Is the Tour de France still interesting to follow?


2:00 p.m., July 1, 2022

In 2019, the Tour de France, like the Tour of Italy (the Giro) and the Tour of Spain (the Vuelta), changed its regulations so that the teams consist of eight riders instead of nine. Christian Prudhomme, director of the Tour, whose departure the 109e edition will be given this Friday 1er July in Copenhagen, Denmark, had justified this decision by evoking questions of safety (fewer runners, therefore less risk of falling) and the dynamism of the race (fewer runners, therefore fewer padlocked stages). The International Cycling Union (UCI), the federal body, had approved.

Major sporting events effectively modify their rules in order to promote safety, entertainment, fairness or possible economic interests; Formula 1 is a classic example of frequent rule changes.

A progressive disinterest of the spectators?

Today, commentators and viewers of the Tour de France are in an unfeigned affection for the past, regretting a  » before «  more epic. More uncertainty, more spectacle, less locked races seem to mark the cycling epics of before where the technological whole had not taken over the human while the image sanctifying the epic moment could be appreciated in black and white. The French philosopher Roland Barthes gave the Tour de France the status of a modern myth linked to the importance of collective beliefs built in the past.

The headsets relaying the orders of the sporting director or the measurement of watts leveling up the power to be maintained – in order to stay in front – are regularly put in the dock. About ten years ago, we were interested – in a scientific way – in understanding the real impact of earpieces on the course of races. The debate is far from over, even today. This cult of the past magnifies exploits and failures that would no longer be valid in sanitized tests?

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Always the same racing scenario which leads to the progressive disinterest of the spectators: this is the fear of the organizers of sporting events who modify the regulations. We then wonder where the « convicts of the road » of journalist Albert Londres in 1924 – forgetting that they were also described as « road dwarfs » by Jacques Goddet in the newspaper Humanity in 1961.

If the 2021 Tour has experienced « record audiences » in France according to the broadcaster France Télévisions, with an overall audience of 42.4 million people, the figures have been in steady decline in recent years.

Creation of half-stages, time bonuses, appearance of different jerseys, intermediate sprints or others have been responses in order to energize the race, the last two editions of which have been won by the Slovenian Tadej Pogacar. Does this mean that the Tour de France has become more interesting to follow than before?

The value of the yellow jersey

For the sake of consistency, our analysis will take as a starting point the 1969 Tour where the brand teams return definitively, leading to the disappearance of the national teams.

For 50 years, the average speed of the event has increased (today, a little less than 41 km/h) but the total distance to be covered is reduced, the equipment is better, the sports groups are more structured and the preparation of the runners is more important. We want as proof the drop in the dropout rate on the Tour de France. More than ever and until the end, the presence of team members is essential. We can also notice that there is a clear decrease in the average gaps separating the final winner from his pursuers.

Could this be the witness of a race that is becoming more and more disputed? We must be wary of such an interpretation because the gaps can be controlled while minimizing the risk, thanks to the work of the team members who control the race. So, what objective criteria make it possible to think that a Tour de France is truly contested and potentially interesting to follow?

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The interest of the race is linked to the « battle » for the yellow jersey

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In our opinion, and voluntarily putting aside the secondary jerseys or stage victories, the interest of the race is linked to the « battle » for the yellow jersey (the first in the classification in time). In other words, if control of the yellow jersey is uncertain, there should be greater interest in following the race.

The uncertainty inherent in the control of the yellow jersey is based on two dimensions: the strong variation of the wearers of the yellow jersey throughout the race and the smallness of the final gaps.

2010, the era of “controlled” Towers

Thus, based on the data collected on the procyclingstats.com site, we carried out a series of measurements concerning – for each Round – the number of different wearers of the yellow jersey, the number of days in yellow of the final winner, the number of the stage which saw the last change of yellow jersey, then, as seen above, the final gaps between the first three.

An analysis allows us to position and classify the 51 Tours de France since 1969 as shown in the following diagram. Although not subsequently attributed, we have retained Tour data from the era dominated by American Lance Armstrong (who was stripped of seven Tour wins due to doping).

