Why be part of a breakaway in the Tour de France?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do cyclists in the Tour de France bother going out on breakaways? They always get caught!! What is the point?


Dear Lester,

It’s one of the most common and most heartbreaking sights of the Tour de France — a small group of riders, or even a single rider, have led the race for fifty miles or more, over mountains and through valleys, across bridges and through forests. Then, with the finish line metaphorically or sometimes even literally in sight, they are caught by the big pack of riders called the peloton. How does the peloton always seem to catch them at just the right time? Why can they go faster than the breakaway? And, as you put it, why bother going out on breakaways if you’re always going to get caught?

First they physics of it —  the peloton is always able to go faster than a single rider or small group of riders because they have more riders to rotate through the painful position of being at the head of the pack. The person in front “breaks the wind” for all the riders behind them. This is an exhausting position, and even the superhuman (implication intended) athletes of the Tour de France can only do it at full effort for so long. In a solo breakaway, a rider must always fight the wind, in a small breakaway, even when the riders cooperate, each person’s share of the effort is bigger than in the peloton. Race radios, allowing team coaches to communicate with the riders on the course, help the peloton time its effort so that it catches the breakaway at just the right moment.

Luckily for viewers of the Tour, there are still a bunch of legitimate reasons for cyclists to go out on breakaways. A tour with nothing but a single pack of riders would make for boring viewing!

Like in many European sports, there is more than just one prize to shoot for in the Tour. Aside from the yellow jersey, which goes to the rider that completes the stage and eventually the race in the least amount of time, there are two other cumulative jerseys to race for. The green jersey goes to the best sprinter in the race and the red polka-dot jersey on a white background goes to the King of the Mountains. In order to win either of these jerseys (and the money that comes along with the prestige) you have to accrue the largest number of mountain or sprint points during the tour. Although many of the biggest sprints (and a few of the biggest mountain summits) are at the end of stages, most of them are intermediate or during the race. A rider in a breakaway has a good shot at winning an intermediate sprint or being the first over a summit. This helps if they are in contention for the green jersey or the King of the Mountain competition or it can help a teammate of theirs if it denies someone on another team those points. And, these intermediate sprints and summits come with cash prizes.

A third, less visible secondary prize may even be more directly affected by participating in a valiant but eventually unsuccessful breakaway — the Combativity Award. Unlike all the other competitions we’ve discussed before, this award is subjective. A panel of judges watches and votes on the rider for each stage and for the tour as a whole (the one for the tour as a whole is called the “super-combativity award… I’m guessing there may be some slight transliteration issues here…) who is most aggressive. Although this award does not come with a jersey, it does come with cash and some amount of notice in the cycling world.

If you’ve been watching the Tour, you no doubt noticed that each rider wears a jersey with their team’s sponsor emblazoned all over it. The brand name of the sponsor IS the team name. It’s not the “Amazon Bowstrings,” it’s just “Amazon.” Although this may feel foreign to American sports fans who quiver just at the thought of putting an advertisement on their favorite team’s jersey, it’s an integral part of cycling. A rider who can make it into a small group at the head of the race and stay there for three or four hours has successfully captured free advertising for their sponsor for the same amount of time on television. And that rider knows the team sponsor will notice it and remember when the time comes to renew contracts.

So far we’ve been describing only rationales for taking part in a breakaway that don’t have to do with winning the race, either that day or the whole tour. Well, here’s a tactical reason that does have to do with winning. A team that has a rider in contention for winning the whole race (called general classification or GC) may sometimes want to hide one or two of that rider’s teammates in a doomed breakaway. That way, if the GC rider feels like they have an edge on some of their GC competitors and is able to break away from the peleton, they will have teammates ahead of them who can fall back and help their GC teammate extend his lead over the other GC riders.

If all of these reasons are still not good enough, there is this: sometimes it does work. Sometimes the peloton, even with the advantage of physics and race radios, mis-times their charge and can’t catch up in time. Or, sometimes the team tacticians may decide it’s simply not worth expending the energy to catch the breakaway. Cycling is a relatively predictable sport after the first five to ten riders. If no one in the breakaway group is in the top ten, they probably pose no threat to the GC riders who feel they have a chance at winning the whole race. So, those GC riders and their teams may decide it’s more important to save their energy or try to make a late move on another GC rider than to organize the peloton for a long chase.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How do repechages work in Olympic rowing?

