The long and short of a bike race

It seems to be the turn of pro-cycling at the moment. The question being asked is:”what can we do to improve it as a spectacle?”

The same question was asked of cricket a few years back and the answer they came up with was “make it shorter”. This brought about twenty-twenty cricket, which in itself is fine, but it has nearly killed test-match cricket. I happen to like test-match cricket; the fact that it can run for five days and still end in a draw is part of the charm.

With cycling the TV companies are trying to improve things by trialling new technology to give us on-bike camera footage, and on-screen heart rate and power data for each rider. But also a predictable swell of opinion is saying: “make it shorter”.

It would produce more exciting racing, between riders who are not exhausted by long days on the bike, and not constrained by trying to conserve energy for another day, seems to be the gist of the argument. It would also discourage the kind of spectacle that the Tour de France served up on Stage 3 this year where nothing much happened for most of the day.

The pro peloton
Peloton (Image: Sylvain Elies via Flickr cc)

The entire field cruised along at 35 kph (a pace that I, never mind a pro-cyclist, could just about maintain) whilst a single lone cyclist rode ahead up the road in a doomed breakaway attempt. He was joined mid-escapade by Thomas Voeckler who livened it up a touch with his extravagant facial expressions and exaggerated effort.

The race then caught the breakaway, rampaged through the closing kilometres, and finished with an eyeballs-out high-speed sprint. Nearly six hours build up, for half an hour of action, the critics said.

But why do we need action all the time?

The Tour de France is supposed to ebb and flow. The exciting bits are made extra exciting by the fact that they follow a lull. The tension builds, all the extraneous stuff happens (artwork in farmer’s fields, lingering camera shots of pretty towns, over-excited dogs running into the road), and then BANG!

The business end arrives in a huge crescendo!

To make the comparison with cricket once again (and to some of my international readers, I apologise if the nuances of cricket pass you by), there was a time when a batsman hitting a ‘six’ was a cause to open a bottle of bubbly and toast the sheer recklessness of it all. Now a ‘six’ is ten-a-penny. It’s mundane. In attempting to produce more excitement they have managed to dilute it.

If each Tour de France stage were 100 kilometres of ‘exciting racing’ every day, the huge highs and slightly tedious lulls would be replaced by something more uniform, where the exciting bits would be less special, and the whole show would be poorer for it.

Apart from anything, I’m a busy man, and I haven’t got time to watch the full highlights show every day. I need those days where, if I so choose, I can fast forward through 200 kilometres of build-up safe in the knowledge that the most I’m going to miss is a few roadside fans in fancy dress, and an in-depth discussion from the commentary team about ‘echelons’.

That’s what the Tour de France is all about.

I say make it longer, if anything. Those French farmers have probably spent weeks constructing huge bike murals in their fields with tractors, cows, and bales of hay. The least we can do is give them their moment in the sun.

Vive le Tour!

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7 comments

  1. Two screens at work means I can have the T de F live on one and work on the other. This means that I can keep tabs on events without having to watch it constantly which, this year, means I would have very large bumps on my head from constantly dozing off and hitting the desk.

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  2. Hear hear Pete. The Tour has been more or less what it is, with almost infinite possibilities for variation, for more than a hundred years and thr provenance and heritage are important. Yes, a shorter stage can yield excitement but only as counterpoint to longer stages. And don’t even get me started on time trials which are an evil necessity as far as I can see ……

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  3. I’ve been lucky/unlucky enough to be able to watch start to finish everyday this tour. So far though I’ve nodded off in three of the sprint stages to wake up to an excited commentators voice calling the last 200m, but do agree that short stages would change the dynamic for the worse. More crosswinds I say, I didn’t nod off in that one.

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  4. I think this year has been especially dull due to an incredibly strong and frisky Froome and a poor Quintana. Also tiny breaks in flat stages and massive ones in the mountains haven’t helped. Hopefully it’s a one off though and it will be a better competition next year.

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  5. The analogy of T20 cricket actually works to prove your point: because of all the enormous scores and aimless thrashing around for the majority of the match, the only genuine excitement is at the very end anyway – and even then only if the match is close. Three and a half hours of cricket to see if the team batting second can get the runs required from the final six deliveries.
    P.S. Did I love beating the Aussies in three days a couple of times last year? Of course I did. Is it how Test cricket should be? Absolutely not! Different sports should be celebrated for the unique character of effort and achievement they represent. Not everything should be about hyperactive chaos.

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