Monday, July 9, 2012

The Tour de France: A Runners Perspective

I know this is a running blog, but it is early July, and it is not running that is on my mind. It is Tour de France time, and for three weeks I will be obsessed with this event. I am a huge cycling fan, and as an endurance athlete have tremendous respect for the cyclists that compete in this phenomenal test of endurance. It is absolutely an amazing race!

In case you are not familiar with the Tour, let me try to put it in terms a runner might be able to relate to and that might approximate a running equivalent. 

Imagine that you entered a race --  not a single day race, but a grand race that took place over a period of 23 days, in a continuously changing set of locations so that basically your days became a whirlwind of competition, recovery in hotels, and transportation to and from race sites.

During that period imagine that you had to race every day, except for two days that were rest days.  Now imagine that most of those days were marathons or ultramarathons and that some of those were flat but others went over huge mountains. On the days when you did not have to run a marathon, you might have to do a 1 mile race or 5k or 10k at close to full speed. Oh, and to keep you honest and to keep you from lollygagging, you would have to meet a time standard that was a percent of the winner's time each day in order not to be eliminated.  If you are the competitive type also imagine that at the end of the three weeks of racing, there might only be a few seconds between you and your closest competitors.

If you can imagine what that would be like, then you might have some appreciation for what the riders go through at the Tour de France. They race continuously for three weeks across France and neighboring countries, including over the Alps and the Pyrenees, doing 3 to 4 hour races on most days (around 125 miles), but also doing time trial days that could be anywhere from the short 6.4km  (4 mi)  prologue to a longer 41 km (25.5 mi) race, which would be about the equivalent of a 10k for a running racer. It is truly amazing when you think of the level of fitness required to go out and race like this day after day.

However, that is not all that there is to the Tour.  When I was first introduced to it, the person explained that it was something like a rolling chess game, with a little soap opera thrown in. I have always felt that was an apt description. 

Part of the intrigue comes from the idea that this is both an individual and a team sport. Besides the individual awards I will talk about in a second, the Tour riders are also members of a set of teams, each starting with nine riders. If a rider on the team becomes injured and cannot complete a stage, does not start a stage, or does not complete a stage within the time limit, the team loses a member, which it does not get to replace. The Tour started with 22 teams of 9 rider each, or 198 riders. Today, with 10 days of riding completed, they are down to 178 riders, with all but one of the rest being lost to crashes and broken bones.  

Tom Danielson, one of our American cyclists out after multiple crashes

The Tour is also a contest of many different types of abilities, with major awards going each day and at the end of the race, not only to an overall winner  for the 23 days, called the "general classification" (GC) winner, (the yellow jersey everyone has heard of) but also the best mountain climber (polka dot jersey), the best sprinters ("points leader" -- the green jersey), the best young rider (up to 25 y/o -- the white jersey), the stage winner for the day, and an award each day (a special red number bib for the following day) for the most "aggressive" rider (in terms of effort and bravery spent racing -- not aggression toward other cyclists).  Each day is a drama as the various riders and teams try to either gain the lead in one of these competitions or just gain a little fleeting glory for the individual or the team by taking home a prize for the day. It is a great honor as a cyclist to get to wear one of these jerseys for a day.
The Jerseys

One of the most fascinating aspects of the racing, especially from a running standpoint, since we have nothing like this in our sport, is the teamwork aspect of the race. On each team of nine riders, there is typically one man who is marked as the team leader who may have a chance at winning the most prestigious yellow jersey for the overall winner of the Tour in the general classification. Lance Armstrong is a great example of a team leader and . Most teams also have a rider who is a sprinting specialist who is competing for the green jersey. Some teams also have a climbing specialist who is going for the polka dot jersey, but those would normally be teams without a rider strong enough to have a chance at the overall win.  On a team with a leader who is competing for the overall win, the climber's role on the team is normally a support one.

On the teams that have a rider who has the possibility of scoring high in the overall standing, the entire team works for that rider. They will ride in front of their number one guy so that he can conserve energy by drafting, sacrificing themselves and their personal goals for the possibility of his greater glory. They will also go back to the cars that follow the race to get water bottles to give to their leader so that he does not have to exert himself or go through the dangerous process of dropping back and then catching up. If the leader has a bike problem, they will wait or drop back to help their leader ride to the front, or even give their leader their own bike if needed so that the leader may continue on and not lose time.  They also surround their rider in the "peleton," that huge group of riders you see on television, to help protect him from danger of crashes.

George Hincapie, domestique extraordinaire
These support riders are called "domestiques," which means servant, but which carries none of the negative connotations associated with that word. In fact, in the cycling world, being a strong, loyal, skilled, and devoted domestique is a huge point of honor.  Strong domestiques are highly regarded. George Hincapie, the American  cyclist, is hugely respected in the cycling world for his abilities as a domestique who has helped many winners of the Tour, including Lance Armstrong and last year's winner, Cadel Evans.  Occasionally, in situations where it is possible to be done without jeopardizing the position of the overall leader on the team, a domestique will be given a chance to win the stage.

Chris Froome winning the stage.
Notice his team leader and the challenger behind
A great example of this happened already this year in the Tour when the current leader Bradley Wiggin's domestique Chris Froome led him to the top of the mountain in a serious bid to keep him in the yellow jersey by not letting the second place rider, Cadel Evans, gain the necessary ten seconds advantage that would have put him in first place. After leading Wiggins up the hill and being sure that he and Cadel would finish together, Fromme was able to sprint ahead of the two and win the stage for himself. That is the type of thing that is a huge reward for a domestique, along with knowing that they did their job well to keep their man in yellow.

This teamwork aspect of the race is fascinating to me. There is nothing like it in running, except possibly in cross country (but even there it is not so much a matter of working for someone else on the team as it is a matter of the individual efforts being combined to create the team effort).  I envy the cyclists, who get the benefits of both competing in an individual and a team effort.

Of course, just like any sport, fans have their favorite riders and their favorite teams.  My favorite team is RadioShack Nissan Trek, and my favorite rider is Fabian Cancellara, a Swiss cyclist, who is the time trial specialist on their team.  He spent most of the first week of the tour in the yellow jersey. I thought he looked pretty fabulous.
Fabian Cancellara looking great in the yellow jersey!

My second favorite cyclist is Jens Voigt, also on the RadioShack team, who is 40 years old and competing in his 15th Tour this year. He is a character for sure and the originator of my favorite mantra: "shut up legs." He is known as one of the toughest guys in the sport, willing to punish his body to the extreme to help his team. He writes a great blog called Hardly Serious.  It gives some great insight into the mind of a tough-as-nails cyclist.
Jens Voigt doing what he does.

Thanks for bearing with me on this divergence from running-related topics. I hope I have convinced you to at least check out the Tour de France if you get a chance. It is on daily on NBC Sports. It is a little confusing to be a spectator at first, but the commentators are great. (Phil Liggett is my personal favorite. I hope he never retires!)  Once you have figured it out, it becomes really fascinating. 

How about it? Any other runners who are also cycling fans out there? 

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