Dear Sports Fan,

I have become an Olympic junkie this year. I watch it all, from volleyball to table tennis to swimming! I have a question about rowing. I was watching a race and some of the boats qualified for the semi finals and some for something called a repechage. What is a repechage and how do repechages work in Olympic rowing?


Dear Marcella,

How cool that you’re enjoying the Olympics this year. A repechage is certainly a rare thing in sports. I wondered about it as well. It comes from the French verb, “repêch” which means literally to “fish up again.” Idiomatically, it means “to get a second chance.” In the context of rowing, a repechage is a race that gives athletes a second chance to advance to the next round in their event.

The way a repechage works in rowing depends on how many boats are racing in that event. In smaller events, the top two or three boats from each heat (the first race in an event) qualify for the semifinals. The rest of the boats get one more chance to qualify for the finals by placing in the top two or three of a repechage against other boats who did not qualify. In larger races, the repechage may sit between the initial heats and a semifinal race. In addition to rowing, Olympic track cycling has repechage races in the sprint and keirin events.

Do repechages make sporting events more or less fair? You could argue both positions. On one hand, having a repechage means that a single mistake can’t eliminate a team. If a great team has a terrible day, they can come back, win the repechage, or at least do well in it, and still make the finals or semifinals. On the other hand, the use of a repechage may make the semifinals or finals less even. Setting aside the fact, for a moment, that teams that lose an early race tend to be worse, on average, than teams that win an early race, the repechage still presents a problem for competition. By the time the finals come around, a team that had to go through a repechage has suffered through at least one more race than athletes who won their first race. This effect of a format isn’t unheard of — some American football teams get a “bye” going into the playoffs, meaning they play one fewer game than their opponents — but in a competition with a compressed schedule, like the Olympics, this can really tilt things. Now you have athletes who could not win their first race and who are now more fatigued than their opponents, going up against them in a final or semifinal. It’s a rare feat to come back from a repechage and win a medal!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Summer Olympics: All About Cycling

All About Cycling

Although it has a much lower profile than swimming, track and field, or gymnastics, cycling is a big part of the summer olympics. There are eighteen different cycling events offering a wide variety of tactical and visceral thrills to viewers. From splattering mud to splintering wood, solo feats and teamwork, cycling has a little something for everyone.

How Does Cycling Work?

It’s just like riding a bike! Jokes aside, most of us kind of know how bicycles work, even if we couldn’t describe why they stay up scientifically. Every cycling event has one goal and rewards one quality — speed. Finish first, and you win.

Why do People Like Watching Cycling?

Each cycling event has its own appeal. I enjoy watching the road races the best because of their complex team tactics. Like in the Tour de France most of the riders are race their hearts out in order to set up one of their teammates for victory. That type of self-sacrifice touches me. BMX cycling brings aerial thrills and, if you are unscrupulous to admit it, the promise of spectacular spills. All together though, cycling is enjoyable because you’re watching athletes do something you CAN do in a way you can’t even imagine being able to do.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

There are 18 different cycling events in the 2016 Summer Olympics – nine for men and nine for women. An easy way to categorize them is by looking at the surface of the race. Two are on roads, one on mountain trails, one on constructed dirt courses, and five on an inclined wooden oval track called a velodrome.

Of the two races on roads, one is mostly a team event and one basically an individual one. In the road race, all the cyclists start together and riders from each country will work together to create the conditions for one of their riders to make it onto the podium. In the time trial, cyclists start staggered in 90 second intervals and, unless they are passing or being passed, are mostly alone on the road.

In mountain biking and BMX, riders start together and battle it out to finish first. The BMX competition is organized like many of the swimming and running races with initial heats that you have to finish in the top half of to qualify for the finals.

The velodrome is where things get confusing. There is the sprint and team sprint, when competing riders or teams start together, and the team pursuit where teams of riders start on opposite sides of the track and chase one another (although almost never catch each other). There is the keirin, where cyclists have to stay behind a dude (or dudette) on a motor scooter until the last three laps when they get to go as fast as they can. And, finally, there is the Omnium, which consists of six different types of races. I won’t go into detail on all of the six here, but some of them are truly wacky and it’s fun to watch and see if you can figure out how they work!

