Monday, July 18, 2011

The Tour de France; or Why do I Care?

I just wanted to write about something that I have been thinking of for a few years now. Each summer the cycling world gets all excited about the Tour de France. Yet each year I find myself becoming more apathetic about Le Tour. It is cycling's biggest race, but it has come to mean so little to me. As time goes on, the race has less and less to do with the way that I ride. I don't think I am alone in this either.

As a child I dreamed of being on the tour. It was the 80s, and the race was first making a big impression in the US. For me, it seemed like a fantastic dream. A bicycle race across a foreign country, what could be more adventurous? It is a very romantic notion, but the romance has worn off. I am no longer riding the blue bike with a banana seat and coaster breaks. I now build up custom bikes to suit my various needs. I have even toured across much of France, but that trip looked nothing like what you see on TV. My heavy touring rig had about 40 pounds of gear strapped to it. Nothing like those 16 pound carbon fiber things on skinny tires. So I have changed over the years. Truth be told, I haven't become much of a roadie. I am more into where my bike can take me than who I can overtake on my bike. I like a light bike, but I don't count grams. I like going fast, but I am not about to start shaving my legs.

Tour History Lesson

The Tour itself has gone through its own changes. When it started, it was all basically a publishing stunt in 1903. The first races included riding through the night. I guess this turned into a bad idea as during the second race contestants used the cover of darkness to hop on trains or trucks to sneak ahead of the competition. During that race it seems the fans got involved as well to help out their favored rider by throwing nails and even punches at opponents. It was almost the end of the Tour. It has been a resilient race, coming back in 1905 and surviving two world wars.

In the beginning there were strange rules to contend with. For instance, each rider was responsible for their own repairs with no help from others. Similarly, a racer was not allowed to change bicycle during the race. Even to swap out with a teammate. Imagine the consternation of one Eugène Christophe at loosing the lead by having to spend hours to re-forge his fork during the 1913 race. (Also further insulted as he was penalized 3 minutes for allowing a young boy to work the bellows of the forge.) The racers were also expected to carry all their equipment from the start of the stage to the finish. This included items like a flat tire, or a sweater used for a cold 3:00 AM start. Apparently there was even a plan in 1925 to make sure that all the racers would eat the same amount of food. That was quickly dropped however.

Many changes started in the 30s. Sponsorships from bicycle manufacturers were banned, and national teams were created. This lead to the elimination of individual riders and the buildup of team racing. The 1934 race also had the first official time trial stage. In 1937 derailers were allowed for the first time. This meant no longer stopping and flipping the rear wheel to change gears. It was the beginning of a change in the tour and the start of many technology changes to come.

In the 1960s the national teams were dropped and replaced by sponsorship teams again. This was also the first decade marred by doping scandals, including the death of Tom Simpson from amphetamines on a tour stage.

Since then the tour has not undergone many major changes, but the technology has improved rapidly. Steel frames were replaced by aluminum and then carbon fiber. Dedicated time trial bikes were created. Radios were added to allow teams to communicate with support staff. Performance enhancing drugs also improved and became harder to detect.

While I can't begrudge anyone for using lighter equipment, it seems that push for technology hasn't always been good. In my view this has pushed the riders from being good racers, to just a pair of legs. There have no doubt been amazing recent moments. It is also hard to forget Lance Armstrong's seven straight tour victories. Yet it feels like some of the allure is gone. I have been trying to come up with some of the reason that I feel this way. So far, this is what I have come up with:


In general I don't have any problem with new technology, it is only how it is used. Bikes are no different. I also can't imagine anyone having a problem with better helmets or breaks. I don't mind at all when a racers wants to ride the latest carbon fiber bike, either. Where I do see this being an issue is the number of bikes a rider can choose from. Most riders have three different bikes for the tour, and this doesn't include spares. One is for flat roads, one is for mountains, and one is for time trials. I know you could probably look at me and say, that I am being hypocritical here. That I have three bikes, and they have three different uses. But I have a street bike, a off-road bike, and a touring bike. The thing is, I don't change bikes mid-race. When you allow multiple bikes you keep the racers from having to make tough choices. It also keeps designers from having to come up with brilliant compromises in a bike. Why have mountain stages if you are going to allow competitors to have specifically designed bikes for those stages?

Communication is another problem. Currently, the Tour de France allows racers to have two way radios during the race. This allows a race director to talk to his team during the stage. This does in some ways help with the safety of a race by warning riders of collisions or sharp turns ahead. It also takes away from the strategy of the team racing and places it in the hand of the director. Any team sport is going to have its coach, granted, but out on the course it should be the racers to decide their specific tactics. More importantly it should be up to the team leader to actually lead the team. (I guess that starting next year, the teams will not be allowed to use radios.)


Support cars have been around for quite some time. Some of the earliest photos show cars following the race. The modern tour caravan was even started in 1930. However the current race support is such a grotesque display. Each team has two cars to rush in with parts and mechanics for near instant repairs. They also bring food and water to racers. You can even (legally) draft off the cars back to the peleton.

There are so many problems with this that it is hard to know where to begin. To start, it means racers don't actually need to know anything about the machines they ride. It is up to someone else to fix and tune. I can't imagine any ordinary rider who can't fix a flat or adjust a seat. It seems odd that our racing heroes should be unable to complete such mundane tasks.

It also means that cars are zipping all over the course during the race. The caravan is a disaster waiting to happen. These cars have been responsible for a number of deaths over the years. There is also a spectacular incident this year where a driver knocked two contestants from the lead pack off the road.

