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A CrossFit athlete’s guide to the Tour de France

From a cyclist’s perspective, the sport of CrossFit is very much aimed at versatility. You can correct me if I am wrong. I have seen different disciplines included at events like the ‘Games’, which, as someone who doesn’t do CrossFit, were quite surprising. Events like swimming and more recently, cyclocross have been included, which are not what someone like me would associate with, what I perceive as a more power and ‘heavy-lifting’ focused sport. The inclusion of cycling in CrossFit competitions is great and now that Concept 2 are producing excellent training bikes I think cycling has become very much part of what a CrossFitter does, if not to the extent that a specialist cyclist would.

So, with the biggest cycling race of the year, the Tour de France, starting on the 6th of July, I thought it would be a good idea for me to  shed some light on some of the interesting aspects of bike racing that might not be obvious to athletes who understand the mechanics and physical demands of the sport but not the dynamics of the racing.

Team Sport

Cycling is a team sport – Although one rider ultimately wins, there is no way that would happen without the help and hard work of seven other riders. Most of the teams at the Tour de France will have one designated rider who is aiming for a high place in the overall general classification. This rider will rely on his teammates to protect him from the wind and race incidents like crashes. They will also pace him back to the bunch after a puncture and, if the race is at a critical point, will hand over their wheel or even their bike if the team leader has punctured or damaged his. A team leader’s focus is to conserve energy and not lose any time until the point where he plans to make his move. So the rest of the team spend their race, making sure he can do that by supplying him with nutrition and water bottles but also by trying to keep him near the front of the race where there is less chance of crashes or getting caught behind slower riders when the pace accelerates.

Team Leaders

Some team leaders are not there for the overall Tour result but are more explosive sprinters who target the flat stage finishes without any big climbs. Teams with these types of rider will have other specialist lead-out riders, who are very good sprinters themselves but whose job it is to pilot their sprinter through the chaotic sprint finishes and deliver him to the 200m to go point in a good position, where he then takes over and finishes things off. Before that, the rest of the team will work together, rotating at the front of the bunch to catch any riders that will have jumped away from the bunch earlier in the race or to take care of their leader in much the same way that teams do for their overall race contenders. The best sprinters contest the ‘Points competition’, which goes to the rider at the end of three weeks who has scored the most points awarded at the end of each stage and at intermediate sprints on each days route. Unlike the General Classification riders who’s result is determined by their overall time, a Points Classification competitor can afford to take it easy on stages that don’t suit him because the points at stage finishes are weighted towards the flatter routes that suit them.

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Break of the Day

Other teams have neither overall ‘GC’ contenders or those that are good at the mass, bunch finishes. These teams will try to get their riders away into the ‘break of the day’ on each stage. These groups are normally formed soon after the start of each stage and will be made up of a few riders from different teams who will work to build up as much advantage over the man bunch or ‘Peloton’ as they can before the group starts to chase them down. Inevitably they are caught before the finish but there are occasions when they are not. For riders who may not have the characteristics to climb over the high mountain passes with the best, or contest the 80kph sprints that finish flat stages, this is their only hope of winning a career-defining stage and they provide the viewing public with David versus Goliath entertainment in doing so.

King of the Mountain

From these breakaway groups will come the ‘King of the Mountain’. This is the third biggest competition at the Tour de France. The winner of this prize is the rider who collects the most points across the top of all the designated climbs of the race. Riders who target this will nominate stages where there are a lot of points on offer and then get themselves into the breakaway group of the day. They need to sprint over the top of every climb that has points on offer, which is a hard way to make a living on a bike as in between these sprints, they still need to maintain a steady work rate in order to maintain the gap to the main bunch.

Support Team

There is also a large team that don’t pedal bikes. Mechanics, who completely service every bike after each of the twenty-one stages. Who spend six to seven hours cramped up in the back seat of a car during every stage, ready to jump into action to change a punctured wheel. There are soigneurs, which is the name given to the members of the team who are pretty much domestic workers. They clean clothing, prepare the ‘on the bike’ nutrition for the following day, which they also hand up to the riders at designated feed-zones on the route by means of a small bad with long handles called musettes. Most are trained sports masseuses who assist with helping tired muscles recover after each stage.

Every team will have a number of team managers known as ‘Director Sportifs’. They follow in cars in the race convoy behind the Peloton and communicate with their riders via miniature two-way radios. Informing them of time gaps, impending weather and road conditions and making tactical decisions based on what is going on in the race.

Community

It is very hard to draw similarities between the skinny Tour de France Peloton and muscular CrossFit athletes but the one thing that they do have in common is their sense of community. Cyclists, although rivals, take care of each other. No rider wants to profit from another’s misfortune and no-one wants to see another injured as a result of a crash. In a tight bunch, riders at the back rely on warnings from those in front regarding problems in the road or changes in direction. If a contender suffers a mechanical issue at a key point, their rivals will often neutralise the racing and just pedal gently to afford him the opportunity to re-establish the status quo before resuming hostilities.

Enjoy watching the Tour de France this July and hopefully reading this will give you a little more insight into a sport that is a whole lot more than just pedalling a bike.

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