How Dangerous is Cycling?

Cycling is very dangerous. True, there aren’t cars around to hit these cyclists or door them, but on the other hand, they are going really, really fast. When a cyclist going 45 mph hits the ground, it barely matters if it’s asphalt, dirt, rocky dirt, or wood, it’s going to tear skin and maybe break bones.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Cycling?

On paper, cycling looks like a pretty good sport for gender equality. The only difference is that women’s races are slightly shorter in some events. Alas, because I know a bit more about cycling than some of the other events, I know that the actual state of gender equality in cycling is awful. Women’s teams are not supported even one eighth as well as men’s, and there is a distinctly chauvinist attitude throughout the sport.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Cycling is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 21.

Read more about cycling on the official Rio Olympics sites for BMX, Mountain, Road, and Track.

Fund this project: Cycling Party

Whether you’re an avid sports cyclist, a fan of professional cyclists, or just someone who rides her bike to work everyday and loves board games, you might be interested in this clever board game that represents cycling in an innovative way. Cycling Party is the product of two cycling and board game enthusiasts, Leandro Pérez and Diego Hernando. You can find information about the game on their website, www.cyclingparty.com, follow them on Twitter, and help fund their game on Kickstarter.

The game’s simplest version, the junior game, does a great job of teaching the basics of bicycle racing. For example, riders can be in three situations — in the big group of riders, the peleton, a smaller group, the paceline, or alone in a breakaway. In each setting, how far and fast the racers go is determined by rolling two dice but the results are interpreted in different ways — ways that make sense given how things actually work in a race. Riders in the peleton generally move together at the pace of the fastest rider (the highest roll) in the group. Only an extraordinarily good or bad roll will see a rider fall off the back of the peleton or escape away from it. In a small group, a paceline, the riders will still generally stick together  but it takes less to break the group apart. A difference in roll of only four will see one rider move ahead or behind the group. When a rider is all alone, his pace is up to him and him alone. In the real world, this means that a group will almost always catch a lone cyclist because the group can trade off the hard work of leading the pack. In the game, the group moves at a pace set by the highest of several rolls while a lone cyclist only gets one roll. The junior version of the game recognizes the difficulty of climbing mountains by forcing every rider in a peleton or paceline to act like a rider in a breakaway — moving only at their own pace — on mountain roads. It’s a clever way of teaching beginning cycling mechanics while also creating a compelling game.

The senior game adds specialized roles for riders into the mix. Players designate riders as sprinters, climbers, roulers (cyclists who are good at everything,) flat domestiques, mountain section domestiques, and lanterne rouges (basic riders.) Each type of rider has slightly different variables which modify the effect of the die rolled for them each term. The senior game also adds some tactics other than go-very-fast to the game: attacks, retreats, and risky descents abound.

To the excellent gameplay of the junior and senior games, the last version of the game, the master game, adds the element of a multi-stage tour to the mix. Cycling’s greatest and most popular race is the Tour de France. Run annually since 1903, the Tour de France is run (rode) in 21 stages over 23 days. It covers more than 2,000 miles each year. The brilliance of the race, from a fan’s perspective, is that it combines amazing physical feats with interesting one-day tactics and team strategies that bridge the race from stage to stage. The master version of Cycling Party tries to emulate that. I’ve always found the season or campaign version of sports games to be the most compelling. The length of these modes give your imagination a chance to run its course and get attached to the imaginary athletes you control.

I love the way Cycling Party demystifies the physical realities that drive professional cycling and puts players in the place of team managers and riders, forced to make tactical choices to win the race. Help make the game a reality!

Why Don't They Race the Last Stage of the Tour de France?

Dear Sports Fan,

Something a little strange happens on the last stage of the Tour de France: the riders drink champagne. Why is this? What is going on? Why don’t they race the last stage of the Tour de France?


— — —

Dear Julio,

You’re absolutely right, the last stage of the Tour de France isn’t much of a race and some of the cyclists will have champagne in hand during the race. The Tour de France is a 21 stage race held over 23 days. The total distance of the course is 2,276 miles and the overall result of the Tour is the cumulative time it takes to complete all 2,276 of these miles. The primary reason why the last stage is largely ceremonial is because the standings are almost always set in stone by the time the riders get to the last day. For instance, this year, the leader, Vincenzo Nibali is 7:52 ahead of the second place rider, Jean-Christophe Peraud.

