Friday, July 20, 2007

Tour talk

Yesterday's stage of the Tour de France—which moved through the magnificent region of Provence, around Arles, where I spent a few days not so long ago—was won by a South African rider, Robert Hunter. This was the first time a South African had ever won a Tour stage.

I thought it might be amusing to give my readers a few specimens of Tour talk. This information might be of help if you wish to sound well-informed and intelligent when conversing about the Tour de France. First of all, there's an all-purpose formula that has been exceptionally popular among cycling journalists this year. It consists of saying something along the following lines: In a stage such as this, it's impossible for a rider to win the Tour de France, but it's perfectly possible to lose it. You can serve that formula up with all kinds of sauces. For example, instead of talking about a stage, you might apply variations of the formula to other kinds of situations. For example: In joining that breakaway group, Cadel Evans is unlikely to increase his chances of winning the Tour, but he could easily run the risk of losing it. Or maybe: Using that special kind of bicycle in a time trial is unlikely to help him win the Tour but, if something were to go wrong, it could cause him to lose it. Etc, etc.

If you want to sound serious when talking about the Tour, never refer to the main group of riders as the bunch. Use the French term, peloton. But make sure you pronounce it correctly, not pay-loh-ton, but peuh-loh-ton, almost ploh-ton.

There's a funny cycling expression in French that can be learned easily and thrown into your comments when watching TV. Consider the common situation of a breakaway group some two minutes in front of the peleton. Often, a rider leaves the peloton and attempts to join the breakaway group, except that he gets stuck halfway. Stranded in this no-man's-land between the breakaway group and the peloton, should he continue to wear himself out, hoping that he'll finally catch up with the breakaway group? Or should he accept the idea that this task is too difficult for him, and wait for the peloton to catch up with him [to devour him, as cycling journalists often put it]? A rider who finds himself in this situation is said to be in a state of chasse-patates [literally, chasing potatoes], but nobody seems to know the origin of this expression.

In yesterday's stage, there was a crucial moment when Astana riders [the team of Alexander Vinokourov] suddenly produced an unexpected and violent burst of speed that broke the peloton into fragments within less than a minute. All the expert journalists such as Laurent Fignon and Laurent Jalabert started to use a technical expression, coup de bordure, to designate what had happened. By the end of the day, scores of journalists everywhere had borrowed this expression, but it's not certain they really knew what it meant. I'll therefore attempt to explain what it means. The following diagram represents a typical situation in which the peloton [moving towards the left] is riding directly into the wind:

Here, the red rider is momentarily doing all the hard work, plowing into the wind, whereas each of the green riders is protected from the wind by the fellow in front of him. You might even say that all the green riders are getting sucked along, to a certain extent, by the momentum of the peloton. I call this the snake effect because, when the leaders of the peloton decide to increase the speed, the riders are soon strung out in a serpentine form. You inevitably see striking demonstrations of this snake effect during the final stage on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

The following diagram represents the situation that existed yesterday, during the stage from Marseille to Montpellier, where a strong southerly wind was blowing in constantly from the Mediterranean and striking the riders from the side:

In this kind of situation, almost everybody [shown in red] is in direct contact with the wind. Even though it doesn't hit the peloton head-on, but merely at a right angle, the wind still hinders the riders considerably. A tiny group of four or five riders can take advantage of this situation by creating what French cycling specialists refer to as a coup de bordure, which I have translated as an edge effect. They collaborate by alternating rapidly their roles in a circular anti-clockwise sense, so that the rider who is about to take the lead is momentarily protected from the sidewind by the fellow he will replace. Behind these revolving lead riders, the peloton will tend to string itself out in a line along the leeward edge of the road (whence the name, edge effect), with each rider hoping vainly to have an opportunity of moving to the leeward side of the fellow in front of him. In this kind of unstable and tense formation, breaks can arise rapidly, whenever a rider cannot keep up with the fellow in front of him. And, unless riders behind the weak cyclist realize immediately what's happening, overtake him and catch up with the front riders, the mass of the peloton can quickly start to disintegrate... as it did yesterday, condemning the French champion Christophe Moreau to a disastrous delay.

Meanwhile, the main Tour talk, once again, has returned to the sad question of doping. If ever the entire block of German sponsors and media [not to mention the Danish compatriots of Michael Rasmussen] were to leave in disgust, it's certain that the Tour would have a hard time trying to get back onto its feet once again. So, let's hope that no major doping crisis occurs.

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