When Revolution asked me if I would be interested in riding a stage of the Tour de France, it was like a dream come true. As a keen cyclist and a huge fan of the Tour since I was a child, I am not exaggerating when I say it was, without a doubt, the best experience ever. As a matter of fact, anything related to cycling I might do from here on out, be it longer or tougher, faster or higher, will never come remotely close to what I experienced on the Tour with Tissot, the Official Timekeeper of the race.
I cycled 30km on those holy roads, following in the tracks of the yellow jersey and the peloton. I had the opportunity to become a “pro” – I confess, only for a day, but still, Tissot made me part of the Tour (roads were closed so it does count) and for that I shall be eternally grateful.
I loved every minute of it. People clapping and cheering for me as I passed, the official car opening the road, the motorcycles weaving their way through our small group of participants – everything was memorable. François Thiébaud, President of Tissot, had told me: “You will love it. I did it myself and I was like a kid.” So, I arrived with that very same feeling of excitement; it was like being a child on Christmas Eve.
What I did not expect were the similarities between Tissot and the Tour de France, and I came to the conclusion that the Tour might just have found the perfect partner in Tissot. Le Tour de France is without a doubt the pinnacle of cycling. It is the oldest French competition, but also the hardest and the longest, in an already difficult sport. Three weeks on a bicycle, over 3,500km, during the hottest month of the year in France and climbs that you would not even dare to ascend in your car, command respect. Strangely – and I am saying this after my experience as a “pro for a day” – I am not even sure that people like the Tour so much because of the difficulty. After having ridden on roads from Lalinde to Bergerac, in the heart of Dordogne, the fascination of the Tour appears to be completely elsewhere. It seems that the Tour is even bigger than the sport of cycling; it is part of the fabric of everyday French life.
The Tour was created in 1903 and it is, at the time of writing this piece, one month older than the oldest living person in France. So, absolutely everyone has always known the Tour. Therefore, everyone in France has a personal relationship with the race. Everyone has seen it pass by their village or their town at some stage of their lives. So many children have witnessed their grandfathers half-asleep in front of the television as the race was broadcast. You became familiar with the Col du Tourmalet, the Col d’Izoard and the Champs-Elysées, even if you have never been there. Funny names and odd places are part of your world. The Tour is part of your life and your environment.
Tissot has the same kind of relationship with the Swiss population. In almost every Swiss family there is someone who is the proud owner of a Tissot. During the holidays or at family parties, there is often a lucky family member who gets to unwrap one of those beautiful watch boxes. Everyone knows someone who has one – an uncle, a cousin, the family dentist, work colleagues, the local mechanic. Tissot is simply part of Switzerland. Thiébaud agrees: “Even before we became part of the Swatch Group, Tissot was THE Swiss watch company. It is an inheritance which comes with responsibilities.”
This gives the Tour and Tissot an obvious advantage over their competitors. The Tour remains a bit more prestigious than the Giro and the Vuelta, its Italian and Spanish counterparts. It is, after all, the third most-viewed event on the planet. As for Tissot, four million watches were sold last year, representing more than 20 per cent of the Swatch Group’s total production. Even the reason for their success comes from a very similar positioning: affordable and high-quality pieces.
Now, popularity doesn’t only offer an advantage, it comes with its fair share of responsibilities, and Tissot and the Tour take their responsibilities very seriously. They both know they cannot upset their fans and must, therefore, maintain the utmost professional approach to their job. This materialises in Tissot’s phenomenal work as the Official Timekeeper of Le Tour de France. The Swatch Group has a lot of experience in that field; Longines started its collaboration with the Tour in 1947 and it lasted 35 years. The timing know-how comes from the Swatch Group’s Swiss Timing arm, which times everything from the Olympics to show jumping, from motor-racing to skiing. However, each race brings about its own timing challenges, and Tissot was confronted with several difficult situations during Le Tour while the world was watching.
At the end of stage seven, for example, the commentators announced a tie between Marcel Kittel and Edvald Boasson Hagen. The finish was inconclusive to the human eye, but not for the Tissot team. Equipped with high-resolution cameras, blinking 10,000 times per second, the Tissot eyes saw it clear as day. When the difference between the two sprinters was measured at 0.0003 seconds, the journalists rapidly converted that into distance, specifying that only 6mm were separating the German from the Norwegian.
To get a better understanding, I asked Pascal Rossier – Head of Sports Operations and Services, how such a slight distance could be measured. He told me: “We are not measuring distance, we are measuring time.” After all, time is the essence of the Tour. The winner is the cyclist who is covering the distance in the shortest time. So, if the distance is a given, only the time has to be measured. Now, having said that, my brain was far from being used to this idea of a scale in time, especially looking at a photo of a finish line, where you clearly see bicycles and wheels going forward.
“What we use for the photo finish is a timing device, but also a photographic device. Imagine if you look through a tiny gap in a pair of shutters on your window and a cyclist rides by. At no point will you see the whole bike, you will just see each individual strip of bike as it passes through that slit, and the mind will piece it together into a cyclist. That’s what we do to compose the photo finish image: it is up to 10,000 frames per second of what is taking place on the strip of the finish line, pieced together to create an image along the horizontal axis that we can then move around and zoom in on. It looks like one photo, but is actually a series of ‘slices’,” said Rossier.
With the high-resolution camera, there is a segment every 0.0001 second, so the difference between Kittel and Boasson Hagen was an eternity for the Tissot Team. As for time – it seems that the commentators should have taken a little more of it before calling it a tie.
Impressions of Time
Those who have studied philosophy will know that time is a fidgety element. The impression of time is not the same as the actual time. I cannot say that I completely mastered the concept while at school, but I surely started to grasp the idea during the last 10km of our ride. We, indeed, had decided to warm up gently until we reached the 10km banner, after which we agreed to freely give it a go, until the last kilometre, the “flamme rouge,” as they call it, where we would give it all we had.
So, I decided to cycle as fast as I could in order to take a lead. While the first kilometres had flown by, the last 3km separating me from the finish line were the hardest and seemed to take an awfully long time. I asked the German cyclist and four-time time-trial world champion, Tony Martin, if he had a similar feeling of the passing of time while riding. “Not really,” he replied. “The only thing you really feel is if you have power on the bike. You are not riding alone. You know that if you don’t have strength in your legs, the others will.”
Everything in the Tour is about time. As Martin shared with me: “It takes me a few days to get out of this constant time pressure. During the Tour, there is always something to do and we always have to do it in as little time as possible – travel, media, rest, sleep. At home, I constantly feel like I should be doing something.” And even with that pressure, he doesn’t seem to have grown an aversion to being timed: “I have a splendid Tissot at home, but I am not bringing it on the Tour. I would be too afraid to lose it with all the travelling we do.” With the Tissot team as timers, he surely doesn’t need it anyway.
Everything is in constant motion on the Tour. When the cyclists start each stage, preceded by the advertising vehicles and followed by the motorcade of journalists, the organisational staff are already packing their suitcases for the next destination. As soon as the last cyclist of the peloton crosses the finish line, seats and stands are taken down, commentators wrap up their stories and buses packed with exhausted athletes make their way to the next place on the map, day after day, for two whole weeks. The Tour has been working like clockwork for over a century, which is probably why it has such an affinity with its Official Timekeeper Tissot and vice versa. I just wish I could have packed up and joined them for a few more days, but alas, my legs are aching so much that it is probably best if I continue to watch the Tour from in front of my television set, although it won’t be quite the same, as my memories with Tissot will now forever be part of the Tour de France.