The time gaps between second and third and third and fourth are much closer — each around a minute. This leads us to the second reason why the last stage is not often the setting for any real racing: the course. The course of the last stage varies from tour to tour but it is almost always easier than a normal stage. It is flat and it ends with several loops around city streets in Paris with the finish line on the historic Champs-Élysées. On this type of course, winning the stage by more than a few seconds is almost impossible, even if the riders were to try to do so. The main way that cyclists pick up time on one another in the Tour de France is by making sprints up mountains that their competitors literally cannot force their bodies to keep up with. Cycling is a brutal sport because you usually can’t win by being more clever than your rivals and you usually can’t lose unless your body hurts so badly that it simply refuses to keep up with the winner. This isn’t to say that there are no tactics in cycling — there are — but they all involve applying pain to rivals. There’s just no way to do this on a flat stage.

The third reason why they don’t race the last stage of the Tour de France is tradition. To try to improve your overall standing in the last stage is thought to be highly uncouth and against the ethics of the sport. How can top-flight, insanely competitive athletes put up with a tradition that involves not trying? It’s perhaps not as rare as one might think, especially in situations where the chances of success are very low — where the game is basically over. This happens in American Football when the team leading the game has the ball and because of the minutiae of how the clock works, doesn’t really need to do anything to win. In this case they “kneel it out” — simulating plays by hiking the ball to the quarterback and then kneeling down. In NBA basketball, it’s common for a trailing team to intentionally foul the leading team in the last couple minutes of the game because, although they give up free throws, they stop the clock which gives them a better chance to catch up. Teams that are down by more than 10 points or so don’t normally do this, even in elimination playoff games where there is no competitive reason to give up. Nonetheless, the power of tradition, professional ethics, and social mores outweighs the competitive truth that .00001% chance of winning is better than 0%.

This doesn’t mean that the last stage of the Tour de France is a bore. It’s not. The last ten or fifteen minutes of the race are fascinating and exciting! While the overall standings won’t change, it is extremely prestigious to win the last stage of the tour. Teams with sprinting specialists who have survived the mountains of the tour will be desperately trying to set them up to win the last stage. The way a team can help a sprinter is by racing really, really fast (but not as fast as he can go) in front of him until the very last moment when he bursts out from behind his teammates and powers himself up to almost 50 mph. As a consequence of all these teams attempting to lead their sprinters out at precisely the right moment, the peloton (large group of cyclists) looks like this massive, lunatic monster that is trying to burst out of its own skin. It’s a sight to behold.

The final stage of the 2014 Tour de France will air live on NBCSN beginning at 9:00 a.m. EDT, Sunday July 27. Tune in at 9:00 for pageantry and scenery but if you want to see the final sprint, 12:45 p.m. EDT might be a good time. The race is predicted to end somewhere between 1 and 1:20 p.m. EDT.

Ezra Fischer

Understanding Tour de France TV Graphics – Department Numbers

Dear Sports Fan,

While watching LIVE broadcast from Tour de France, from time to time there is a note with the name of place, city where particular racers are. And there is always a number in brackets. And I’m wondering, what does that number mean?

Best Regards,

Tour de France Number
What does the 88 mean?

— — —

Dear Michal,

Thanks so much for your question and for sending a screenshot of the TV graphic you’re asking about. I had no idea what those numbers are but this morning, I woke up and searched around on the internet for a while and I think I’ve figured it out.

The number in brackets next to the name of the town the Tour de France riders are racing through is the department of France the town is in. For example, in the image here, the riders are traveling through Saint-Etienne-les-Remiremont. Saint-Etienne-les-Remiremont is a small commune or township in France which is 70% covered by forest and has around 1,500 households in it. It sounds like a very nice place except for the periodic tragic floods it withstands due to being at the base of a water-system from a glacial lake in the mountains above it. The town was first settled in 870 by a monastery of women. Most importantly to our discussion though is that it is within the Vosges department.

