Watching the Tour de France nowadays is a rich experience. For many years we have relied on the commentary of Liggett and Sherwen to guide us, but now we have live-tracking, tweets from riders, team videos, embedded photographers and even on-bike cameras. Accommodating mechanics provide access to the bikes being ridden by members of their respective teams and background staff offer insights into their role and daily routine.
The pro peloton and the team hotel are no longer the secretive places they once were. In fact, there is almost no facet of the race or the professional team set-up that cannot be accessed or scrutinised - even the daily diets of the riders are recorded in intimate detail!
There are, however, some areas that team management are keen to keep under wraps. We will have to wait until the post-Tour documentaries and videos are released, before we are party to the team talks when tactics are debated, agreed and honed.
Likewise, the individual performance statistics of the respective riders are hidden from prying eyes for fear of exposing valuable information to rival teams. Garmin computers are passed to soigneurs at the finish line and spirited away for the data to be downloaded and analysed.
Thankfully, however, we have Strava! The ubiquitous ride tracking app is used by many pro riders, including several competing in this year's race, and it provides a portal into the closed world of the rider that its creators would never have envisaged. Studying their stats is both engrossing and illuminating and provides an even fuller portrait of the TdF riders' experience and performance.
Wednesday was a historical day for Strava, as Lars Boom became the first cyclist to record a Tour de France stage win on the app. His imperious performance on the cobbles of northern France was one of the greatest stage wins of the modern era. His ride description says it all: 'Epic day on the bike. My first stage win in the Tour de France. So happy!!!'. The Belkin rider recorded an average speed of 28.5mph/ 45.7kph over a distance of 94.7miles/ 152.4km - a moving time of 3:19:09. Not surprisingly, his win had his followers frantically posting comments and clicking the 'kudos' tab - 646 and 8116 (and counting) at time of writing!
A masterclass on the cobbles from Lars Boom on Wednesday.
By the following evening, Lars was not in such a happy place. Stage 6 was given the title 'In the beginning good legs later on not so good anymore. But still happy and exciting [sic] about yesterday'. No small wonder! His stats from the previous day are arguably the most spectacular ever recorded by Strava - his power outputs throughout and his average speed of 25mph/40.7kph on the penultimate section of pavé, Wandige-Hamage a Horaing, are quite astounding, even more so given the atrocious conditions. Only the Strava data recorded by Niki Terpstra, when he powered to solo victory in this year's Paris-Roubaix can rival those of Boom on Wednesday.
Niki Terpstra, incidentally, is at it again at this year's Tour. The Omega Pharma - Quick-Step rider was one of the few who recorded stats on the cobbles that rival those of Boom and with nearly 31,00 followers the Dutchman is definitely a popular figure amongst Strava aficionados.
Team Sky have had a miserable start to the Tour, losing both Chris Froome and Spanish rider,Xabier Zandio, to injury, but Zandio's compatriot, David Lopez, labours on and is another rider recording his stats on a daily basis, clocking up a fair number of KOMs in the process. The pick of the bunch has to be the official segment for the infamous Jenkins Road in Sheffield, Yorkshire, which included a section of 33% - the sharpest incline the riders will have to negotiate during the 2014 edition of the race. Lopez's time of 2:35 was just enough to edge out the previous holder of the KOM, a certain 'James A', who, by his own admission, is a 'Bloody keen cyclist. Half decent on hills'. And if we are in any doubt as to his abilities, he adds: 'I'm an Ironman too I tell thee!'
'James A' does not look like the type of man to take defeat lightly and will no doubt rise to the Strava challenge 'Better get out there and show him who’s boss!'. I hazard a guess that Mr Lopez will soon be receiving a similar message from Strava in his inbox.
Kudos for David Lopez of Team Sky - King of the Mountain on Jenkins Road.
Spare a thought for poor Anthony Aken, though. On Monday morning he cycled to work the proud holder of the KOM for the QE (Queen Elizabeth) Cycle Path in west London. His time of 2.53 was a good one and a clear 2 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Barry Watson. By teatime, Anthony had tumbled down to ninth place - another helpless victim of the rampaging, marauding TdF riders. The Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam (Belkin), Marcus Burghardt of Germany (BMC) and David Lopez, with a time of 1:47. had claimed Anthony's scalp, offered up with a whimper rather than defiance. Lars Boom and his Belkin team mate, Steven Kruijswijk, together with Terpstra, Ted King (Cannondale) and Frenchman Jérémy Roy (FDJ.FR)) picked over Anthony's broken corpse.
It is unlikely that Anthony Aken will ever claim back his KOM, but I guess if you are going to relinquish a KOM, then to lose it to a bunch of pro riders must help to soften the blow. I dropped Anthony a message of commiseration on Strava and he responded with a chirpy email giving a little more background to his KOM: "Initially the KOM was a bit of a surprise really as I was just popping to the shops on my bike with panniers stuffed with a variety pack of Monstermunch. I was quite proud of my achievement, especially as I had to navigate plenty of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings on the 2km section!".
