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The Tour de France: Who cares? You should

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Do professional cyclists have time for the scenery in the Tour de France? Only when they break down in front of it, we're guessing. Photo by Graham Watson
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Have you ever watched a great movie that had you on the edge of your seat the whole time? Sure you have. You’re glued to the screen, watching an action-packed two hours — and at the end, you can’t wait for the next one. 

What if the next one was just a day away? What if this went on for three weeks straight? Can you imagine how exhausted you'd be? 

Now just imagine how exhausted the riders in the Tour de France are after 2,100 miles and 21 days of racing.

That’s right — three weeks of pedaling an average of 100 miles a day across France, over some of the highest paved roads in the world. Riders battle wind, rain, snow, summer heat, and sometimes, all of this in a single day. 

It’s nuts, right? Well, that’s Le Tour.

And with Andy Schleck — a two-time runner up in the Tour de France — holding the yellow jersey and a 53-second lead heading into the mega race's next-to-last stage Saturday, this year's Lance Armstrong-less Tour has been one of the more exciting ones in recent memory.

Listen and learn, Fred

I get asked all the time why I follow professional cycling. Most people would just as soon watch curling than sit through a bike race.

But they simply don’t understand what’s going on. I’m here to help. I started asking around to see what all the confusion was about. I was a little worried that I’d get “Why do they all wear those pointy helmets?” or “Doesn’t that seat hurt?” To my surprise, my friends that have no cycling knowledge whatsoever actually had intelligent questions about the sport.

 Now just imagine how exhausted the riders in the Tour de France are after 2,100 miles and 21 days of racing.  

To make it easier to follow, I’m just going to refer to those friends as Fred. In cycling, a "Fred" is a newbie. He’s the guy who shows up to a training ride in a T-shirt and basketball shorts. He’s someone who has the desire to learn, but hasn’t quite figured out what’s going on. Yet. 

Well, Fred, I’m here to turn you into a cyclist.

Fred: What kind of training does it take to compete in the Tour?

Mike: In short, a LOT. Professional riders will typically ride over 20,000 miles a year. Unlike many sports, there really isn’t an off-season for cycling.

Even when there aren’t any races scheduled, riders are putting in six to eight hour days on the bike to build endurance. For Tour prep, it usually starts a month or two after the Tour finishes. They’ll start by logging in base miles, slowly building to more intense workouts.

After a proper base has been established, they start targeting smaller stage races to test fitness. There are several primer races that are only a week long, like the Tour de Suisse, which offer everyone a chance to test their fitness against other contenders.

Fred: Speaking of contenders, how many people ride and how do you get in?

Mike: Well, every year the race organizers pay close attention to the races leading up to the tour. They’ll invite 22 teams from around the world that they’ve deemed worthy of competing in the biggest stage race each year.

It’s always a controversy, because not every team will get an invite. Riders will frequently switch teams in the off-season, hoping to become a featured rider — only to get snubbed from the Tour because their new team doesn’t have the budget or track record that the others do. 

Each team is allowed to bring nine riders each with a particular assignment. Some teams come looking for stage wins, and are built around sprinters. Other teams are there for the overall victory, and are built around great all-around riders. 

In order to win the Tour de France, you have to be able to ride near the front in the flat and windy stages, climb in the high mountains, and be an exceptional individual time trialist.

It takes a special person to be able to do all of these things, and teams select certain riders to help in all of these situations.  

Fred: What happens if your bike breaks during the race?

Mike: This happens all the time. Riders have to battle flat tires, broken spokes, bikes mangled from crashes, and just plain equipment failure.

Each team has a car that follows the race. They carry spare bikes for each rider and several extra sets of wheels. In the case of a flat tire, riders can either accept a wheel from a teammate who then waits for the team car, or they can stop and wait themselves.

In slower moving parts of the tour, it’s OK to wait, because they can generally get back on without too much trouble. On occasion though, a badly timed puncture can cost a rider time in the general classification.

Crashes happen, too. It can be like NASCAR out there — except the only thing between you and sliding down the pavement at more than 50 mph is a thin layer of Lycra.

After a crash, riders will normally get a new bike and make their way back to the group. If this happens in the last three kilometers — regardless of the outcome — they won’t be penalized for time lost. 

If the rider is behind the team car and has a problem, the race organizers do provide limited assistance in the way of wheels and bikes.  

Fred: What kind of toll does it take on the body to complete the race?

Mike: Riders face four to eight hours on the bike a day, riding through all sorts of weather conditions. They endure long bus transfers in between stages, and they sometimes sleep in hotels that rival dorm rooms in their lack of amenities. 

The average rider will consume more than 130,000 calories over the three-week period — that’s more than three times the average person's needs!

Because of the stage lengths, riders have to be able to fuel up on the road. They carry water bottles on their bikes and food in their pockets. During the race, they’ll often take on more of each from the team car or while riding through a designated “feed zone." 

Even if you hydrate and eat enough, you still have to avoid crashes and mental breakdown. Riders push themselves to the limit every day, and in these moments, a lack of focus can be disastrous. 

Sometimes it’s not even the riders' fault. Equipment failure, spectators, support crews, and even dogs can change the outcome of the race. 

Luck is also a pretty big factor.

Fred: What kind of speeds are they doing?

Mike: It depends on the terrain and length of the stage. You also have to factor in wind direction and weather. The average speed over the weeks is usually around 24 mph. This includes flat stages that can average in excess of 28 mph, climbing mountains as low as 10 mph, and downhill sections reaching over 50 mph

There are usually two individual time trials between four and 25 miles that the riders have to complete on their own. Many of the riders will average over 30 mph over these stages. 

Aerodynamics play a huge part in these races, and teams spare no expense on equipment and testing to ensure that no energy is wasted.  

Now that you’re caught up to speed, we still haven’t answered the original question: Why do I watch the tour? 

For me, it’s about the stories. Epic battles inside the race for sprint points, mountain points, and young rider points, as well as the overall lead. In a race where the average age is mid twenties, and at 35 you’re considered old, there are constantly new heroes emerging — heroes that show unbelievable grit, riding with broken bones, smashed faces, battered and bruised by a race they want so desperately to impact. 

I watch to see that look of pure joy on their faces when they cross the line for a stage victory. I watch because it reminds me of how much I love riding my bike.

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