A department is one of the tiered level of regional government in France: regions, departments, and communes in order of size. The history of the department is fascinating. It was created during the French Revolution and was intended to be a rational way of dividing the country. Each of the 83 (there are now 96) departments was designed so that its farthest inhabitants would still only be a day’s trip on horseback from the capital of the department and its borders were intentionally drawn across traditional boundaries to break up older political identities. The departments were named after geographic  features instead of ethnic or political ones. A pessimist would say that this was because the leaders of the French revolution had recently seen just how vulnerable a government can be if it can’t control its people but an optimist would reply back that a certain amount of central control and assimilation is necessary to establish the identity of any nation.

Of course, at this point, all we’re trying to do is enjoy watching the Tour de France on television! Today’s stage 20 will travel through the department of Dordogne [24,] so watch out for the number 24 as you go! If you want to know more about Dordogne or almost any department of France, you can go to its website which is usually www.cg[department number].fr. Dordogne’s is www.cg24.fr.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of the Tour,
Ezra Fischer

Understanding Tour de France TV Graphics

I’ve been watching the Tour de France since I was a little kid and it’s still often hard for me to figure out what the heck is going on during its television broadcast. A bicycle race is a complex thing. There are dozens of riders, riding in teams of nine, each with different uniforms and riding with different goals in mind. The riders start each day in a big clump, called the peloton, but before long, they have split up into groups that may be miles apart from one another. The television coverage jumps from group to group with cameras on motorcycles and helicopters. The announcers do their best to keep viewers informed about who and what they’re watching at any given moment, but even they sometimes have a hard time (remember that they, like us, are elsewhere watching the race unfold on screens,) telling the difference between one powerful tiny cyclist and another powerful tiny cyclist. Added to all this chaos are graphics on the top and bottom of the TV screen packed full of information. If you learn how to read these, they can actually help you keep track of what’s going on. Let’s go through a couple screenshots from yesterday’s stage.

Tour de France Screenshot 1

Okay, there’s a lot going on here. Start with the obvious. We’ve got two dudes with their shirts undone, wearing spandex, and bicycling really, really hard. Forget all that, let’s focus on the information at the top and bottom of the screen.

  • On the top left is a black and white checkered flag and a distance, 5.9 miles. The checkered flag denotes the finish line, just like it does in car racing, and the distance is how far the cyclist leading today’s stage of the race is from the finish line. The Tour de France is broken up into 21 days or stages of racing. Each stage has its own winner but the person with the lowest combined time at the end is the overall winner.
  • Continuing on from the top left, the rest of the information at the top shows how the riders have broken up during the day of racing. We can tell that two cyclists (maybe these two guys,) are leading this stage of the race. The next group of riders is fourteen strong and includes a rider wearing a yellow jersey, which is an honor only the leader of the overall race (at the end of yesterday’s stage) is given. A minute behind the front pair, and somewhere behind the group of fourteen (usually they’re pretty good at getting timing on all the riders, but this was going up a steep, winding mountain, and I guess they lost track of some of it) is another group of three riders. Behind them is poor Mister Gadret, cycling all alone, and behind him is the peloton. The peloton is a name used to refer to the biggest group of riders on the road. At the start of each stage, there is only the peloton and everyone is in it. Sometimes though, by the end, there isn’t a group big enough to be referred to in that way. The race has broken the peloton.
  • I mentioned at the start that not all the riders in the Tour de France have the same goals. In addition to the yellow jersey of the overall winner, there are other prizes to fight for. One of them is the white jersey competition for the best young rider. How young do you have to be to qualify for this competition? You must be under 26. At the bottom of the screen, the scroller is showing the standings for the white jersey. Michal Kwiatkowski is in third place, only a minute and thirty eight seconds behind the leader. That’s a minute and thirty eight seconds overall, not in today’s stage.

Let’s try another:

Tour de France Screenshot 2

  • This is earlier in the race — there’s 42 kilometers left, which even I know is more than 5.9 miles.
  • The race has yet to develop and there are a string of solo riders out in front of the main group, the peloton, which still includes the yellow jersey clad overall leader of the tour.
  • In this shot, you can see that each of the riders has a time next to his name at the top. The times are all how far behind they are from the rider leading this stage. So, L. Mate is only 13 seconds behind J. Bakelants and a 1:34 behind the lead not 1:34 behind J. Bakelants and 2:55 behind the leader.
  • Down at the bottom, the scroll is simply reiterating the information at the top, showing that the third chase group, which we know from the top consists of J. Pineau, is 2:40 behind the leader, A. De Marchi.

