Why the Tour de France is so brutal
Jul 27 2019
If you look closely at this pack of riders in the Tour de France, you'll see some of the best cyclists in the world. They're here in the back.

They're keeping up but also resting while their teammates in the front do most of the work.

It's a technique called drafting and it's what helps them survive the three-week race around France. But drafting only really makes a difference in these parts of the route: the long flat and hilly stages. Eventually, these riders reach stages where they won't be able to rely on others. They have to rely on their own strength and endurance to win the race. That happens here on the climbs. They're the most brutal and exciting parts of the race and they're what makes the Tour de France the most famous bike ride in the world...

The Tour de France began as a desperate ploy to sell more copies of the sports newspaper, L'Auto. The paper was struggling, so 1903 its editor, Henri Desgranges organized a 19 day, 2,400-kilometer bike race around the country.

It went on to become such a success that L'Auto made it an annual event. Year after year they added new routes to make the tour more challenging and also more interesting for people to follow. By 1908, L'Auto's sales had more than doubled. Then in 1910, one of Desgranges' writers, Alphonse Steines, suggested adding a new twist to the route: the Tourmalet. It was a brutal 19-kilometer uphill climb ascending 1400 meters to the summit. To see if this was even possible Steines jumped in his car to make the climb. He drove up, but his car got stuck in the snow at the top, he suffered from hypothermia and nearly died. But nonetheless, he sent a telegram saying: Tourmalet crossed. Very good road, perfectly passable. So the Tourmalet made its debut in the 1910 Tour. French cyclist Octave Lapize was the first to make the climb successfully. But he had to walk up some parts and famously called officials assassins when he reached the summit. But he went on to win the whole tour and his statue was placed at the top of the Tourmalet. Since then, climbs became a staple of the Tour de France. This year the route is made up of 21 stages over 23 days. It features 30 major climbs; seven of them are in the tour's most difficult category.

Including the Tourmalet, which is part of the event for the 86th time. More than any other climb in the Tour's history. These climbs are where the tour is ultimately won or lost. These are the long, flat, and hilly stages that are usually about 200 kilometers long. Here cyclists ride together in a formation, called a peloton. It allows cyclists to save energy by sitting
behind another rider or drafting. At high speeds, riders use most of their energy to pedal against wind resistance. But when a rider stays close behind another, they're sheltered from much of that. So, pedaling becomes much easier and they can keep up with the front riders. The way to measure this is to look at how much power a cyclist generates. Here at the front of the peloton, a Tour de France rider will generate at least 300 watts of power. I jumped on a bike to see what that feels like and just two kilometers holding 300 watts was really really hard. By comparison, when a rider is behind the lead in the peloton, they only need to generate about 240 watts to move at the same speed. Holding 240 watts for two kilometers felt remarkably easier. So even though these two might finish a 200-kilometer flat stage at the same time, one is going to be way less tired than the other. That's why you see some of the tour's best riders here in the back. They're drafting up their teammates whose job it is to do the hard work now so that the team's best cyclist is rested for the most difficult part; the mountains. Where they'll have to be on their own.

When the peloton starts pedaling uphill, it slows down. At this stage, the race is less about fighting wind resistance and more about gravity, which affects all riders the same way in the peloton. So, now every rider in the front and the back needs to generate an extraordinary amount of power to keep up the pace. In 2010 for instance, Danish cyclist Chris Anker Sorensen made it to the front of the pack on the Tourmalet climb. "Look at the face on Chris Anker Sorensen. Dishing out the pain at the front end. As the lead, he dictated the pace of the whole group.

This chart shows his power output on the final climb. He averaged 415 watts for more than 11 minutes. "... the face of Chris Anker Sorensen now, really dishing out the pain.

And around here he peaked at an incredible 590 watts. "magnificent riding by Chris Anker Sorenson, but how long can he keep this up? "Now look at American cyclist Chris Horner.

Even though he was several positions behind Sorenson, his power output was almost the same. The faster Sorenson climbed, the harder it was for the rest of the peloton to keep up. And so the formation started to break up as weaker riders fell behind. This is the moment in the race when the tour's best riders switch from drafting to relying on their own strength to get ahead.

Andy Schleck has finally attacked and Alberto Contador has gone with him.

The race is breaking up behind them like two of the best riders here: Luxembourgian Andy Schleck and Spaniard Alberto Contador, who was coasting in the back of the peloton during the long flat stages. But here they are halfway up the Tourmalet, breaking away for the win. each likely generating well over 400 watts for the final eight kilometers. Contador in the yellow jersey was the overall Tour de France leader but only by eight seconds. In second place was Schleck, who would try and lose him on this climb.

"Andy Schleck is riding like a man possessed"

It was neck-and-neck to the very top...

It's Schleck on the right. Contador! Schleck wins! Contador takes second!

Schleck edged Contador by a hair at the top of the Tourmalet to win the stage. But since he didn't lose him, Contador kept his overall lead and went on to win the Tour de France.

This kind of drama is only possible in the mountains and this year's route makes climbs particularly important.

This year's Tour is being called the highest in history because of how many climbs there are over the course of three weeks. Just one day features seven climbs. Even after more than two weeks in the race, riders climb to 2,770 meters above sea level where the thin air makes climbing even harder.

That's what makes the Tour de France the most grueling and prestigious race in this sport. The winner isn't simply the strongest rider but the one who endures the most pain and ultimately has what it takes to conquer the mountains.

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