It takes much more than one supremely talented skinny man to win the Tour de France. That man matters, certainly, but Chris Froome would probably not be a four-time overall yellow jersey winner if he also didn’t have the best, most well-funded team in the sport surrounding him. (Maybe two or three times in that case — give or take a salbutamol inhaler).
It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of teammates in cycling. The Tour goes out of its way to make itself seem like an individual competition, giving the race leader a bright yellow jersey that can be seen from helicopters and propping him up on a podium after each stage to wave flowers and a plush lion at the cameras.
But don’t fooled. Cycling is about much more than pure physical effort. Yellow jersey contenders need teammates to make sure they use their energy as efficiently as possible while climbing some of the biggest mountains in the world. And in perhaps no other sport are the support staff — the team directors, soigneurs, mechanics, and chefs — so critically important to the mission, too.
Every Tour de France team is an intricate machine that could collapse if any part of it fails.
Teams are made up of eight riders who do everything together
Race, eat, recover, and repeat, for 21 stages and nearly 2,100 miles over 23 days. It should be noted that not all riders are the same. There are 22 teams in the Tour de France, each organized under a sponsor. The sponsors tend to be banks, energy companies, and bicycle companies.
Here’s a brief explanation of the most common types of riders you will see on the road.
The yellow jersey contender: The competition for the yellow jersey is based on the leader of the general classification, which ranks all 176 riders by time. The riders on top of the general classification at the end of the Tour tend to be strong climbers and time trialists, because mountain and time trial stages usually create the biggest time gaps. Teams can have multiple yellow jersey contenders — like Movistar this year with Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa, and Alejandro Valverde — or one clear boss — like Team Sky and four-time Tour winner Chris Froome.
Teams like Sky are rigidly mechanical and deadly. They come into the Tour with a plan and follow it to the letter. Teams like Movistar function much more loosely, seemingly making up the gameplan on the fly.
The domestique: A domestique is essentially a helper rider, someone who sacrifices his chances to climb up the general classification or win a stage so that a teammate can succeed. Domestiques will often gather water bottles from team cars to pass out among teammates, or ride in front of a team leader to cut the wind for him, or even give up his bicycle if the team leader suffers a mechanical problem.
Depending on the type of stage, anyone — including the yellow jersey contender — could act as a domestique. For example, on a flat stage when there isn’t much time to gain, a pure climber might do domestique duties so that sprinters who are capable of winning the stage can focus on riding their fastest. When the terrain gets bumpier, those roles reverse.
The sprinter: Many casual fans understand the importance of the yellow jersey, but nearly as prestigious among riders is the green jersey, which is awarded to the rider who earns the most points from stage wins and intermediate sprints. These riders tend to be the fastest riders in terms of pure speed, because the biggest chunk of Tour de France stages take place on relatively flat land.
Other important types of riders include the puncheur — all-around riders who are best at courses that are not too steep, and not too flat — and the time trial specialist — also a good all-around rider and valuable domestique, but particularly well-suited for riding alone against the clock. The best yellow jersey contenders — Chris Froome, particularly — are often great time trialists.
Again, the important thing to note is that, at certain points during the Tour, any of these riders could act as a domestique. Everyone has to make sacrifices for the good of the team.
The key to any tactic on the road is drafting
Every move is based the fact that it is much easier to ride behind someone than in front of someone. Scientists don’t quite agree on the extent, but the effect of sitting on another rider’s wheel is a 27 percent to 50 percent reduction in wind drag. That’s why when you watch the Tour de France, you’ll often see the best riders sitting third or fourth wheel within a line of seven of their teammates.
The long leadout trains are most easily seen on the flat stages, when teams will work hard to move their sprinters to the front of the peloton — the big bunch of 100-plus riders sticking close together — and keep his legs fresh before he bursts forward to challenge for the stage victory. Teamwork is perhaps most critical in the mountains, however. When Team Sky takes to the Alps, expect to see riders like Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, and Wout Poels near Chris Froome at all times, doing as much work as they can for their team leader for as long as their legs will hold out.
Riders like Thomas are often called superdomestiques for being yellow jersey-caliber riders who nonetheless are willing to sacrifice for a team leader.
Having a teammate or two on difficult climbs is often what makes a great rider a champion. For the last several years, for example, Thomas has acted essentially as Froome’s guard dog. Whenever a rival would try to attack by accelerating from Froome up a steep slope, Thomas would chase and take Froome with him on his wheel, keeping the attacks at bay while insuring that Froome doesn’t have to expend more energy than necessary.
