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Tour de France Q&A

Tour de France Q&A with Samuel Abt

Question: Some of the terms used in bicycle racing are puzzling, aren't they? What are an "attack'' and a "counterattack"? Why is the group of riders in the Tour de France sometimes called "the pack'' and sometimes "the peloton'?

International Herald Tribune

SUNDAY, JULY 3, 2005

Answer: When a rider attacks, he speeds away from the others, either the main group or the small group he is with. If another rider chases him, that's a counterattack. The entire group of riders in the Tour and all other bicycle races is referred to as "the pack" and sometimes "the bunch" in British English or "the peloton'' if the speaker is using French, the language of the sport. Similarly, a water bottle is often called "a bidon,'' the French word for the same object.

Question: How can a rider win a daily stage and not be the race's leader?

Answer: The same way a baseball team can win a game and remain in the division cellar. Or a golfer can win a hole but not the round.

Question: Why is the Tour measured in kilometers instead of good old miles?

Answer: Europeans use the metric system. A kilometer is five-eighths of a mile. Think of it as half a mile and then some.

Question: How and when do the riders eat during a race?

Answer: They eat a hearty breakfast before a race and often have a snack if the start is hours later. In the back pockets of their jerseys they carry small sandwiches, cakes, gells and fruit. At least once and sometimes twice during the day, they speed past a "feed zone'' where mechanics or masseurs hold out small bags of more sandwiches, cakes and fruit. The riders do not stop but snatch the bags, which have long cords as handles easy to snatch.

Question: Is bicycle racing a team or an individual sport?

Answer: It is often referred to as an individual sport practiced by teams. This means that a team, usually nine men in a race, will work for a leader by shielding him from the wind, allowing him to save about 20 percent of his energy by riding in a teammate's slipstream, and by chasing down opponents who have attacked. Most riders are hampered psychologically, and thus physically, when a rival suddenly shows up in a counterattack.

Occasionally, a teammate will give the wheel off his bicycle, or even the bicycle itself, to his leader if he has a flat tire and the team car is not there to change it. If the leader has fallen behind the pack for mechanical or physical reasons, teammates will wait for him and pace him back in their slipstream.

A strong team like U.S. Postal Service, which surrounds Lance Armstrong at the front of the pack, often demoralizes his opponents with its show of support since the opponents tend not to have similar support. In addition, a strong team will keep the race's speed so high that opponents are unable to launch an attack. Riding at this high speed is called "riding tempo.''

If a team has a strong sprinter, it will chase down breakaways near the finish and ride "a train,'' which is a line of riders who carry their sprinter in a slipstream, peeling off one after another until the sprinter launches himself toward the finish line.

A few teams have neither leaders nor sprinters and then it is truly an individual sport: Every man for himself. These teams are not often successful.

Question: Don't riders have to urinate during a six-hour race?

Answer: Yes, and they do. Shortly after the start, they often stop en masse --- in English, all together --- at the side of the road. In the heat of battle, riders often urinate while continuing to race, i.e. as they pedal along without stopping.. If they do this in a populated area and are seen by the many officials who monitor the race, they are fined.

Question: What do riders do after a race? Do they go out partying?

Answer: All have a massage and a shower and then have dinner with teammates. Afterward they chat, sometimes give interviews to reporters, watch television or call home before going to sleep. An old proverb says the Tour de France is won in bed. While it is not unknown for a rider to celebrate a victory by going to a disco, it is rare. Riding for 200 kilometers at high speed in heavy heat or cold rain tends to tire a person.

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