Tour de France Part 1: Strategy!

Well, it’s Tour de France (TDF) season again and I’m going to subject you to three weeks of columns about cycling because I love the Tour de France (all the grand tours, really, but this is the only one I can find on my basic cable). My husband – the reason my tiny little New York apartment contains too many bicycles – got me hooked and now I’m a junkie.

Oh, there are so many reasons to love the Tour. First, the best sport commentators in the business, Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, and Bob Roll. In my mind, a commentator’s job is to help you understand and love the sport, and these guys are right up there with John Madden and Tim McCarver. When the pace is fast, their tone is hushed and steady like at a horse race. When the race is dragging on the interminable flat stages, they keep you engaged with inside stories about the racers – who lives nearby, why they are stuffing all those water-bottles down their shirts, what they’re having for lunch, who’s new to the race, who may switch teams next season, who has injuries, practical jokes and gossip – and about the countryside and maybe even what happened the last time the race was here in 1973. And, when anything exciting happens, they show a bunch of replays and explain it all to you so you can understand.

But the reason I’m blogging about the Tour is what it teaches you about strategy vs. tactics.

First Some Background

The race consists of 21 daily races, called stages, each of which has a “stage winner.” You can also win a daily prize for being the “most aggressive rider” because you increased the pace of that stage of the race by zipping out in front and making everyone else catch up with you.

The winner for the overall Tour (the “general classification” or “yellow jersey”) is the person with the lowest overall time when you add up his times from each of the stages. The team with the lowest time when you add up all their riders’ times wins a team prize (signified by yellow racing numbers). There’s also a white jersey for the “best young rider” which I’m not going to focus on because it doesn’t usually drive team strategy.

On some of the stages you can also win “sprint points” for crossing intermediate line(s) or the finish line first. The person with the most sprint points at the end of the race wins the green jersey. On some stages you can win what are called “mountain points” for crossing individual mountaintops first, and for that you get the polka-dot jersey. (Just to make things interesting, sometimes a mountainous stage will include intermediate sprint points in a valley between the mountains, and sometimes a flat, sprint stage will include mountain points for an unavoidable hill in the middle of the stage.)

The other prize you can win is the lantern rouge – but no one includes that in their strategy because that’s the prize for coming in last!

Strategies

It would be very unusual for a team to try to finish the tour with all the jerseys because different body types do better on different kinds of terrains and you’ve got a limited number of spaces on the team. The first thing the team must decide is which jersey to go for. Although it receives the most attention, not every team will try for the yellow jersey (though they’ll take it if they can get it, which sometimes happens on an early stage).

Some of the smaller teams who are just happy to participate mainly want publicity for their sponsors so they can continue to exist. They focus on individual stage wins or on sending men in the breakaways (zipping out in front of the rest of the riders) because breakaways get TV-time and publicity for their sponsors. Especially if they’re Spanish, they may aim for the polka-dot jersey – for some reason, Spanish and South American riders have a reputation as the best climbers, maybe because they’re smaller (?) and it’s easier for a lighter-weight person to pull themselves up a hill on a bike. Maybe because they train in the Pyrenees and/or the Andes, and pride (or acclimation to altitude) is involved. Whatever the reason, Spanish riders head for the hills.

Some teams build their team around a sprinter and go for the green jersey points. They develop a team of big, strong, fast riders, who perform well together over short distances. These men line up behind each other at the front of the race in the last miles before a sprint finish, with their leader at the back of the line (a “train”). Their goal is to ride fast enough that the other sprinters’ teams can’t insert their own train in front of them, and hopefully to leave the other sprinters behind as well. (Also, in a fast sprint finish, the best place to be is at the very front because if there’s a crash – and if you like crashes, you will like sprint finishes, especially during the first week – everyone who gets stuck behind the crash can lose time/points, and/or risk injury.) The other thing the sprinter’s team does is keep him company as he crosses the mountains (sprinters tend to be larger and, therefore, slower in the mountains) to help him finish before the disqualification time.

Sometimes a sprinter ends up on a team that has a GC contender and doesn’t get a train – then they have to find a way to sneak into the front of the pack, using someone else’s train. Australian Robbie McEwen was the best at this – since he retired, I miss hearing about his cloak of invisibility that protected him as he picked his way to the front of the race. But there’s still strategy here – if the sprinter’s GC contender gets injured, the team may switch over to supporting the sprinter; so the sprinter has to stay at the top of his game just in case.

How Strategy Affects the Race

The strategy starts before the race even begins. The teams look at the terrain and try to figure out how they will define winning that year – yellow jersey? Green jersey? Camera time or polka dot jersey? That determines what kind of specialists to put on the team, what kind of equipment to bring, how to train, even what other races you participate in before the Tour. You don’t hear very often about a football team thinking, “I can skip or lose this game – we’ve got a big game next week that’s more important.” Even if they’re playing the Jets, they want to win. (Sorry, my beloved Jets, if it makes you feel better, I’ll say, “Especially if they are playing the Jets” – but only if you promise to quit destroying your young quarterbacks.)

Once the race starts, the strategy continues because you’ve got to maintain your focus for 21 days. Baseball is a little like this, in that they plan their pitching rotation over a 3-day series. But with cycling, you only have 9 riders and those 9 riders ride every day for 21 days. If one of them gets sick or injured and drops out, you ride the rest of the race with fewer riders. You must consider how you want to approach the race as a whole – which stages do you want to try to win, which ones are you just happy to survive? You may also need to throw a bone to a specialist on the team who will want to show off on a mountain stage or in a time trial (riding individually against the clock) or go on a breakaway because it’s near his hometown (or because, like Jens Voigt, he loves breakaways). Or maybe your GC contender is good at riding alone and can use the time trial to gain time over his competitor. Or maybe there’s a team time trail, where the whole team rides together on their own to the finish – one of my favorite stages because a good team time trial is poetry in motion. Or maybe there’s a flat stage that runs parallel to the coast where crosswinds may split the field. Or maybe there’s a stage on cobblestones. You get the idea.

You also need to consider little things like the rest days (there’s usually two, one at the end of the first week and one at the end of second week) because that will affect your riders’ health (delicate creatures that they are, Tour riders tend to get sick or injured on rest days, like when you get sick as soon as that big project at work ends). If there’s a mountaintop finish, the roads will become so clogged with spectators, media vans, support cars, it will take hours to get to your hotel in the valley below and you need to think about how lack of sleep and stress will affect your riders’ ability to race the next day.

All this, and you’re not even on the road yet!

Have I tempted you to stay tuned for tomorrow’s update?

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