Monday, July 30, 2018

Blue Jersey Revisited

Peter Sagan, winning Stage 13 of the 2018 Tour de France. He is wearing the Green Jersey, given to the winner of the most "sprint" points.
A few years ago, I wrote a semi-satirical post proposing the creation of a new definition of the winner of the Tour de France, called the Blue Jersey (as opposed to the current winner, called the Yellow Jersey). To this day, this remains one of my favorite posts, both because of its humor as well as because of its underlying serious intent. For many of the intervening years, circumstances have kept me from watching The Tour, but this year I made an effort to restart. Doing so made me rethink my Blue Jersey post. Don't get me wrong, I still think the Blue Jersey is a great idea, but being realistic, it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, so in this post I am focusing on how I can change my attitude towards The Tour so to maximize my enjoyment.

Anyone at all sophisticated in the ways of The Tour is probably rolling their eyes at my naïveté by now; clearly my understanding of the tour is so limited! That's OK, this blog has never been for the sophisticated, but rather for the naive like me; I hope that my simple discoveries will help us better understand the cycling world we love, even if we don't understand it all that well. So for those readers, here are my thoughts:

To be honest, a big part of what motivated my Blue Jersey post was my frustration that one of my favorite riders, Peter Sagan, had no chance of winning the Tour, despite being one of its best riders. (This is because there are many separate skills a bicycle racer can have, sprinting, climbing, bike handling, time trialling, and a particular subset of these are needed to win the Yellow Jersey. As brilliant as Sagan is as a bicycle racer, his collection of skills are not a good match for the Yellow Jersey competition.) The goal of my proposed Blue Jersey was to make it possible for a wider range of riders, not just the climbers, to win. When I tuned in for the 2018 edition of the Tour de France, Peter Sagan had become perhaps the most famous rider in the tour. Had he become a climber and learned how to "win"? No, he was still the same general purpose rider and sprinter as he had always been, but he was leader of his team, and among the highest paid riders. Rather than compete for the Yellow Jersey, he was competing for the Green Jersey (which he won). Did that mean that Sagan had elevated the Green Jersey to be a worthy competitor to the Yellow Jersey? At first, I thought he had, and had an idea for what I thought was going to be an easy post; how, by looking at the other prizes offered at the tour, I could get many of the benefits of my Blue Jersey idea without having to take control of the Tour de France. In contrast to my expectations, this post turned out to be one of the most difficult ones I have written. I have deleted everything and rewritten it from scratch several times. This is only slightly due to the fact that I was watching the Tour as I wrote it, that events on the road changed my opinion as I wrote. Rather, I had the fascinating if unnerving experience of, time and time again, sitting down to write with what I thought was a clear idea in my head, and then reading what I wrote, only to find it did not match the idea in my head at all. Did I finally get it right, in this, the final version? I don't think so, I think I simply became more realistic.

Just a little bit of background: The Tour de France is essentially 21 separate bike races. The winner of the overall race is the rider whose total time for all 21 races, added together, is the lowest, and that rider is given a Yellow Jersey to acknowledge that fact. In addition to this overall winner, prizes are awarded to the winner of each of the 21 individual races, as well as a Green Jersey for the rider accumulating the best finishes at sprint lines at the end of each race as well as various intermediate points on some of the stages, a Polka-Dot jersey for a similar contest with points awarded at the top of mountain climbs, and a White Jersey which has the same criteria as the Yellow Jersey except it is given to the best young rider, who must be less than 26 years old. In addition to Jersey prizes, there is a team prize given to the team whose top three riders each day have the lowest total time, and a subjective prize given to the most "combative" rider, the rider who stirs up the action and makes the race exciting.

Four important points:

  1. The various prizes are in conflict one with another; if you try for one award, it usually makes it more difficult to compete for other awards. So, each rider and each team have to decide which awards are of most interest to them, which is determined by some combination of how prestigious the award is and how realistic it is for that team or rider to win that award. 
  2. Bicycle racing is a team sport. In 2018, 22 eight-man teams competed. For a rider to win a prize, it is usually the case that other members of his team have to sacrifice their own ambitions to help him to so. 
  3. If a team has a rider who could realistically win the Yellow Jersey, their team will almost certainly designate him as their leader, and any efforts they make towards any of the other awards will be secondary, making sure they do everything they can so that rider can win. A team without such a rider will consider other goals; winning the Green Jersey, going after stage wins, etc.
  4. The Tour de France was created in 1903 to sell newspapers. It was then and is now a commercial enterprise trading in publicity. To survive, a professional team needs to attract $ponsor$, and sponsors are attracted by the prospect of good publicity for their organization. Thus, anything that gets good publicity for the team's sponsor is a win.

My most important insight about The Tour was that it is more a carnival of bicycle racing than a single race. Sure, the winning of the Yellow Jersey is without a doubt the main event, but there is so much more to watch. If we consider the 21 stage wins, the four Jersey prizes, and the two non-Jersey prizes, that means there are 27 prizes to be won. Of the 22 teams at the Tour, half of them (11) won no prizes. The maximum number of prizes any team won (Quick-Step Floors) is 6, and Team Sky, whose Geraint Thomas was the Yellow Jersey winner of the Tour de France won two other prizes for a total of three prizes. But many of those 11 teams with no prizes to their name were winners too. Often, their riders were active during the race, charging ahead of the other riders in attacks that were to no avail in the end, but they nonetheless inspired the fans and got publicity for their sponsors.

Some other random observations:

  1. What was fun to watch depended on how the race was going and varied over the course of the race. Team Sky is criticized for their boring racing style, and I have to agree with that criticism. It is hard to argue with success, but I got a lot less fun from Team Sky than from many of the other teams. To my great surprise, a similar phenomenon occurred with Peter Sagan. Once it became mathematically impossible for him to loose the Green Jersey competition, I became much less interested in the Green Jersey. (That said, Sagan is a very entertaining rider, Green Jersey or no.)
  2. Team Sky's boring style was nonetheless instructive to watch. Luck plays a huge role in the Tour, but there is a lot one can do to make one's own luck. By having what was clearly the strongest team at the tour, Sky could put in extra effort to keep themselves at the front of the group to avoid crashes, and because they always stayed comfortably ahead, they didn't have to take chances to win (see Point 3).
  3. I actually was appalled by the chances the riders felt they had to take to advance their ambitions. If the risk is to win time or loose the race altogether, I consider that fun, but as is often the case, if the risk is to win time or to become seriously injured, perhaps even die, then I start getting uncomfortable. In a number of the stages, the winning rider was the one who took the most chances racing downhill, around tight corners that might or might not be slippery, going 50 miles per hour with no meaningful protection. Skill cannot protect you if the corner is, without warning, slipperier than you expected. I was shocked at the number of riders who had to abandon the race due to injuries, some of them serious contenders for the Yellow Jersey. One of the popular riders shared my views, and advocated for rules to reduce risk. The commentators dismissed him with the argument, "you can't change that, it's bicycle racing." Perhaps we can.
So that was my Tour. How was yours?