Monday, January 13, 2014

Tour de France: The Blue Jersey

Picture modified from Wikipedia

Like many of you, I enjoy watching bicycle racing, the Tour de France in particular. I also happen to be fascinated by how sports use rules to make their events ("games", "races", etc.) more fun and/or entertaining. Two examples that immediately jump to mind are the off-sides rule in soccer (football to those of you outside the US) and the adjustment to mound height and bat and ball characteristics in baseball. As much as I enjoy watching "The Tour" in its current format, I cannot help but wonder if there are adjustments to the rules that would make it even more entertaining? Of course, tweaking is already being done every year in the form of route selection as well as the occasional rules change. More or fewer mountains or more or fewer time trials affect how the race plays out and who is more likely to win. However, I have two radical ideas for changing The Tour that lie somewhere in the twilight zone between serious and farcical. I call these two ideas The Blue Jersey and the Brevet de France.

The modern Tour de France has five awards for individual riders and one team award. The five individual awards are the Yellow Jersey (General Category abbreviated GC), The Green Jersey (Sprint), the Polka-Dot Jersey (King of the Mountains), the White Jersey (best young rider), and the Most Aggressive Rider (no jersey, but a red number). The Yellow Jersey is given to the rider with the fastest overall elapsed time. The white jersey is the same except that the winner must be 26 years of age or younger. The most aggressive rider is selected subjectively by a panel of experts. The Green and Polka-Dot jerseys are are based not on time, but on points earned by order of finish both at the end of the stage as well as arbitrary lines along the course. Of all of these jerseys, the overall winner of the Yellow Jersey is declared the winner of the Tour de France, and that is what I would like to change.

"Fabian Cancellara pictured at the 2010 Tour de France. He is the rider with the most yellow jerseys not to win the general classification overall." (Quote and Picture from Wikipedia). As far as I know, Fabian Cancellara, due to is particular mix of skills, has not been thought to be a contender to wear the Yellow Jersey at the end of the Tour. Might he have a chance to win the Blue Jersey?

How can I propose to change the Yellow Jersey? The winner of the yellow jersey is the natural and obvious overall winner. Or is he? The first running of the Tour de France on 1903 had rather different rules than those we use today; it was more like a brevet1 and between 1906 and 1912 the overall tour winner was determined by points, like the modern green and polka-dot jerseys. In that spirit, and to attempt to shake the notion that the current rules are natural and inevitable, I would like to begin by mock-proposing a replacement for the Tour de France that I call the Brevet de France.

Brevet de France

Modern routes for The Tour are discontinuous; one day's race does not necessarily start where the previous day's finished. Contrast that to Race Across America (RAAM) which is a continuous ride from one end of the United States to the other, like a brevet except competitive. In that spirit, a simple version of the Tour de France would be like RAAM, one continuous ride around France with no separate stages, and no breaks for eating or sleeping. As with RAAM, riders would sleep as little as possible. In my opinion, this proposal illuminates the arbitrary aspects of the current yellow jersey competition. If we really want to know who can ride the perimeter of France the fastest, why not make the Tour de France do just that?

Personally, I don't like the above proposal for the same reason I am a bit uncomfortable with RAAM; I don't think determining which rider is best able to deal with sleep deprivation is interesting, humane, or healthy. Plus, I think the flexibility provided by the current discontinuous routing leads to a more interesting race. Finally, I have a slightly more serious proposal I'd like to make that accommodates such discontinuities. Instead of replacing the Tour de France with the Brevet de France, why not supplement it? Imagine an amateur event to be conducted along side the current Tour de France. It would be a brevet that followed the same route as the tour. Each rider (or each team, if it were run as a team event) would have cars to drive them from the end of one stage to the start of the next. There would have to be rules to prevent unsafe driving between stages. One obvious way to accomplish that would be to set a driving time between stages that guarantees a safe driving speed and say that the time between stages cannot be less than that. I would also, in the interest of limiting sleep deprivation, limit cycling to sunrise to sunset; this could be enforced by a GPS carried by the riders who would be picked up and transported to a sleeping facility each evening and returned to where they stopped each morning. Even given these limitations, I suspect that the riders in the Brevet de France would finish the route significantly faster than the racers in the Tour de France. Should this amateur event be an all-out race, or should it be more like Paris-Brest-Paris, where finishers are listed alphabetically? I don't know, but in either case, I think the point would be made that there is something inevitably arbitrary about the definition of the winner of the Tour de France, and thus it is perfectly reasonable to play with the rules in the interest of making it more entertaining.

The Green Jersey. Picture from Wikipedia

The Blue Jersey

I hope I have convinced you that the modern Tour de France is not about who can ride the the fastest the longest, but what I am not arguing that it should be about that. There is a lot I enjoy about the Tour the way it is, a collection of 21 separate races conducted over 23 days. I enjoy the contest for the yellow jersey as much as anyone, but almost as much, I enjoy the daily contest for stage winner, the contest for the green jersey winner ("best sprinter") and the most competitive rider. The white jersey awarded to the best young rider is interesting, but clearly is secondary; it speaks more to future years than the current Tour. Personally, I find the polka-dot jersey, the "King of the Mountains", a little forced. The true King of the Mountains is almost always the Yellow Jersey winner, the wearer of the polka-dot jersey is usually decided by who makes it into break aways. The Tour organizers recognize this problem and have worked to make the polka-dot jersey competition more about who is the strongest climber, and to the extent they have succeeded, I think they are increasing the confluence between the yellow and polka-dot jersey winners. In support of this contention, I note that in 2013, the winner of the King of the Mountains competition was the second place finisher overall. Although I enjoy every single day of the tour, I confess that I enjoy flat stages less than the others. The reason is that, except for occasional bad luck that eliminates a contender, such stages have little impact on the overall winner; such stages are essentially padding with little or no impact on the overall race.

