Road cycling is a unique sport. I mean, with all other sports, if your intelligence is anywhere near average, you’re old enough to understand what winning and losing means and someone takes a minute to explain to you the basics, you’re all set, you can watch and enjoy any sport you want, even cricket.
Road cycling is a Kabbalah of sport. A casual half hour viewing of a Tour de France stage with a beer in one hand and a remote control in another (because you want to keep an eye on that Formula 1 race) won’t give you any clue about what’s going on. Talking to your friend who rides to work and drinks decaf mocha with fat free soy milk won’t help, most likely he won’t have a clue either. And yet, because you’re intrigued and want to know why such a seemingly boring sport attracts so much attention to itself (doping aside), you catch yourself thinking – wotthehell is going on, why all the fuss?
So while everyone else is talking about Wiggins and Evans (and of course Armstrong) in these last few hours before the start of 2012 Tour de France, I’ll try to be different and talk about the mundane and the banal – the theory of stage racing.
At this junction you’re quite possibly thinking, “Mate, I have pinned a dossard on my derrière more times than I care to mention, I can spell bidon even if you wake me up at 2 in the morning and I have never, ever spelled peloton with an “e”. Theory of stage racing? You’re kidding me…”
You might be right but then you probably never heard of “Every day I learn something new” expression. You have? Read on then, you never know.
What is prologue in a stage race like Tour de France? The Free Dictionary defines prologue as “an introduction or preface” or “an introductory act, event”. In stage racing, it is that but also much, much more.
As far as the stage race itself is concerned, the main, the prime purpose of a prologue is to sort out the general classification (GC) from day one. Before the race proper even starts, you already have your GC leader wearing the leader’s jersey. It’s neater that way and everyone knows what to do from this point on. But this is not all.
There’s a belief out there, spread out by fools like these, that prologue is not a real race but rather some kind of ceremony. Others, slightly more “educated”, think that even though prologue is a bike race in its own right, only the GC contenders go full gas in a prologue. Not true.
Not every rider goes full gas of course. For most, it makes no sense to race all out and finish 37th. You might as well take it a little easy and finish 68th, who cares. But there are more than 5-10 riders who will throw everything at this short race.
Why would a non-GC rider, whose job is in fact to work for his team’s GC contender, go full gas in a prologue? Wouldn’t it be better for him not to bother and save his legs since he’s going to lose a lot of time later in the race anyway working for his teammate? It would but…
No one knows what lies ahead in a stage race, especially a 3 week long Grand Tour like Tour de France. 7-10 days later after the prologue, you might find yourself in a top 5 position with a shot for the overall win because:
a) you went well in a prologue, and
b) your team leader is out of GC contention (for whatever reason)
Hence, there are plenty of riders in a prologue for whom this first, short race is very important. Apart from the GC contenders with a special status of full protection from their team (usually no more than 5-7 riders from the entire peloton), other riders who will go all out in a prologue are those who are as good or almost as good as their protected team leaders but for whatever reason are not designated team leaders. These guys will be given green light to go all out in a prologue in case something goes wrong with their team leader.
Then, there are self designated dark horses who think (or even know for sure) their team leader is out of form and will not deliver. If they believe they have the legs to fight for the GC, they will try to place as high as possible in a prologue and then wait day after day for their team leader to stumble. Once the team leader’s down, voilà, the dark horse is now next on the GC and is willing to pick up the flag. Those 10 minutes of hard work in the prologue are now paying off.
As I said, you just never know. A lot can happen in a stage race and unless the rider knows for sure there’s no point racing full on a prologue, there will be a lot of riders tonight seriously hurting themselves because they have to.
And then there’s the show. Because prologues are short (less than 10km), they are always held in a city. And this attracts crowds. A major stage race, like Tour de France, attracts huge crowds. Crowds means advertising money. The streets will be splattered with banners and billboards. In a televised race, stationary TV cameras will be installed at many points on the course making the broadcast not only less expensive but easier to “package” to the viewer. This, in turn, increases the TV audience and brings more money to the organisers.
Short but important if you want to win a stage race – prologue, underestimate to your own peril.
Happy viewing everyone.