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

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?


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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?

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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.