Since 1903, the Tour de France has grown to become the pinnacle of the sport of cycling. From the first winner, Frenchman Maurice Garin, to the defending champion, Chris Froome, every professional wants to ride the Tour. And now, thanks to Tissot, the official timekeeper of the race, I get to play at being a “professional” for a day and ride the exciting 35.5km team time-trial stage around Cholet in the beautiful Maine-et-Loire region of western France.
My love for the sport started in the mid-1990s. The Tour de France would always be my personal start to the summer. I’d get back from school and watch Miguel Indurain in his pomp, climbing through the Alps in the searing heat. I don’t know if it was our TV at the time, perhaps with a built-in yellow filter, but the Tour always looked so ridiculously hot.
Through watching each race I would slowly gain a better understanding and appreciation for cycling. I grew to love the tactics and the intriguing races within races that happened every year. And, of course, that same template would remain in place for this year’s edition of the race. Every one of the 22 teams, consisting of eight riders, has a different agenda. Whether it be to take the maillot jaune (yellow jersey), a breakaway stage win, sprint finishes or any of the other green, polka-dot or white jerseys, teams select riders that will help them achieve their main objective for the race.
For those going for the GC (General Classification) or maillot jaune, the team time trial has slightly more importance for them. For these guys, it gives the team players a chance to help get their leader an advantage over their main rivals. Taking a few seconds out of one of your competitors is always a positive, at any point in the race. Those moments can impact a Tour – it could mean another team has to do more work in the mountains or for another it could mean an easier next stage.
The time trial stage and the individual time trial for the penultimate stage (20) of this year’s Tour are the most challenging for the official timekeeping team. Head of Operations at Tissot Timing, Pascal Rossier and his team are up at the crack of dawn to make sure the stage runs as smoothly as possible. “The team time trial is a very important stage for us on the Tour. Normally we have eight timekeepers per stage but we have 14 today because of the complexity and importance of its timed results,” he says.
This stage sees all the competing riders of each team negotiating a tough 35.5km. The official finishing time for each team is taken when the 4th-positioned rider’s tyre crosses the line. Rossier expertly explains the detailed setup of the time trial course: “Throughout the stage there are three timing check-points that measure split times that compare all 22 teams for each section. The technology we have allows us to transmit an accurate time and within seconds, even if you are sitting on a beach in Australia, you can check your smartphone and see how each team is doing.”
Tissot has cameras in place on the finishing line that can dissect a sprint finish into 10,000ths of a second. With riders hitting top speeds over 70km/h, photo finishes are a common factor in deciding stage winners.
Living The Dream
When it was our turn to get out before the pros and ride the course, the temperature had climbed to a roasting 34 degrees Celsius; it was everything I had imagined – the yellow filter was on. We were expertly fitted with our bikes, helmets and, of course, the Tissot T-Race Cycling Tour de France Special Edition watch. Our guide for the ride was former World Champion – and complete gentleman – Maurizio Fondriest. Winner of two World Cups in 1991 and 1993, the Milan-San Remo classic and many other races, it was an absolute pleasure to pick the brain of a man who had been there, seen it and done it all before. He’s one of those guys who knows everybody and everyone always has time for, even in the hectic environment of the team enclosures.
Led out by Fondriest, the most memorable element of the ride was the wall of people coming out to watch and cheer. An estimated 10 million people lined the roads this summer to watch the tour. In Cholet, people were parked-up in their camper vans and sat in deck chairs, eating picnics and drinking at pop-up bars. It created a festival atmosphere that was infectious. Friends and families were making a day of it and were in position hours before they would see the main attractions whizz past them for a second or two at around 60km/h. But first of all, they had to watch a few amateurs battle with the rolling landscape around their local town at… err… about 45km/h at best – on a downhill.
The ride was made fun by everyone. I could get used to the clapping and banging of the advertising boards while on my morning commute but, alas, it’s more about dodging the buses and other cyclists when in central London. Here, it felt like the Tour was bigger than just a bicycle race. Local schools close for the day, farmers create cycling-inspired art with hay bales and villages shut down to have street parties. With the amazing scenery, the ride, honestly, went too quickly for me. I wanted more but before we knew it we were having a little sprint to the finishing line and then up on to the podium, each with a maillot jaune for a team photo.
As a cycling fan, it was an incredible feeling. Unforgettable, in fact. And, having finished, I could sit back and watch the pros have a go at riding the same 35.5km I just did, with the understanding that they could go twice as fast and look a lot cooler doing it. But I’m pretty sure I had the bigger smile.