The northwest quarter (in red) corresponds to the strongly dominated Tours (large gaps and few different yellow jerseys). We’ll call them “locked” towers. In our opinion, these are the least interesting Tours to follow. We will find there many Tours of the 1970s with the domination of the Belgian champion Eddy Merckx. The last locked Tour date is that of 2014 with the victory of the Italian Vincenzo Nibali where several favorites gave up.

The north-eastern quarter (in orange) corresponds to the Tours having experienced a strong variation in the wearers of the yellow jersey but in the end, the gap is significant. This is a classic pattern during the 1980s when significant gaps were widened. These are “open then closed” towers.

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The south-west quarter (in blue) envisages Tours where the final gaps are smaller but the control of the yellow jersey is higher. These are “controlled” Towers. This is the underlying trend of the 2010s with the victories of the British team Sky with Bradley Wiggins, Christopher Froome or Geraint Thomas.

Spaniard Miguel Indurain’s racing patterns in the 1990s are linked to this category. Strengthened by the power of his team and his domination in the time trial, the winner does not need to widen the gap considerably. It is a scientific management of the race where the « marginal gains » prove to be decisive and where the suspense is short-lived.

The south-east quarter corresponds to the Tours de France which are the most interesting to follow – in our opinion – because the final gap is small and there has been a strong variation in the wearers of the yellow jersey. These are disputed turns. We find there those of 1983 (the first victory of the Frenchman Laurent Fignon, 20 different stage winners), 1987 (the Irishman Stephen Roche and his elbow-to-elbow with his Spanish rival Pedro Delgado), 1989 (who resulted in the victory of the American Greg LeMond for 8 small seconds ahead of Laurent Fignon) and 1990 (also won by LeMond).

Happy surprise, if any, the Tour de France 2019 with the victory of the Colombian Egan Bernal and the pugnacity of the French Julian Alaphilippe corresponds to this category. Note that the outcome of this Tour was disrupted by bad weather.

Our results clearly indicate the advent of races where the gaps are small but where the final winner emerges very early; these « controlled » Towers are dominant in the near past (2010s).

Technology doesn’t explain everything

Yes, the cycling authorities are right to modify the rules of the events to promote more dynamism, but the « before » mentioned in general is not necessarily more exhilarating. Admittedly, the narrowing of the gaps between the first suggests that the last Tours de France testify to greater control of the race: the winner, without fail, keeps his opponents at a close distance. The banning of technology (headphones, calculation of watts, GPS positioning) may make sense, but the recent trend is similar to that of the 1970s, which were devoid of informational tools.

Technology does not explain everything and regulations concerning the composition of teams seem more sensible than a ban on technologies used in racing (like the 2009 attempt).

The question of the viewer’s perception of the race also seems crucial to us in order to better understand the problem. Historically, the Tour has been an event magnified by the stories of the written press and then by the radio, which have been able to capitalize on a few facts of the race to tell what the audience could not see. For the record, the feathers of an Antoine Blondin or a Pierre Chany contributed to the greatness of the Tours de France in the same way as its winners.

Nowadays, the stages are covered in full, the camera device is more important, the big data with the GPS transponders placed on the bikes and the real-time processing of the data tell everyone the precise position of the riders. We refer the reader to the recent book by journalist Guillaume di Grazia which recounts in detail and from the inside the Tour de France 2019 through its decision-making and informational prism.

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The Tour was an event magnified by the stories of the written press and then by the radio

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Uncertainty, in economic theory, is based on an absence of information. The viewer is less and less in uncertainty and this changes his perception of the race. As a result, there may appear a moderating effect, a concept derived from statistics, which indicates that races without a real battle will, compared to before, be perceived as much more boring while lively races will be more appreciated.

This moderating effect, which amplifies the relationship between the actual unfolding and its perception by the viewer, will continue to grow with the technologies made available to followers and the media.

It is therefore even more crucial that the regulations be modified, possibly heuristically, in order to promote the appearance of exciting racing facts. Let’s meet at the end of the 2022 Tour to find out which category he will belong to…

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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