What do they have in common?
Jane Austen and the Tour de France have an intricate web of intrigue and etiquette that only a moron can afford to ignore.
“So You Think You Can Dance” and the Tour de France (other than rhyming) remind me how lucky I am to be a writer rather than an athlete or dancer. I may have to wait years for responses, and get my work dismissed due to a change in market – but I can still write a bestseller when I’m eighty. Dancers and athletes have extremely short, extremely painful, extremely physically risky careers.
CJ and I view sport in general with cordial contempt. We unmute news breaks on TV, but mute them again as soon as they turn to sports. The Tour de France is the one exception. CJ inherited a fascination with the Tour de France from his Dad, and I saw a few bits here and there as he watched – and then was slowly drawn in.
For me, the first point of appeal was the scenery and architecture of France. Castles, chateux and beaches always feature prominently as the Tour passes by – usually with gorgeous sweeping aerial shots from the helicopter. A large number of passers-by also spice up the viewing experience by building giant sculptures in their fields (often giant bicycles with moving human/mechanical wheels). But it was the etiquette and complexity of the Tour de France that made me an addict.
The three most important categories are:
The winner – aka the yellow jersey – which is based purely on a man’s total time over the three-week race. The race covers thousands of kilometres, but for the last five years there has been less than a minute between first and second place – so the pressure is unrelenting. Whoever has the best time-so-far wears the yellow jersey that day.
The king of the mountain – aka the polka-dotted jersey (seriously – it turns out men who wear skintight lycra professionally don’t mind this kind of thing) – is the most skilled climber, based on how well they do in just the steep parts (including the Pyrenees and the Alps) of the various race stages.
The fastest sprinter – aka the green jersey – is the one who can leave all the rest behind (on average) in designated sprinting sections of the course (there is one in the middle of almost every stage, and the first twenty riders are awarded a decreasing number of points). It’s not so much “going fast all the time” as “putting on a herculean burst of speed when everyone else is already going as fast as they can”.
Climbers and sprinters have completely different body types, and riders always have a specialty one way or another. There are about half a dozen men who are serious contenders for the overall win. Each one is supported by a team of up to nine riders – a mixture of sprinters, climbers and those who are simply consistent riders. Many of the supporting team members are champions in their own right, but they have made the choice to sacrifice their bodies for someone else.
Race etiquette is all about wind – and glory. The wind (particularly from the front) slows riders and saps their energy. In such a long race, energy is the most important currency. So riders are constantly riding behind others in order to be in their slipstream. A team’s job is the protect their leader until the last possible moment – so that he will still have the energy to grab a win. They do most of the work, and he gets the glory.
It’s far more complex than that, however. The usual shape of the race is that there will be an early “breakaway” of perhaps two or half a dozen riders (all from different teams) who will go out ahead of the main pack, and attempt to keep their lead for the whole race. They usually fail – but they will spend a hundred kilometres or more taking it in turns to lead their own small group (which is especially vulnerable to the elements), and bear the brunt of the wind.
The rest of the two hundred riders (20% of whom will not finish the race) ride in a mass called the “pelaton”, mutually protecting one another. Safety demands riding within the first twenty riders – which is of course impossible, so there is a constant gentle shifting among the tightly-packed crowd. Etiquette demands that whichever team currently holds the yellow jersey must form the arrowhead of the pelaton, bearing the wind for the other one hundred and ninety riders.
When a crash happens at the back during the beginning or middle of the race, the pelaton will slow down to let them catch up. Sometimes a single man will race ahead unchallenged – which makes no sense, until he reaches his home town and hops off his bike to kiss his wife. It is one of the many traditions of the Tour de France, and it is universally accepted.
There’s plenty more, but this entry is getting out of control, so I’ll stop here. There are race highlights each day at 7:30am and 6pm on SBS.
At the moment (I haven’t watched Stage Six yet) Thor Hushovd of Norway (team Garmin) is wearing the yellow jersey. Cadel Evans, the Australian leader of American team BMC, is coming second – lagging by one second.
A few days ago, Thor knew he was close enough to the front to keep the yellow jersey, so he sacrificed his stage win for an American team member, Tyler Farrer. Cadel Evans has also won a stage this year, as has the British sprinter Mark Cavendish (and probably others, but I forget their names). Mark Cavendish is from team HTC and is supported by two Australians, Mark Renshaw and Matt Goss.