The Tour de France has started and the two words on everybody’s lips, for better or worse are “Lance Armstrong”. Armstrong goes into the 91st edition of the worlds greatest bicycle race as the undisputed favourite. And to add to the usual fervour that surrounds this race, Armstrong will be chasing an unprecedented 6th win.
That’s not to say he’ll have it all his own way, with strong challenges likely from Jan Ullrich, who has never finished worst than 2nd in 6 starts, Tyler Hamilton, 4th last year, and Spanish climbing sensation Iban Mayo. Joining them on the start line this year will be New Zealand’s own Julian Dean.
This will be Dean’s first start in the Tour de France, where he will be one of 189 actors that take to the stage in Liege, Belgium, for the opening prologue of this year’s event. Like any actor Dean has a role to play.
Whilst cycling appears to be an individual sport, at this level nothing could be further from the truth. The riders are part of 21, 9 man teams. Each team is a professional sporting franchise, decked out in the sponsor’s livery, ranging from the good old US Postal service to French bakers Brioches La Boulangère.
Dean rides for the Credit Agricole team, a French bank, with a roster of 21 riders. This is his first year with the team and he had to fight hard to make the nine man team after crashing and breaking both elbows only 6 weeks ago.
Dean’s role on the team is that of a sprinter. He is one of small band of elite riders that take part in the kamikaze free for all that is known as a bunch sprint. This is one of the most choreographed parts of cycling, where the sprinter with the strongest team has the upper hand.
Coming into the finish it is the role of the sprinters team mates to keep the pace as high as possible, stopping riders from being able to ride off the front and win the stage. It also makes in very hard to get up near the front if you haven’t already found a good position.
For the last 5km the team will ride on the front at break neck speeds in a single file formation, commonly referred to as a lead out train. They are leading out their sprinter, who is the last rider in the train.
As the finish approaches the riders in the train will gradually expend all of their energy. Into the last kilometre there will be just three riders left, including the sprinter. With around 800m to go this will be down to two. The penultimate rider has the job of delivering the sprinter to anywhere between 400m and 200m from the line. At this point the sprinter will launch himself for the line, hoping to hold off any challenges and win the stage.
Of course this is not made any easier when there are a number of teams trying to lead out their sprinter, with a healthy dose of freeloaders thrown into the mix, trying to use the stronger teams to their own advantage.
Dean’s role is to be the penultimate rider, one of the more difficult tasks. His timing will be crucial to ensure that his sprinter, Norwegian Thor Hushovd, will have the best chance at taking a stage victory for the team. All of this happens at speeds over 60kph where the riders are frequently so close they are leaning on each other through the corners and crashes are common place.
Of course the riders will talk tactics on the road and should Hushovd decide his legs are not good on a particular stage Dean may be given the chance to go for the win himself. A feat that he has shown he is capable of with some very good results in the past.
Not all stages will be decided by bunch sprints however. There are plenty of stages with hills and mountains that will prove too tough for the pure sprinters. On these stages the sprinters will conserve their energy and often lose considerable time to those trying to win overall. Afterall, they are paid to win stages and must make sure that when it is there terrain they are at there best.
While the tour is renowned for its yellow jersey or Maillot Jaune, there are three other competitions within the race that are all fiercely competed for. The green jersey or Maillot Vert is awarded to the rider who has the best stage finishing record. This is usually won by a sprinter. Each stage awards points, usually down to 25th place plus bonus points contested along the way. The rider at the end of the tour with the most points wins the jersey. Dean’s team mate Hushovd will be one of the main competitors in this competition.
The red and white polka dot jersey or Maillot Blanc a Pois Rouge is awarded to the Tours best climber. Climbs during each day’s racing a classified from Hors Category (beyond classification) to Category 4. Points are awarded at the summit of each classified climb with the more difficult climbs (Hors) awarding more points.
The final jersey classification is that of best young rider, denoted by the white jersey or Maillot Blanc. This is for riders under 26 and is the obvious place to look for future tour champions.
Dean is also likely to have other errands to do on days unlikely to finish in a bunch sprint. He will make sure that Hushovd has as easier ride as possible, not spending lots of time in the wind, which will fatigue him. He may have to go back to the team car and fetch water bottles for his team mates. A role shared amongst the other workers in the team. Or he may have to help a rider who has punctured catch back up to the bunch.
These workers as well as trying to help Hushovd win a stage and the green jersey will be trying to get team leader, Christophe Moreau, as high up on the overall standings as possible. Some of the team will also be designated to go with any riders breaking away from the field and try to get to the finish ahead of the bunch. If nothing else, time out front in a small group is good for the sponsors, as the TV cameras follow the lead group broadcasting live throughout Europe.
All of this makes for compelling, if not somewhat complex viewing, as the many sub plots within the main show are acted out. Bare this in mind when you see shots of the euphemistically named “laughing bunch” many minutes behind the leaders, making there way over the climbs, hoping to survive all the way to Paris. None of these riders should be viewed as hopeless just because they lose 20 minutes on the leaders. They are there to play their role and help their team be as successful as possible.
It would be a dream come true for both Julian and his many kiwi fans if he were to win a stage. However, the true measure of his success is in the role he plays in helping his team achieve its goals. This is not measured by his overall time or place. It is not measured by his stage places. It is measured by the respect he gains from his team mates, his team managers and his peers. Afterall, just making the start line of this race makes you one of the elite few in world cycling.