I love the Tour de France, and not just because for three weeks of the year men with very skinny arms (like myself) are feted as sporting heroes. I love the drama of the cycling, I love listening to Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwin and Matt Keenan call the race, I love ogling Chateaus in the French countryside, and I love that, for the last week or so of the tour, people in Melbourne start talking about cycling as they would about football or cricket. Men driving Commodores temporarily refrain from loudly questioning your sexual preferences as you ride past. Women in BMW X5’s suddenly acknowledge your presence on the road (only kidding…no one driving an X5 is even remotely aware of anyone else on the road). Unfortunately this also means that the muppet who wasted valuable minutes of your life yesterday droning on about how ‘Fremantle can’t make the 8 because their defensive structures don’t allow them to play transition footy and blah, blah blah’…suddenly feels that they have the right to talk as if they know something about cycling. Chances are they won’t, and they will know this. So I’m No Expert But…here’s are some terms that you need to know about le Tour if you want to intimidate these people into silence by creating the impression you know all about cycling.
From the French word ‘Peloton’ meaning ‘group of cyclists who are too lazy to join the breakaway’ this is the main group of cyclists. There may be some people ahead, and some people behind, but this is where most of the cyclists are. Why? Because having someone riding in front of you (and thus absorbing most of the wind resistance) can save up to 30% of your energy. Get a big group of people riding in front of you, and you can pretty much just pedal the bare minimum and you will still be cruising along (often at about 60 – 70kmh).
There was a great article in Cycling Tips recently where Rupert Guinness compared the peloton to the villain in a movie, and this is so true. No matter how hard you try to get away, the strength in numbers of the peloton will always draw you back in and swallow you up…they may as well just play the Darth Vader music each time the peloton appears on screen.
You know those riders I was talking about who are ahead of the peloton? These are the breakaway. Basically this is a group of riders who have decided that today is the day that they can beat the peloton and win the stage. About 95% of the time they are wrong, and get reeled in with about 2kms to go (if a couple of riders have worked really well in a break away but then realise that they have been caught, they will often sit up and shake hands or acknowledge the work the other rider has done…it’s one of the many parts of cycling I find so endearing).
So why do they do it? Well there are always a couple of breakaways who actually make it stick and outrun the peloton. Then suddenly you’re not competing with hundreds of riders for the stage win…you only have to beat 2 or 3…hell you should get a podium finish no matter what.
There is also the matter of sponsorship. Every cycling team has a sponsor, and if they have the choice of having their logo tucked away in the peloton where no one can see it…or out in front for a couple of hours with only a few other cyclists and a lot of cameras. Then they will take option number two, thank you very much.
Basically sprinters spend the vast majority of the race sitting in the peloton, then about 1km from the finish they start riding very fast, with about 400m to go they start riding very, very fast, and over the last 50m they ride at a speed and with a lack of concern for their own personal safety that is equal parts dazzling and horrifying. Any photos you see of them will either be them with their arms raised triumphantly having just won a stage of the race, or of them on the ground surrounded by the carnage of yet another crash.
Their prize is the Green jersey…and bragging rights.
Every gram of body-weight you have is another gram you have to lug up a sodding mountain…so the climbers are usually almost skeletal in their upper body. But watching a good climber fly up a near vertical road is pure poetry.
Their reward is the polka dot jersey…and the ‘pleasure’ of spending an inordinate amount of time having fat, topless men running alongside them yelling things.
These are the general classification riders. They’re not the best sprinters, or the best hill climbers or the best time trialists…but they are insanely good at all three of them, and often have an entire team helping them. Their aim is to win the overall race, and the coveted yellow jersey.
So there we have the first couple of key terms you need to use liberally in sentences with people who you think are bluffing their cycling knowledge (for example “Wow, I thought last night’s race was going to be one for the climbers, but when the peloton reeled in that breakaway, it was all down to the sprinters. Didn’t hurt Cadel’s GC chances though.”)
I’ll be back next week with some more advanced terms like echelon, lanterne rouge and Gabriel Gate.