A great team can also go to the front of the peloton and drive the pace relentlessly high, snuffing out any idea of an attack before it begins. Not only is Sky ridiculously talented top to bottom, it is also incredibly well coordinated, sharing the energy load as equitably as possible and driving all of their rivals mad.
But no team can be great without proper support staff
In 2014, I spoke to a member of BMC Racing’s staff, and this is what the team brought to support its nine riders:
Minimum 17 staff: four soigneurs, four mechanics, a general manager, two race directors; a cook, a press officer, a hospitality manager, a technical director, a doctor and a photographer.
10 vehicles: one truck, one bus, one sprinter, one van and six cars.
27 road bikes, 18 time trial bikes and 80 pairs of wheels.
1,000 energy bars
1,500 gel packs
The kit per each rider, which includes the following: four bibs, four short sleeve jerseys, two long sleeve thermal jerseys, two short sleeve thermal jerseys, three knee/leg/arm warmers, two wind vests, two rain jackets, five pairs of socks, two helmets, two aero helmets, 10 cycling caps, three pairs of gloves
Just like a domestique rider is expected to do everything for the team leader, a soigneur is someone who takes care of all the little things behind the scenes. Technically, soigneurs are massage therapists, but they will also pack the day’s musettes — bags that contain food, water, and energy drinks — that riders will grab as they ride through designated portions of every stage. If a rider misses a feed zone, his body could give out at a critical juncture of the race.
Then there are the mechanics. They get up early to make sure every rider’s bike is properly tuned, and pack the roofs of their support vehicles so that if an important riders suffers a mechanical problem, his replacement ride will be the most easily accessible. The mechanics can often salvage a bad day. On Stage 9 of this year’s Tour, for example, Frenchman Romain Bardet suffered three punctured tires on the cobblestones, and yet was able to minimize his time lost because AG2R La Mondiale’s mechanics were quick to give him a new wheel when he needed it.
Communication among everyone is critical during each stage
A system of radios makes everything go:
Race radio: A one-way feed run by Tour de France organizers. Team cars are stuck behind cyclists with limited visibility, so they rely on race radio to relay information about which riders have been involved in crashes or are pulling away from the peloton. Race radio gives clearance to team cars to break procession order and speed ahead to aid their riders.
Car-to-car radio: A channel open to only the two team cars on the course. Amidst so much chaos, the two race directors must be in constant contact, communicating who will help which riders, and whether to pull over and swap rider-specific equipment based on which rider is in which part of the peloton.
Car-to-rider radio: A channel that puts race directors directly in the ears of team riders. This communication line has been open since the mid-90s, though some want to abolish it, claiming that it has eliminated spontaneity during stages in favor of robotic coordination and tactics. Riders like it, however, and teams insist that the radio is used almost entirely for communicating times and potential hazards ahead, and that little collusion takes place.
Each team has two cars. All of the cars follow the peloton according to the team rankings, from best to worst, meaning that currently the top-ranked team, Quick-Step Floors, has the No. 1 and No. 23 cars in the procession, and the worst-ranked team, Cofidis, has the No. 22 and No. 44 cars.
Positioning is important, because any car near the front will be able to get to a down rider much more quickly. The positioning of the vehicles also incentivizes teams to get into breakaways. If a domestique pulls far enough ahead of the peloton, a team car is given a go-ahead to break procession order and drive up near its rider. Doing so might help the team’s yellow jersey hopeful later if he has a problem or desperately needs a water bottle as the breakaway is roped in and the vehicle is asked to rejoin the procession.
From the chefs dedicated to giving riders the perfect mix of simple carbs, proteins, and probiotics to recover from yet another grueling stage, to the communications director who keeps the atmosphere loose on the team bus for three stress-packed weeks, a Tour de France team is made up of dozens of moving parts, any of which could be the difference between success and failure.
If everything goes right, all that’s left for anyone to do is hope that the top guy doesn’t screw it all up
That’s the point of it all, really: to eliminate all possible complications until all that’s left is hope that your meal ticket — your one amazing rider who you’ve dedicated months of preparation for — can win the whole thing on his own, with, say, an incredible solo effort up to La Pierre-St. Martin, or a strangling performance on the cobblestones of Northern France.
And if that meal ticket bonks, or worse, crashes out of the Tour yet again, then all that effort will, cruelly, have been for naught.