Picture of Cycling Media Agency
Stages of the Tour de France (and every other pro-level road race for that matter) seem to the untrained eye like a free-for-all, a hundred and sixty riders divided into N teams all going full blast, for to the line is the winner. Technically that is true, every day is all about getting over the line first. Stages matter. Sponsors love stage wins. But the grand plan – the General Classement or GC as it’s usually referred to is what wins the race on the last day, for the Tour de France that’s the final stage into Paris.
The teams with an eye on overall victory sometimes forgo a stage to protect a long-game strategy for the bigger GC prize. To do this successfully for a three-week Grand Tour like the Tour de France is a massively complicated procedure. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen the level of planning undertaken by the teams go to extremes to safeguard their plans for overall victory. Big teams, like perennial Tour de France GC favorites Ineos Grenadiers, for example, plan their races and daily strategies with a level of detail that makes the word meticulous seem unworthy.
Take food, for example, Ineos plan the energy intake and expenditure of each rider to the single-digit Kilojoules, they look at the stage route, the role expected of the individual riders are they a leader sitting in, a domestique taking the wind and ferrying bidons and jackets and pacing toilet breaks back to the peloton, or a lieutenant covering attacks, going on an attack, or riding hard tempo, is there a headwind, crosswind, and hundred of other empirical variables. Everything is calculated, given a value, and planned for.
Then they work out how much food you’ll need at every given kilometer of the stage, and tailor your musettes contents to match your need. More than that, they actually try to keep riders on the cusp of being marginally under-fuelled. Because unburned calories are weight and power to weight ratios are a central tenant of overall performance. Rider’s bodies are on the edge of devouring themselves, but, by the width of a dietician’s hair, not quite.
It’s easy to scoff at this sort of micro-management of food as taking things a bit too far, but the fact is that the ‘marginal gains’ the giving close detailed attention to every-single-aspect of the race, a practice first used and popularised by the Ineos team (formerly Team Sky) leader David Brailsford. He called it ‘marginal gains’. Six wins by Team Sky and one for Ineos prove that taking the forensic approach to each and every detail can uncover individual, sometimes tiny advantages. Taken separately none are enough to beat the competition, but add four, five, maybe twenty, fifty or a hundred of these tiny ‘marginal gain’ advantages together and you have an empirically measurable informational and weapon with which wage war on the peloton – and history shows that if used correctly you’re statistically likely to win.
Some argue that this approach treats rider, who are human beings let’s not forget, like robots; to be programmed, fuelled, and directed via an earpiece and that, this takes the unpredictability and romance from the race.
Others say that it’s making the racing faster, more exciting, with teams employing more structured tactics and that this in itself forces other teams to respond in kind.
Who is right? Who knows. The fans are still enjoying every pedal stroke, packing the roadside at every opportunity, and the racing is still incredible, the teams and riders are superhuman in their efforts to make bike racing even more exciting and enthralling.
Here at CCS, we know that we’re in love with our sport more now than ever.