Today, July the 18th, 2021, marks the end of this year’s edition of the Tour de France, and what a glorious edition this was. Perfect!
My Love of Bicycle Racing
I have been an assiduous fan of the Tour de France and other races for over 50 years now, listening to live radio broadcasts early on, and even biking to watch the big races, like Liege-Bastogne-Liege or others as they came near my home in Belgium. I grew up with the phenomenon of Eddy Merckx, the Belgian champion who won the Tour de France five times and still has the record of the most stage wins on the Tour (34.)
Fascinating Human Prowess
The Tour de France is a grueling 21-stage race with a couple of rest days in between. The layout of the race changes every year, sometimes starting in neighboring countries but always ending in Paris on the Champs Elysees. Each stage has a different profile. Some are better suited from a sprint finish, others have mountain-top arrivals, and some are time trials where each rider starts on his own and competes against the clock.
Mountain stages include multiple summits, classified by difficulty. This year, Stage 11 included the double ascent of Mount Ventoux, 1,909 meter or 6,263 ft. high. These efforts, repeated over the 21 stages, require astounding physical capabilities and drive. These athletes train all year round for the racing season which includes celebrated one-day races (Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, la Fleche Wallonne, Milan-San Remo) and multi-day tours such as the Tour de France, Vuelta a España, Giro d’Italia, etc.
Strategy and Complexity
Those familiar with me know my interest in complexity, and that is one think I love about the Tour. There are races within the race for different jerseys which are awarded at the end of each stage: Riders are ranked in the General Classification (GC) based on the total accumulated time in the race. The rider on top of the GC at the end of a stage wears the yellow jersey for the next day. The green jersey is for the rider who accumulates the highest number of points given at race finishes – sprinters tend to grab the highest number of points. The polka–dot (King of the Mountain or KoM) jersey is for the rider who accumulates the most points on mountain climbs. The white jersey is for the rider under the age of 16 who has accumulated the least time.
Riders are part of teams (of 8) sponsored by private companies (they used to be country-based.) Teams are made of a million moving parts, and each team has a strategy for each stage and for the Tour as a whole.
- Teams typically have GC specialists who would be contenders to win the race or be in the top 10 in Paris,
- Teams have sprinters who rush to the front at the end of (typically) flat stages to collect available green jersey points (not as easy as it sounds)
- Teams also have breakaway specialists who put pressure on the riders, breaking away, and trying to win stages, a prized mention on their resumes…
- Teams have mountain climbers whose job is to go after KoM points.
Usually, top riders in a team are assisted by other riders, the so-called “domestiques” who assist their top riders and make sure that they are in the best position to score points. Domestiques also help top riders by sheltering them from aerodynamic forces and wind that take so much energy on the road. Domestiques may only be allowed to win stages with the blessing of team directors, perhaps as a way to deny other teams points or for other strategic reasons.
Teams now depend on sophisticated communications systems connecting riders, team directors, race director, and support staff. Developments during the course of a day, such as crashes, breakaways, strong winds, the physical conditions of particular riders, etc. require team directors to devise short-term strategies to maximize points gained in one category or another. Riders may drop out and abandon the Tour because of injuries or because they may have exceeded overall time limits. As teams thin out over the course of the 21-stage race (and some teams may loose more riders than others,) team directors will readjust their race strategy, and perhaps promote some super-domestiques to leading roles. It is fascinating to follow these strategic dances coupled with the drive and amazing physical efforts of each rider on a daily basis.
This Year’s Tour
This years’ edition of the Tour was fantastic! The route and sequence of stages were excellent, with twists and turns, not only on the road but in the competition. The weather was great, and the views outstanding, as always. A huge number of excited fans and spectators were watching the proceedings from the side of the road (much publicity was given to an incident where a rider was hit by spectator sign which then caused a major crash, but this was in part due to the riders being too close together and too fast on a very narrow road.)
Three things I will remember most about this year’s Tour:
- The return of Mark Cavendish: Mark, age 36, had not won a stage of Europe’s three Grand Tours of Italy, France and Spain since 2016. He was recruited into his Belgian team less than a week before the 2021 Tour began. Then he won stage 4, and stage 6, and stage 10, …and stage 13! Mark equaled the record number of Tour de France stage wins of Eddy Merckx (34 wins,) an amazing accomplishment. None of this, quite frankly, would have been possible without the so-called Wolfpack train, Cavendish’s teammates, and particularly Michael Mørkøv, who spotted him in the final 200 meters of the stages he won. An amazing combination of strategy, teamwork and talent.
- A bold new generation of riders: Great new riders have emerged from this year’s TDF: Tadej Pogačar, 22, won last year after snatching the victory from his countryman Primoz Roglic at the penultimate stage. This year, Tadej was an assured, strategic (yeah, I like that word) rider who was in control throughout the race, with three stage wins, and as comfortable in the mountains as in the time trial. Wout van Aert, champion of Belgium also won three stages, including the sprint in Paris, denying Cavendish a record 35th stage win. I guess his countryman Baron Eddy Merckx was pleased! Jonas Vingegaard, a 24-year old first-time Tour rider from Denmark did not win a single stage this year. He was “promoted” when his team boss, Primoz Roglic, abandoned the Tour due to injuries. Jonas ran a very smart race, being there when it mattered, gaining time on his competitors and consistently moving up in the GC day after day. He finished second this year. Watch out next year!
- Grown men crying: Another thing I will remember from this year’s Tour is the sight of grown men not afraid to cry when overwhelmed by the joy of their stage wins. I think we have come a long way from the days when men crying in public was frowned upon. First it was Julian Alaphilippe in stage 1, then Matthew Van der Poel who won stage 2. He dedicated his win to his late grandfather Raymond Poulidor, the famous French rider who always finished second and never wore the yellow jersey. Then it was Mark Cavendish in stage 4, realizing he had won over his illnesses and inner demons. Then Matej Mohoric in stage 7. Boyz, crying is OK 🙂
See You Next Year!
#TDF2021 #TDF #tourdefrance