In short, the current Tour de France divides into a number of unrelated contests because only the mountain stages and time trials are important for determining the overall winner. As a result, most of the stages have little impact on who wins and become almost like a half-time show in a football game. Sure, some riders are eliminated as potential winners on such days, but this is a negative thing, not a positive. I would find it more fun if not only the strong climbers were in contention for the overall winner, but where someone like Peter Sagan or even Mark Cavendish might win by being good enough in their specialty. The way I propose to do that is to change it from an elapsed time competition to a point-based competition, like the green jersey. There are a lot of options in terms of the details that could be adjusted to make the race more competitive; whether only the top places (e.g. first through tenth) received points, or whether every place counted toward the final tally. For safety reasons, riders finishing in a large group (e.g. the peleton) would probably have to be given the same number of points. However this was done, by adjusting the ratio of flat v.s. mountainous stages and the number of time trials v.s. mass start races, the organizers could put together routes that had as many riders in contention as possible. Even in this highly speculative blog post, I would not propose eliminating the current yellow jersey, the winner of my points competition would receive the blue jersey2. To facilitate a transition away from the Yellow Jersey winner being considered the overall winner, I would subtitle the Blue Jersey "the new GC" and retitle the Yellow Jersey "the old GC."

The White Jersey. Picture from Wikipedia.

A potential criticism of the blue jersey is that it is very similar to the current green jersey. In the first place, I consider that a good thing in that the green jersey comes closest of any to being a counter balance to the current yellow jersey. The biggest difference between the green jersey and the blue jersey is that the green jersey includes sprint points at the middle of stages. To my mind, this causes the current green jersey to be a convolution of three different things; a point-based measure of stages won or placed, a measure of who is the fastest sprinter, and a measure of aggressiveness in that going out on breaks is a good way to pick up mid-course sprint points. The proposed Blue Jersey is an attempt to extract the measure of stages won or placed from the current Green Jersey and offer that as an alternative to the current Yellow Jersey as a determination the overall winner of the Tour de France. Determining the fastest sprinter and recognizing aggressiveness are both worthwhile, and if this post is way more popular than I expect, I will share some (fairly obvious) ideas I have along these lines about how those things could be determined.

Blue Jersey Winner, 2013

It doesn't really make sense to declare a Blue Jersey winner for 2013 because the riders were not competing for it (their strategy would likely have been different were they to) and the organizers gave it no consideration during course design. That said, just for fun, I set the following rules and looked at the impact on the order of finish:
  1. Points were given for order of finish for the top 10 finishers. 50 points for first place, 40 for second, and so on, 30, 25, 22, 20, 18, 17, 16, down to 15 points for tenth place.
  2. I wanted to give everyone finishing with the peleton 10 points, but that was too hard for this mock calculation, so I gave 10 points to everyone finishing within 30 seconds of the stage winner.
Using these rules, the first 10 winners of the 2013 Blue Jersey competition were as follows:

RiderBlue Jersey PointsBlue Jersey PlaceYellow Jersey Place
FROOME Christopher34611
SAGAN Peter330279
QUINTANA ROJAS Nairo Alexander26132
CAVENDISH Mark2355149
KWIATKOWSKI Michal235611
KITTEL Marcel2307166
CONTADOR Alberto22384
KREUZIGER Roman21595
COSTA Rui Alberto2101025

I did not tune my rules to get the results I wanted, I guessed at what seemed like reasonable rules, and the above is what happened. That said, I confess that I am delighted by the results. Firstly, I thought Chris Froome rode a really good Tour last year and deserved to win by any standard. The fact that he won my proposed Blue Jersey is an endorsement of it as a reasonable standard for winning.  Similarly, I am pleased that the top five Yellow Jersey contenders all ended up in the top 10 for the Blue Jersey, again a reality check that the Blue Jersey measures something relevant. Secondly, I am delighted that Peter Sagan came in second in the Blue Jersey competition. Like many people, I am a big fan of Sagan, and as I hoped, my Blue Jersey rewarded his all around cycling skills. Thirdly, I am delighted that three sprinters, Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel (in addition to Sagan), were elevated to the top 10. This confirms that the Blue Jersey does something interesting, it gives a whole new class of riders the hope of being a General Category winner. Finally, nobody in the top 10 seemed to me not to belong there. I hereby declare my proposal for the Blue Jersey a howling success and expect the Tour organizers to implement it, if not in 2014, certainly by 2015. In the spirit of the public good, I am not asking for any compensation from the organizers for this valuable suggestion.


1. The word "brevet" comes from the sport of randonneuring. Understanding that sport would be helpful for understanding this post, and the Randonneurs USA website has an excellent summary.

2. I picked blue for the jersey color because blue is a primary color which is not otherwise used to describe a rider in the Tour.

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