycle action. There will also be plenty of helicopter shots of medieval castles, cathedrals, and Roman ruins. Part of the Tour’s magic lies in the changing backdrops to the action, with villages competing to devise the most elaborate welcome signs.
2. The Equipment. The Tour de France bicycles are some of the most high-tech equipment used in any human powered sport. Titanium, carbon fiber, and high tensile steel alloys are routinely used for bicycle parts and frames. Lance Armstrong proclaimed in the title of one his books that It’s Not About the Bike. The bikes are still very cool, being the product of intensive development. Many bicycles are wind tunnel tested to maximize aerodynamics. (Remember that it’s all about aerodynamics.) The bikes for the time trial days of the race, where the cyclists rides against the clock (either alone or with their teams), are especially odd looking. This bike bears little resemblance to the geeklets’ boulevard cruisers.
1. Radio Shack. What could be a geekier team than one sponsored by Radio Shack?
[This article, by Doug Cornelius, was originally published on Tuesday. Please leave any comments you may have on the original.]