The Tour de France: The Royal Race of La République

All images: ©ASO

by Matthew Bailey

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In a way, the Tour plays a similar role in republican France as the Royal Family does in monarchist Britain. The arrival of a royal is enough to elevate any occasion: their job is to bring a dash of glamour to even the most ordinary of places or events, simply by being there. Likewise the Tour: when its arrival is imminent, out come the dusters and pennants, out come the schoolchildren waving flags, out comes the tractor polish, just as in British towns preparing for a royal visit.

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Why do millions of people stand at the side of French roads for hours on end, waiting for the peloton? Certainly not for the sport: the most they will see is a few seconds of probably meaningless, mid-stage action. Of course, it is partly for the simple spectacle: it’s worth remembering that according to a survey carried out by ASO a few years ago, 47% of spectators at the roadside say the principal reason why they come out is to see the publicity caravan. But more importantly, the Tour is a source of civic, and not just national, pride. Those people are there not just to see, but to be seen. They are not just spectators, but part of the spectacle. Look at us, they are saying: we may be a small town in the middle of nowhere, but look how smart we have made ourselves – and look who has come to visit us! The people elevate the race, and the race elevates them.

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The comparison with the British Royal Family should not be extended beyond the race to the riders - and not just because it’s hard to remember an occasion when the royal Rolls-Royce was accompanied down the Mall by a gang of lager-spraying drunks in mankinis. Traversing the closed roads of France, the Tour is uniquely accessible to the public: anyone can come and see and be seen. Not even a ticket is required. Protocol demands that no one may encroach on the royal person: by contrast, when Chris Froome socked a fan for running too close on stage eight of this year’s Tour, it was Froome and not the fan who was fined.

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Froome was again involved in controversy on stage twelve, when he and two other riders, Bauke Mollema and Richie Porte, crashed into a TV motorcycle that had been brought to a sudden standstill by the sheer number of spectators on the road up Mont Ventoux. Organisers ASO came in for criticism: but under the circumstances it is hard to see what could have been done, short of cancelling the stage altogether. High winds meant the riders could not climb to the top of Ventoux as expected; the reason why they were scheduled to go up such an iconic climb in the first place is that it was Bastille Day, meaning the crowds were enormous; and many attendees were in an advanced state of refreshment.

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Again, it’s not as if they had bought tickets. Nor had many stages stopped here in the past. So ASO could have had no idea in advance of how many spectators there would be, or where they would congregate. Packed into too small a space, in celebratory mood, with the stage shortened by 6km at very short notice, people wandered into the road . . . and, the next thing we knew, the yellow jersey was, first, on the deck among the wheels, second, on foot, dragging his smashed bicycle up the mountain, and finally, having abandoned his stricken steed, running through the crowd towards the finish line, dodging other riders and race vehicles as he went. The service car finally arrived and supplied Froome with a bicycle – of sorts. Several sizes too small, and with pedals that didn’t match Froome’s shoes, it was clownishly useless. The whole disastrous mess was as riveting as it was ridiculous. 

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But now the commissaires were left with the tricky problem of what to do about what had happened. The quick-thinking, quick-recovering Mollema had remounted his undamaged bike and hared off to the finish. Porte had followed some way behind. Both of them, and others, had put significant time into Froome while he stumbled and flailed: Britain’s Adam Yates would have taken the yellow jersey, leaving Froome several places down the order. But, Froome and Porte argued, it wouldn’t be fair to let the result stand. And the commissaires didn’t let it stand: instead, they simply gave Froome and Porte the same time as Mollema, putting Froome back into yellow.

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But it isn’t obvious this was fair either. Mollema howled, and you can’t blame him. Similarly “unfair” crashes and accidents have decided races on dozens of occasions. On stage eleven, a collision with another rider broke Mark Cavendish’s rear mech, ruling him out of the sprint. But no one said the stage should be stopped, or the result changed. In stage nine of the 2011 Tour the breakaway stuck, providing Luis Leon Sanchez with a stage win and Tommy Voeckler with the yellow jersey – but only after Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha were driven off the road by an ineptly piloted TV vehicle. The stage result was unaffected. (Flecha, covering this year's race for Eurosport, was practically in tears when discussing events on Ventoux.)

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To understand the actions of the commissaires we need to look at the relevant part of the UCI code. Here it is:

In case of an accident or incident that could impinge upon the normal conduct of a race in general or a particular stage thereof, race director may, after obtaining the agreement of the commissaires' panel and having informed the timekeepers, at any moment, decide:
  • to modify the course;
  • to temporarily neutralise the race or stage;
  • to declare a stage null and void;
  • to cancel part of a stage as well as the results of any possible intermediate classifications and to restart the stage near the place of the incident;
  • to let the results stand or;
  • to restart the race or stage, taking account of the gaps recorded at the moment of the incident.