The Tour de France is the ultimate challenge for its riders but it doesn’t have to be for its viewers. I hope these pointers about how to make sense of the TV graphics will help you enjoy watching the Tour de France.

Why Aren't the Rules the Rules?

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?



Dear Erik,

Great question! In fact, this is such an interesting question that I’m going to break my answer into a couple blog posts.

The bad call that you’re referring to is this one:

It won’t work:

Sports rules are complicated and the action happens very, very quickly. Assuming that there is no way that we’re going to be able to rework the rules to change something as integral as “if the catcher has the ball in his glove and touches the runner before he touches home plate, he’s out” then one has to wonder how technology will help. Setting aside video replay for a second, let’s look for another solution. Okay, so — let’s put a chip in the ball. Then, let’s put some material in the catcher’s glove such that the ball knows when it’s in the glove. Great — now we’re cooking with gas! Now we have to have either more material covering the runner’s uniform… and hands, arms, head, neck, etc. Or, I guess we could just monitor whether the glove is making contact by putting some sort of pressure meeter into the ball or glove. Except that won’t work because that glove could hit the ground, the ump, or the catcher’s own body. I’m not sure any of this will work, so let’s go back and examine video replay.

Video replay is the most common form of technology in sports. Football, basketball, hockey, even baseball (believe it or not) have some form of video replay in their rules. In baseball use of video replay is restricted to basically deciding whether a ball was a home run or whether it never left the ball-park, did leave but was subject to fan interference, or left but was foul (too far off to the side to count.) Other sports have more extensive video replay rules. You may have noticed NFL coaches comically struggling to get a little red flag out of their sock, pants, shirt, etc. and throw it onto the field — they are “challenging” the ref’s judgement and calling for a video replay. Every goal in hockey is reviewed by a team of video officials in Toronto. The NBA has been able to replay shots at the end of quarters and games and just recently added video replay for unclear out-of-bounds calls.

Tennis has a system called Hawkeye. This is probably as close as it gets to your suggestion. According to Wikipedia, “all Hawk-Eye systems are based on the principles of triangulation using the visual images and timing data provided by at least four high-speed video cameras located at different locations and angles around the area of play.” In tennis the rules are objective and there is technology which insures the calls are too. Or at least can be. The computer has not totally replaced the line-judges or the referee yet… although I could see a time in the not so distant future where they could.

Most other sports are not as tidy as tennis though. Take the call at home plate that started this discussion: here’s how Jonah Keri described it on Grantland.com

If you want to use replay to make a simple yes or no call, you won’t get unanimity. And no, the fact that Lugo acted as if he were out does not constitute iron-clad proof.

Watch the replay for yourself, with the sound off.

Here’s what I did see: Lugo starts his slide well in front of the plate. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals starts to make his safe sign just as Lugo touches home with his right foot. There’s no way Meals has time to process the play and rule that Lugo had already touched home. He’s also not looking at Lugo’s foot, but rather at the swipe tag. (It should be noted that Lugo did in fact touch home with his right foot the first time — the follow-up tap of home with his left foot was unnecessary.)

Either way, replay wouldn’t have resolved the issue. Not to the point where all parties, including a purple Clint Hurdle, would have been satisfied.

And, as Keri also points out, at the time of this call, the ump had been on the field working in a high-pressure environment for six hours and 39 minutes. Furthermore — even Baseball is a nice tidy game compared to Hockey or Football. No matter how many cameras, sensors, and computers you have, there is no chance in hell you’ll be able to figure out what happened at the bottom of a pile with thousands of pounds of angry football player fighting over the ball.

More tomorrow…
Ezra Fischer 


How is Cycling a Team Sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

How is cycling a team sport? I remember bicycling alone a lot as a kid and it never seemed to hurt me…



Dear Paul,

Bicycling is definitely something that you can do alone, but cycling — particularly races like the Tour de France — are absolutely team competitions. The Tour de France is the most prestigious and most televised cycling competition. It is three weeks long and usually begins in early July. The riders will cover more than 2,200 miles in daily races called stages. It’s insane! The race usually follows a basic pattern. The first week or so stays mostly in the flatlands and is (in my mind, at least) pretty boring. Then the race hits some serious mountains and it gets much more exciting. This is normally where the overall winner of the tour will emerge. It’s also much more interesting strategically and from a soap opera stand-point.

