Monday, July 18, 2005

Tour de Difference

The more I think about it, the harder it is for me to believe that so many Americans are into the Tour de France. The whole story of Lance Armstrong is very inspiring and everyone loves a winner, but the more I watch the tour, the more I realize that it is nothing like the American sports leagues we all know and love. Don't get me wrong, I've been a tour fan since before it was cool and I'll continue to be a fan after Lance retires. Still, it's interesting to look at the differences between bicycle racing and more mainstream American sports.

Here are some examples of the strangeness of the tour. First of all, Jan's Journal. Velo News, a US-based magazine that covers competitive cycling, features race diaries that are written by rides who are participating in the race, including one of top challengers in this year's race, Jan Ullrich. Jan's Journal isn't going to win any blog of the year awards, but it's a pretty interesting read. For one, it's full of humility, self-doubt, and in places, it sounds like Ullrich has all but conceded that neither he nor anyone else can beat Lance this year. The idea of an elite American athlete publishing something like this in the middle of his (or her) sport's biggest contest is unthinkable.

Second, the tour is governed by all sorts of weird gentleman's agreements that are never really explained. I suppose baseball also has a large set of unwritten rules, but in all other American sports, anything that is not explicitly prohibited is tacitly allowed. I'm not saying that cyclists are a bunch of choir boys. Cycling has been and probably still is a very dirty sport from a performance-enhancing drug standpoint. One of the more interesting unwritten rules that has come up twice in this year's tour is the rule that you have to earn your jersey. When Dave Zabriske lost his yellow jersey due to a crash with 1.5 km left in the team time trial and when Tom Boonen lost his green jersey after dropping out of the race, the men who inherited their jerseys both refused to wear them at the start of the next day's stage. Could you imagine a wide receiver asking the referee to take six points off of the scoreboard because the defensive back who was covering him twisted his ankle during the play, allowing him to break free for the touchdown?

Another strange thing is how a lot of teams that come to the tour will admit from day one that they have no hope of winning. I'd be surprised if any sportswriter could get the coach of the most beleaguered American professional sports team to admit on record that the championship is out of the question for his team this year. The majority of the teams in the race do not have a team member who could conceivably win the race. The thing that a lot of people might not understand about the tour is that each individual stage of the tour is really a mini-race. A team with a strong sprinter but no overall tour threat might come to the tour and win three individual stages with their top sprinter. This would be considered a successful tour for that team. The closest analogy that I can think of is college football, where the only game that really counts for a school is its rivalry game. Win that, and even if the rest of the season sucked, you can still be proud of your team.

The tour is definitely changing these days, as Magnus B├Ąckstedt has highlighted in his race diary. Lance Armstrong and his team have really approached the tour from an American sports point-of-view, emphasizing technology, preparation, and a single-minded determination that had never really been part of the tour before. The current generation of American prospects have followed Lance's lead, as have a number of the European cycling teams. Paul Sherwin spent a lot of time during yesterday's broadcast questioning the logic of Team CSC riding Ivan Basso in the Giro d'Italia (cycling second-most prestigious stage race) in May instead of resting him for the tour. Win or lose this year, Lance Armstrong has proven that if you take an elite cyclist and build his career around a single race, you give yourself a huge competitive edge. I am fairly sure that over the next few years, we will see more and more tour specialists emerge, who race for the Tour de France title and nothing else.


MDS said...

"the tour is governed by all sorts of weird gentleman's agreements that are never really explained"

That's what I don't like about it. I dislike the idea that if someone else falls and you beat him, you haven't "earned" your victory. Part of being a good cyclist is not falling. If we were to carry this gentleman's agreement to its logical extreme, we'd just immediately postpone the race every time anyone fell and pick it up again when the person who fell was completely recovered. Of course, if we carried everything to its logical extreme, in the long run, we'd all be dead.

Two questions I've never gotten a straight answer on:
1. What percentage of the participants in the Tour de France are actually trying to win, as opposed to just helping a teammate win?
2. Of those who are trying to win, what percentage actually have a legitimate shot?

DannyNoonan said...

Can a gentleman's agreement even have a logical extreme? Most of the riders react differently to crashes that are the fault of the rider and crashes that aren't. And they don't stop, they just don't attack. Like two years ago when lance got his handlebar caught on a bag held by a spectator standing too close, Jan Ulrich didn't stop and wait. He just didn't attack. He slowed down a little until Lance was back in the sadle. The previous year, Lance had done the same for him.

The answer to your question depends on what you mean by winning. I'm assuming you mean the yellow jersey but there are teams that are going for the sole purpose of having one of their riders win the green (points winner-basically best sprinter) or poka-dot jersey (best climber). THere are others that want to win a stage or two. This kind of stuff leads to better sponsors and more money and perhaps a better chance of winning the yellow next year. But I would say that in most races there are about 6 or 7 teams that have a legitimate shot of having their top guy win the yellow. Some of those teams have two guys with a shot. But to look at it as the percentage of individual riders that have a shot at winning a race is sort of like asking what percentage of players on a football field have a legitimate shot of throwing a touchdown pass.

dhodge said...

There are 21 teams of 9 riders at the start of each tour. In a perfect race, there is one guy on each team who is trying to win, so let's just say 11% of the participants are trying to win the race. The number of riders who have a legitimate shot is open to debate and differs from year to year, but I think Danny's estimate of 6 or 7 is a good rule of thumb.

I don't think that the gentlemen's agreements make the Tour any less competitive. I think that the whole Ullrich/Lance thing is a special case anyway. I don't think anyone would have gotten too upset had they not waited for each other after their respective crashes.