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Plenty of commentators mulled these words, one or two saying it was all “a bit vague”. But it isn’t vague: not in the slightest. In fact it could hardly be clearer. It says, totally straightforwardly: we, the commissaires, can do whatever we like. 

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In case this wasn't clear enough, it was confirmed by the fact that the action actually taken by commissaires isn’t one listed in what would otherwise appear to be the relevant section. Instead, they seem to have taken inspiration from the “three kilometre” rule, viz:

2.6.027 FINISH
In the case of a duly noted fall, puncture or mechanical incident in the last three kilometers of a road race stage, the rider or riders involved shall be credited with the time of the rider or riders in whose company they were riding at the moment of the accident. His or their placing shall be determined by the order in which he or they actually cross the finishing line. If, as the result of a duly noted fall in the last three kilometers, a rider cannot cross the finishing line, he shall be placed last in the stage and credited with the time of the rider or riders in whose company he was riding at the time of the accident.

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Simple, no? Except that the three kilometre rule was not supposed to apply on this stage, as it was a mountain stage. That is:

[Article] 2.6.027 . . . shall not apply where the finish is at the top of a hill-climb, except if the incident occurs before the climb. Every discussion regarding the qualifications 'at the top of a hill-climb' and 'before the climb' will be decided by the commissaires panel.

So it's open to the commissaires to pick other rules which specifically don’t apply in the current situation and decide that, in fact, they do. In other words, these aren't “rules” at all, but the opposite. In effect, there are no rules

But how else could it work? How could any set of rules allow for every conceivable eventuality over thousands of miles of racing, across several countries, and every possible set of conditions? Realistically, you just have to say - we'll figure it out when it happens. So they do.

The Tour is too big, and too grand, to reside anywhere other than above anyone's rules. Remind you of anyone?

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The continued existence of the Tour, again like that of the British Royal Family, is wholly anomalous. It is something from another age. And, like the Royal Family, if it didn’t exist, no one would dream of inventing it today. (Imagine the pitch: “First, we get 200 guys in dayglo lycra, and a load of giant plastic chickens riding bikes mounted on turbos, balanced on Peugeots . . . ”).

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The event is not only far too large, and far too widely dispersed, to be contained by a finite set of rules; it is too sprawling to be properly policed, too. There can never be enough barriers, stewards and whistle-toting gendarmes to keep the public from the riders throughout the full 3,500km of the route (though there are places, most notably stage finishes, where barriers are obviously indispensable).

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But what this means is that the Tour is a sort of test of civilisation, relying for its continued existence on the good will and good behaviour of the roadside public. This is to repeat what was suggested above, viz., that the Tour isn’t just a sporting event people come and watch - rather, it is a national (and each stage a local) celebration in which everyone present plays a rôle, and which therefore has the potential to elevate all simultaneously. On Ventoux participants of certain kinds - not the riders - simply didn’t live up to the standards the race demands. The really remarkable thing is that, most of the time, they do.

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Something similar applies to this year’s stage three. Here, it was the riders who didn’t play their role, riding for almost the entire day at what UCI Road World Champion Peter Sagan called “café ride” pace (according to, the average speed for the day was just 37.260km per hour, two kilometres an hour below the slowest expected speed for the stage). What is the significance of this behaviour?

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Cycling is one of the few truly international sports not to have been invented in Britain. What is more, unlike almost every other sport, right from the start, road racing was predominantly for professionals. The Tour was a vehicle for promoting and providing content for its owner, the newspaper L’Auto, and the riders were less sportsmen than (poorly) paid performers.

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Consequently, in its early days, cycling was almost entirely uninfluenced by the idealist, purist, gentleman-amateur ideals beloved of the British upper classes, taught at our most exclusive private schools, and which have spread through much of the sporting world – thanks in part to the British Empire, but also thanks to the Olympic Movement, which adopted them wholesale (at least in theory).

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It’s equally important to understand how the sheer age of the Tour influences its nature. When the Tour started, in 1903, as Geoffrey Nicholson has written (he was discussing six-day racing, which was also hugely popular then):

At this time cricket and golf were well-established, but the various types of football had only recently agreed on their sets of rules, and like most of the emerging games – bowls, croquet, hockey, tennis – were still played more for private pleasure than public entertainment. So for the great mass of people sport meant contests of speed and brute force at the racecourse, or the racing track, or in the ring, with little concern for the well-being of the contestants.

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In those days of what Nicholson calls “the freak show and the fairground”, people turned out in huge numbers to watch illegal prize fights, professional foot races lasting up to sixty hours at a time, races between men and horses or men and dogs, and circus-style feats of strength. It was against this background that Henri Desgrange, first organiser of the Tour, made his famous remark to the effect that his ideal race would be so hard that only one rider should make it to Paris.

