Beyond the doping scandals, cheating tactics and a century-old legacy, the actual mechanics of The Tour de France are more complex and gruelling than the average non-cycling enthusiast would guess. Before we get into the strategies and tactics, however, let’s first understand how it all began.
In 1903, The Tour de France was the first cycling race set up and sponsored by the newspaper L’Auto, ancestor of the current daily, L’Équipe. The race was invented to boost the circulation of L’Auto after it started to plummet from fierce competition. L’Auto’s editor, Henri Desgrange, organised a 19-day, 2400km bike race around France. It was an immediate success and has since become an annual competition, with new routes added year after year, making the race more challenging and more interesting to follow. Now, the Tour de France hosts competitors from all over the globe, spanning 21 days (stages) and 2 rest days.
What makes the race so brutal is the 3 different stages – time trials, flat and mountain. In 1910, one of the riders, Alphonse Steines suggested a new twist to the current route, “The Tourmalet”. This was a brutal 19km uphill climb and ascended 1400m up the summit. A cyclist, Octave Lapize, became the first cyclist to successfully complete the Tourmalet route in 1910. Fun fact! Once he reached the top, Lapize famously called the race organisers assassins “vous etês des assassins!” due to the sheer difficulty of the route. Ever since the victory of Lapize, climbs became a staple of the Tour de France.
Throughout the flat stages, racers utilise a strategy called ‘Peloton’. To explain in the simplest way, cyclists ride behind other cyclists to conserve energy. The biggest challenge here is wind resistance. However, when cyclists seek shelter behind the front-most competitors, a wind-shield is formed, significantly decreasing wind resistance (15-20% less), allowing cyclists to save energy by having to cycle with less power. That’s why most of the tour’s best riders stick to the middle of the pack in this stage, letting their weaker teammates do the hard work now, so that the strong cyclists are well-rested for the harder stages, the climbs.
When the Peloton starts cycling uphill, the battle shifts from one with wind resistance, to one with gravity. Unlike wind resistance, gravity affects all cyclists the same. The herd begins to thin. The strongest emerge to the front and an internal battle of wills and endurance is waged within. Each cyclist becomes an island, having to rely on his own strength and iron will to overcome the mountain, or succumb to its prowess. The racers that manage to pull ahead set the pace, and the others must keep up or risk falling irreparably behind. Weaker cyclists begin to crack under the immense pressure and pain, falling farther and farther behind the stronger powerhouses leading the race. Ultimately, only the fittest survive and are crowned winners of one of the most revered races in the cycling world.