Teams compete for a number of different things. There is a stage winner every day and winning even just one stage is quite prestigious for the rider and his team. Within each stage there are a certain number of points assigned to each mountain and each sprint (somewhat arbitrary spots on flat areas.) Riders earn points for going over the top of a mountain or across the sprint spot first, second, or third, etc. The number of points and number of riders that earn points varies based on the severity of the mountain or the importance of the sprint. The leader of the sprint competition is indicated by a green jersey and the leader of the climbing competition (called the King of the Mountains) wears a white and red polka dotted jersey. The leader of the race as a whole, defined simply as the rider who has finished all the stages in the least combined time, wears the famed yellow jersey. All of these things are prestigious and financially rewarding for the riders and teams that win them.

As far as I can tell, strategy in cycling is based on a single scientific fact: it’s much, much easier to ride when you are drafting on (riding right behind) another rider. So there you go, it all comes down to that. What teams do is organize themselves around their strongest rider. To win a stage what they try to do is exhaust all the other teams by riding at the front faster than anyone else can. The riders on the team who are NOT their strongest rider take turns at the front, riding full out until they simply cannot do it anymore. These guys are called domestiques which is French for servants and if you see the look on their faces as they work at the front of the pack for their team leader, you’ll understand why. At some point it’s up to the team leader (who is supposed to be the strongest rider after all) to take advantage of the fact that he’s been coddled by his team all day and all tour and accelerate (usually up a mountain) faster than anyone else can. The whole three week tour is often won by less than five or ten minutes, so a single good run up a mountain can often win the whole thing.

The soap opera of the race comes from the fact that unlike most other sports, the winning team is usually defined not by skill or tactics but by the capacity to endure pain.[1] The Stanley Cup playoffs are a little bit like this, when players regularly suit up for games with injuries that would leave the rest of us in a hospital, but the Tour de France is a unique spectacle of endurance, strength, speed, and just a pinch of lunacy.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yes, or by who has the best drugs… but really, except for Lance Armstrong who must have had Stephen Hawking as his pharmacist, I tend to think the drugs even themselves out.

Is There a Good, Cheap Stationary Bike?

Dear Sports Fan,

Is there a good, cheap stationary bike? Do I have to spend a ton for quality?  I just want to ride it 30 minutes a day in my basement.  I’m not trying to beat Lance or anything.

Michelle P


Dear Michelle,

Thanks for your question! Since no one on our staff is an expert on exercise equipment we’ve decided to answer you in the form of a dialogue. After all 0 + 0 = at least a little bit more than zero, right?


Ezra: A quick Google search reveals a ton of those weird recumbent bicycles which are said to be better for you. Then again, it’s also said that the western style toilet is terrible for you over the long-run, but I don’t see to many people running out to buy holes in the floor to squat over.

Dean Russell Bell: I have great rowing machine recommendations. Now, I don’t know if you have a significant other or not and, if so, how that significant other feels about you having huge lats. But if that would be something they might be interested in, allow me to recommend the Stamina Body Trac Glider. Best thing about it: once you reach the inevitable phase when you stop exercising, it folds up so tight you can disappear it into a corner, where it won’t guilt you ever again.

Ezra: I’m not entirely sure what a lat is… but it doesn’t sound like something you’d want to have huge of. As far as exercise bikes go, the Stamina 5325 is the pick of consumersearch.com for best budget upright. It looks like… an exercise bike to me. In what might be a meaningful omission the more well respected consumerreports.org doesn’t review exercise bikes, instead focusing on elliptical machines and treadmills. There is something comforting and old-school about the exercise bike though — it feels like something you legitimately could just sit on and pedal as you watch some serious television.

Dean Russell Bell: Talking about old-school, if you really want to beat Lance Armstrong you might be better served allocating your money towards some serious EPO and blood doping equipment…

Ezra: Hold it right there Dean! We’ve already had a question about the Tour de France and we’ll be covering it in separate entries starting when the race begins on July 2. Michelle, we apologize for our total lack of useful information on this subject, but we hope we have, at least, been entertaining.

Thanks for the question, Dean Russell Bell and Ezra Fischer