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A freak show for professional performers, unburdened by any notion of gentlemanly amateur conduct; organisers determined to push the peloton to the limits of human endurance; a public screaming for superhuman feats, and indifferent to the health of the performers; plus, for the first few decades of the sport’s existence, no testing, and no particular stigma attached to the use of pharmaceutical enhancements; perhaps it is not all that surprising that doping became so common in the peloton.

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And it is, surely, the lingering legacy of this history that led the organisers of this year’s race to include so many immense stages - stage three, the scene of the go-slow mentioned above, was the first of three days in a row where the peloton tackled a route of over 200km. Conversely, critics of the dawdling bunch might consider that, whether it was a form of protest at the route-setters' demands, or simply a decision to take a breather while it was on offer, the riders’ go-slow might be a sign that some of the worst habits of the past are just that - a thing of the past. 

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The Tour de France is not a bicycle race. This is not an attempt at Magrittean surrealism (Le Tour: ce n'est pas une course cycliste). It is a statement of fact. The Tour de France is many races, indeed, as many races as it has riders. Each rides his own unique Tour, with his own unique goals and achievements, his own story. Some are strange. All are fascinating.

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Forget that, and none of it makes any sense. How many members of the peloton, two-hundred-or-so strong, really have the ability or ambition to ride for the “general classification” – that is, to win the Tour? Four? Five? (Or, this year, given Froome’s performances – one?) So, if the Tour is a race, what are the rest doing there? One answer is that road cycling is a team sport, but one where individuals, and not teams, win and lose. So, many riders are loyal domestiques, servants to their team leader, sheltering him from the wind, bringing him food and drink, and protecting him in the peloton. But this is just to say they contribute to the race for the yellow jersey, rather than that they race for it. However, you look at it, it is a strange race which the majority of participants aren't trying to win.

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Some, again, have goals other than “GC” victory, or even contributing to someone else's. Some aim to win a jersey other than yellow – green for points, polka dot for climbing, white for younger riders. But it is an interesting question how many spectators, and even how many of those who make a profession of following the sport, could explain exactly how it is decided who should wear these lesser jerseys. Stranger yet, it hardly seems to matter.

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Rather than a secondary jersey, some riders target specific stages, which happen to suit their abilities - time trials, sprints & stages resembling one-day classics all attract specialists. Such riders spend the rest of the race trying, not to win, but simply to save themselves for their big moment (or moments). In particular, on many days, when the parcours gets hilly, the sprinters roll around in their own little bunch, way behind the main peloton – sometimes called the gruppetto, sometimes the autobus, sometimes simply the laughing group – with no target beyond finishing within a certain percentage of the stage winner’s time and so avoiding disqualification. Others still will ride in the service of such target-specific riders: Bernie Eisel’s role on such days is usually to pace Mark Cavendish to the end of the stage with as little time to spare, and so saving as much energy, as possible. Niki Lauda once famously said that, in Formula 1, “the secret is to win going as slowly as possible”. For Bernie and Cav, at least some of the time, the secret is to come last going as slowly as possible. In other words, on such days, their Tour is the opposite of a bicycle race: it is a slow bicycle race.

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It is important to remember this when evaluating the performance of individual riders. Many expressed dismay when Trek-Segafredo made comments to the effect that, while winning would be jolly nice, they were quite happy if Bauke Mollema managed to remain where he was, in second place overall. But it was easy to see what they meant. We’re miles ahead of where we thought we would be. By our own standards – and no others matter - we’re doing brilliantly. Our sponsors are delighted. Why would we risk that? So even though Mollema is a GC contender – that is, he is, in theory, trying to win the Tour de France – he isn’t really trying to win.

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And Mollema isn’t the only one. There have been complaints about the conservative racing over the last few stages of the Tour. Why doesn’t Quintana attack? Why doesn’t someone try something? Viewers continue to want romance, long dramatic breakaways, superhuman, race-stealing performances, especially in the high mountains. And there haven’t been any, unless you count Froome’s attack on the final descent of stage eight, or Tom Dumoulin’s rain-lashed lone breakaway on stage nine to Andorra – delivering a brilliant stage win, but irrelevant to the overall result.

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In terms of the Tour’s credibility this can only be a good thing. History and tradition are essential to the Tour, but the full range of the more glamorous parts of that history – massive overall distances; numerous huge stages; hard racing day-in, day-out; race-winning mountain breakaways by the GC leaders – may simply not all be deliverable together unless accompanied by other, darker ones. If what we want is clean, credible but exciting racing, it may be time for viewers, teams and organisers to consider whether fewer long stages, and more shorter, sharper ones, might offer a solution.

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And that’s the Tour. A race that is not a race, but many races at once. A race that hardly any of its participants are trying to win (and even some of the ones who are "trying to win" aren’t really trying to win). A race that has no rules (probably for the best). A sporting event and a spectacle; a freak show and a fairground; a symbol, a celebration and a test of France's people and its civilisation; all these things, plus spectacular scenery, formation tractor driving and a giant plastic chicken on a turbo. Long may it remain so. Vive Le Tour!