He then adds: "So that's got me wondering, could any of those Pro tour riders match my achievement with such handicaps?". It's a valid point, but unfortunately his hopes are misguided as they probably could. And probably would, given half a chance (though Cav, it must be said, might struggle with the temptation to pull over and wolf down a few packets of Monstermunch).
And it's not only us poor amateurs like Anthony and James who are prey to the Tour riders. Take Russell Downing, for example, the Yorkshire born professional who cut his teeth with the Linda McCartney Racing Team and currently rides for the UCI Continental team, NFTO Pro Cycling. Russell boasts an impressive palmārēs dating back to the late nineties, the highlight of which was becoming the British national road race champion in 2005. Last Sunday, however, Russell received the email from Strava that no one wants to find in their inbox: 'Uh oh! Jérémy Roy has just stolen your KOM! Now get out there, have fun and be safe'.
But that was not the end of it, for as the Tour de France riders uploaded their rides to Strava, Russ dropped ever further down the leaderboard as fast as Marcel Kittell on Jenkins Road. Marcus Burghardt edged Roy off the top spot, Ted King and David Lopez followed not far behind and finally Lars Boom shaved 7 seconds off Russ's best time. Currently languishing in 6th position, Downing accepted his demise with good humour, tweeting the news of his KOM loss to his followers, who comforted him with supportive messages suggesting that Roy had benefited from a tailwind and the help of his team car!
This shouldn't happen to a pro: Russell Downing's self-deprecating tweet.
The gifted young French climber, Thibaut Pinot, was obviously not overly impressed with the challenges offered by the hills of Yorkshire, waiting until the Vosges appeared on the horizon before uploading to Strava and effortlessly claiming over a dozen KOM's during Sundays stage from Gérardmer to Mulhouse. As the Tour heads towards the Alps, the Française des Jeux rider is definitely one to keep an eye on as he leaves countless (former) King of the Mountains spluttering helplessly in his wake!
Joking aside, the Strava stats of the professionals always makes for fascinating viewing. As a frequent visitor to Mallorca, for example, the segment for the official ascent of the infamous Sa Colabra boasts a whole host of professionals to compare yourself with. My own, just shy of 45 minutes, is a time I am proud of, but a glance to the top of the leaderboard and, for chrissakes, there's that bloody David Lopez again, dancing up the hairpins in 25 minutes!
But that's one of the attractions of Strava - the fact we can compete, in a virtual world at least, with the professionals and compare our own performance with theirs. What the data uploaded on Strava by the Tour de France riders so emphatically illustrates, however, is that we mere mortals can never be like them.
Take Ted King as an example, who has ridden himself into the ground in the opening stages of the Tour as domestique to his Cannondale team leader, Peter Sagan. In the opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate, King pulled his Slovak team mate over the second climb of the day, the Côte de Buttertubs, picking up a tasty little KOM in the process. The fact that Sagan was able to contest the sprint in Harrogate owed much to the efforts of his team mates. King's maximum power output of 485 watts, again recorded on Strava, provided a clear indication of the massive contribution made by the American. There is no denying the stats: Ted King is one hell of a cyclist.
Cannondale's Ted King celebrates another couple of KOMs (Pic: Brian Hodes/Cannondale)
By Tuesday evening, however, King's exertions were beginning to tell - a fact reflected in the title he gave for Stage 4 from Le Touquet to Lille: 'Professional cycling: Tough tough sport. Stage 4 Tour de France. ONWARD! Burghart was another rider who let the mask fall after stage 5: 'Tkx god that this is behind us, if you average a flat 150k race with 350W than you can say for sure that was a hard one.' The first serious climbs of the Tour on Sunday prompted Lars Boom to give his ride the title 'Hard day in the saddle. In the beginning I was in the break in the end in the grupetto', whilst his compatriot, ten Dam, recorded with understatement: 'Hard day in the Vosges', though his 15 KOMs may have helped to assuage his aching limbs.
It's good to hear the professionals offering up such candid expressions of suffering - and these are meant to be the easier stages before the Alps and Pyrenees combine to sap the last few watts out of their legs! Strava is rather unique as it provide stats with a little humanity thrown in - a tweet with added data if you like - all of which provides a broader picture of what it is really like to ride the Tour de France. Burghart again, on Stage 3 from Cambridge to London, uses his Strava feed to thank the UK for the phenomenal reception given to the Tour riders: 'This last three days of racing were breathtaking and I will never forget, tkx UK cycling you were awesome. big kudos.' Laurens ten Dam was equally appreciative: 'England, you've been very nice to us! Amazing experience and will never forget!'
Russ Downing will never forget their fleeting visit to the UK either. Nor James A, nor Anthony Aken and the many other cyclists, professional and amateur, who received that dreaded email from Strava this week. Thankfully the Tour de France is now weaving its way deep into France and Niki Terpstra, Lars Boom, David Lopez and Co will be dishing out the same cruel humiliation to many of our Gallic counterparts. For them, as for us, it will be a brutal reminder that however hard we train, however hard we push ourselves, we can never, ever defeat them.
And then they were . . . gone!
(ASO © Presse Sports/B.Papon)
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