There are also the much more mundane aspects to the support cars, where riders are commonly pushed back into the peleton or helped along, such as by the infamous "sticky bottle". (That is, pulling a rider along under the guise of handing them a water bottle.) This has generated an attitude where anything that isn't caught isn't illegal. So the race isn't as much about the athleticism as it is about knowing where to break the rules. That sounds more like professional wrestling than bike racing.

It is the very nature of how these vehicles operate that changes the race, whether by intent or accident. How can we have a "pure" bicycle race if the vehicles are always affecting the race? More than that, why is it that cycling's biggest race is entirely dependent upon cars? How can I claim my place with the cars on the streets of my town, if the tour riders can't avoid them?

I can understand the utility of having police cars clear the race corridor. I can also understand that this is a sporting event, therefore to be successful you need lots of video coverage. It only makes sense to have camera men mounted on vehicles zooming along with the race. Beyond that, all vehicles should be left behind the last cyclist.


Doping is another hot topic in cycling. The cyclists and tour fans out there might not want to hear about it, but it is becoming a bigger problem each year. Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 tour victory. He (among others) also accused Lance Armstrong, winner of the previous seven races, of doping. Three of the last four tours have been won by Alberto Contador whose career is also pock marked with doping scandals. It is hard to tell if anyone in the last decade has won the tour and been clean.

Whatever truth or guilt you see out there, I see the doping scandals as a symptom of the larger issues here. The men winning the races are expected to be a pair of legs, and nothing more. All of the management decisions are made by others. All the repairs are handled for the racers. Even the technologies being used are selected for them. The racers have been left few other areas to compete on. Combine that with the mentality of "if they don't catch you, it isn't illegal" and the whole thing becomes an arms race between how much the top contenders can take while still being able to deny they abused steroids.


All of this has lead me to feel less and less interested in the Tour de France. Why should I care about drug abusers who ride machines that cost more than I make in a year but who can't pee without direction from their manager and are unable to ride without the comfort of a support car? I realize this is a very jaded view and I am sure most of the riders would correct me on many of those notions. I don't mean to say that the riders are anything other than impressive athletes, but it does appear that their job has been made easier over the years. Somewhere between re-forging a fork and carbon fiber, something was lost.

Here is another way to think about it. The Tour de France is the most televised yearly sporting event in the world. Out of all sporting events it only gets lower ratings than the Olympics and the World Cup. It is what represents cycling to the world, yet it is a deformed contrivance of what riding a bike means to me. The tour has basically nothing to do with most people see as riding a bike. I think even most spandex clad road cyclists would admit it doesn't accurately reflect what they do. It has become a parody of how people commute, exercise, get outside, travel, and yes even race.

So what is the point of holding to tour? Why have a bike race at all? It seems the obvious answer would be to see who is fastest. Yet, why hold it on the road at all? If the goal was just to find out who could push pedals harder, faster, and longer, that could be done inside a gym on a stationary bicycle. (I doubt that would reach anything close to the same TV ratings though.) It also doesn't seem that impressive. The reason to hold an open road race is partially because of the dirt, the tight turns, the huge downhills, the fear of crashes, contending with the rain, snow, or heat. In short, it is about the romance. It isn't just the riders strength that is at question. It is also the athlete's intelligence and adaptability that inspire people. Those are things that steroids can't invigorate, nor fast bikes reinforce.


So how do you make the Tour de France more exciting. (If you read the section above, I guess nothing. It is the most watched yearly sporting event, remember?) For those of you who have felt the same way and see these arguments as cogent however, I have a few suggestions.

Ban Radios
I realize this is already being done, so I don't have much to complain about here. So far most of the debate has been on the idea that radios make boring races. I believe slightly differently, radios make boring racers. The riders should themselves be able to choose when to attach, chase, or hold back. That intuition is part of what makes a good racer, and hopefully a fun race to watch. I will be really interested to see the changes it brings to next year's tour.

One Bicycle
Only allow competitors to have one bicycle to use for the whole race. The compromises made in frame and gearing should really accentuate the differences between riders. This is a good thing as hopefully it will really bring out the style of racing each rider has.

Restrict Support Cars
I don't care how many cars each team has, but they should not be allowed beyond the last cyclist. So to replace a flatted wheel, the racer will have to wait for the entire peleton to pass before they can get a new wheel from the support car. This will force racers on a team to work together to make minor repairs. Team members may also have to sacrifice by giving up a wheel or other item to a leader. Riders will also need to manage their nutritional resources. This should include staging people to hand out water and food from the sidelines.

Hopefully these changes would make the racing more fun and realistic. It should also reduce the necessity for using steroids. The quality of a rider would be more than just brute strength or endurance, he would also have to be an intelligent manager of himself, his bike and his team. It would be a much more engaging story and hopefully provide for more great moments and fantastic finishes. Finally, this might also have great impacts on cycling at large. Hopefully that will spur innovations in bicycles for more than just elite racers. New designs and ideas that will help the guy in the yellow jersey as well as those of us in cotton t-shirts.


I do have one final note. Something that I hadn't thought about until I started do my research on the history of the Tour de France. It just seemed fun, new, and yet classic way to get a little inspiration into the event. So here it is:

Night Riding
I wish they would bring this back. I realize when it was first introduced there was no way to ensure the riders weren't using alternative transportation. Now a simple GPS receiver could solve that problem. Again this would be a stage that was more mental than physical requirements. Riders would have to be somewhat cautious while travelling on darkened roads. Hopefully it would provide more innovations in bike lights as well. Plus it would be cool to watch, if you could see it. I think the biggest problem would be how to film it...

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this rant. Comments are quite welcome, even if they are to say I don't have a clue what I am talking about.


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