Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Tour De Something

Here's a plot of the total distance covered by Tour de France bikers since its inception:

Ever since the "break" during WWII, the TDF distance has been steadily decreasing. It is in the 1920s we see a maximum. The longest outing was in 1926, totalling, 5745 km. Check out what a 1920s tour looked like on the map:

In 1924 for instance, the race actually went around the whole of France! All 5425km of it. Compare this to a modern tour:

By comparison, a complete mess. The 2009 tour was 3459 km. Not only is new TDF smaller, but look how scattered it is over the countryside. The entire northwest corner of France is missing. Now we have the tourist's version of France. 

The difference is more than just the miles; modern bikes weigh less, are maintained by an army of on-the-road helpers, and team strategies mean guaranteed pack riding with less wind resistance. Not to mention the doping. The average speed has almost doubled (from 24 km/h to over 40 km/h). And would you believe the 1924 edition had only 15 stages? That's over 361 km per stage! In 2009 riders averaged 164 km per day. Keep in mind that untrained cyclists can handle 180 km per day (for a few days, at least. Consider the Rideau Lakes Tour). Will the 2050 TDF held on tricycles?

I expect the explanation to be modern riders have busier schedules and can't place as much emphasis on a single race. Here I like to think runners have higher standards. Imagine if the marathon kept shrinking due to "modern" demands (it has been exactly 26.2 miles since 1924). If anything, races have been getting longer. For instance I'm happy to hear that Canadian universities are adding longer XC races for the women's division (long overdue really). Ultras are as popular as ever. 50-something women brag about how many marathons they do in a year. I don't want to let this degenerate into runners are better than cyclists; it's clear any distance is tough if you push yourself. 

Instead I see the ever-shrinking TDF as a symptom of the riders having too much say. It's power in the wrong hands. More than that, specific riders are controlling the race. Up-and-comers will want to push as hard as possible, but established ones would prefer to repeat without too much discomfort (not specific to cycling). That means all the problems rest squarely in the laps of the riders themselves. They let this happen.

One reason Lance may have done so well on his 2009 comeback was so few actual competitors exist in the tour (that year he came third to his teammate Contador, also a dope), and how unusual it was to have a rival on your own team. Or to see what I mean about weird team commitments, I pulled a quote from Wiki the 1986 tour regarding LeMond:
The managers of his La Vie Claire team ordered the 24-year-old LeMond to wait for Hinault. Instead of staying in the lead group and riding to win, LeMond let the leaders pull away and dropped back to aid Hinault. At the end of the stage LeMond was frustrated to the point of tears. He later revealed that team management and his own coach Paul Koechli had misled him as to how far back Hinault had dropped during the crucial Stage 17 mountain stage. Hinault won the 1985 Tour, with LeMond finishing second, 1:42 behind. LeMond had ridden as the dutiful lieutenant, and his support enabled Hinault to win his fifth Tour. In repayment for his sacrifice Hinault promised to help LeMond win the Tour the following year
For some that's team tactics. To me that's just plain fucked up. Reconsider the tour: Instead of viewing the race as 200+ individual cyclists all directly competing against one another (as is common in most cross country, marathon races), see it as a groomed selection of 20 teams, each choosing one person to be the leader. Team discipline is everything in the tour. Recall the year the competitors biked a non-competitive leg to protest the pervious night's (apparently justified) police doping raids. These are war games minus the drama.  

As every team already knows who is going to be the front runner, it also means it is much easier not to get into accidents/bike crashes when you have a shell of people around you. Otherwise there is no "skill" in avoiding crashes, just pure blind luck. Armstrong's skill of avoiding crashes is at best because of his "dutiful lieutenants" and fewer miles raced than ever. 

There's no point in mentioning the doping problems in cycling, as everyone knows what. After my test to see if the tour was as undemanding as I imagined I found it indeed is, compounding its already dishonest and petty qualities. Hard work? I can find that anywhere. But I was looking for something more, not less. I recall a Lance quote about his NYC marathon being the hardest thing he ever did. That is rather telling, now more than ever.

I used to watch the tour back in the Lance days on OLN. I followed stages online, watched recaps, and had a good time thinking I was watching raw talent. (The spectacle was real enough, I guess, in the same way The Rock was punishing Mankind in a WWF I Quit match. Fake but yet brutally real. No I take that back; the wrestlers were way more impressive). 

Until 2007 I even believed that doping was a minor problem in cycling. Thankfully I have reasonable bullshit detector, so once I saw the evidence it was sold. But I don't like bullshit and obviously there is too much of it in biking. Worse yet watching as these goofs are too scared to race as much as they did in 1919 makes the TDF mostly a band of sissy bullshitters. Sad people behaving like the worst of us. I can watch reality TV instead. Why waste time and pretend you're a real sport? 

Suffice it to say I'll continue to enjoy running (and also do actual, perhaps even useful, aerosol research). But I'd rather drink a litre of Armstrong's urine than waste another minute watching these bozos on TV. The tour has lost me on a lot deeper level than mere hatred disgust. Cycling is completely dead to me.  I wish avoid particular parts of France in July. 

Is there hope? Perhaps things can improve, but there is no bandaid solution to be found. Cycling will need a scorched earth policy towards the current crop of cyclists, akin to modern Germany and the Third Reich. The tour has made a step in the right direction by declaring no winners for recent years. Indeed, they acknowledge only losers took part, as likely is the case. No statues should be found of these people, and those that already exist must be destroyed. If this does not take place I recommend booing the racers as they go by, or simply turning one's back. Furthermore, the tour must become more demanding like the old days, and no longer bending to pressures -somebody's, I don't know who's exactly- to keep allowing the tour to be shorter and easier. Every. goddamn. year. The one's who dope should be dying of heart attacks en route. When a tour rider tries a marathon, they should be saying "wow, compared to what I did this summer that was a walk in the park".  Guess I'll leave it at that. Cheerio.

UPDATE: I received an email (from my dad, an avid reader of cycling history) giving some more background on the early days of the TdF, and wanted to share:
The Tour de France in the 1920’s and thirties was not only the longest it’s ever been, but at the time the rules only allowed bikes that were essentially like modern fixie bikes, with a maximum of two gears allowed: one fixed gear of 20 teeth on one side for the flats, and one freewheel gear of 24 teeth on the other side for the hills. The front sprocket had usually 44-46 teeth. It was necessary to choose which side to use on any given stage, unless the rider was willing to stop and flip the wheel. This was considered to be part of the strategy. I would say it makes the races of those days even more impressive.

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