There are many anachronisms at the Tour de France. The caravan trundling around France tossing out packets of dried sausage and other bits of detritus; the physical signing on riders have to do ahead of every stage; the pinning of numbers to jerseys, there must be easier ways of identification than paper dossards. Most riders still even share rooms on Tour, bunking up in this age of bubbles and social distancing.
The one that beats of all these though, and is the object of my fascination, is the continued presence of a yellow motorbike with two people on it, also clad head to toe in yellow, one of whom holds a blackboard.
They are LCL-branded, just like the maillot jaune itself. These are the time gap people, a remnant of an age before race radios and live coverage, who are there to update the break on their advantage.
On a day like stage 13, when the peloton never fully gave up the chase, it was a busy day for the woman with the blackboard, Claire, who had to keep rubbing out her handiwork to replace it with a new time. One moment the gap was just over three minutes, then it was back down to two, then it kept creeping up and down.
I viewed this manic chalk action from the back of another motorbike on Thursday, as I was privileged enough to follow the break on a lumpy long day to Saint Étienne. At no point, inside the race, did I think the break would make it.
A collection of things I saw on the roadside on stage 13 of the Tour de France 2022
- An inflatable cyclops; I don't know why this was a thing, but it was
- A collection of farm vehicles on top of each other
- So many people with signs for Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet
- A singular Irish tricolor
- Sunflowers, endless sunflowers
- A very useful temporary arch to mark the changing of départements
- Fans who were more interested in how many cylinders the motorbike I was on had than the actual race
- Sponsor-correct motorbikes handing out water bottles to thirsty riders
- Didi the Devil
But is the time-gap team particularly useful or necessary? One of the riders in stage 13's break, Fred Wright (Bahrain-Victorious), sadly dismissed the idea that the chalkboard is helpful.
"Normally we get the information before we get shown the gap," he said. "In other races maybe you don’t get the information as quick, but here you get the info so fast that you know what’s happening before the board comes up. You still look at it though, just in case."
"We have so much info on the radio that the chalkboard is a bit antiquated I think," Joe Dombrowski of Astana-Qazaqstan added.
It is fascinating then, that it continues, just another vehicle in the convoy. It is something for the television, just a part of the Tour de France that cannot be disposed of. Even in this age of near-constant communication, there is still space for a woman with a blackboard.
The blackboard with its enticing time acts as the great star in the sky for the break, guiding them with hope towards the finish. On a day when the peloton does not sit up, and allows the men up the road leeway, it could be key to hope for the best. How can you put all your effort into making a move go the distance if you think it will be brought back?
Matteo Jorgenson of Movistar did not believe the break was going to make it until late on on stage 13, by which time he had already missed out on the win.
"I didn't really believe we would make it, until like 15km to go," the American explained. "They were pulling behind, we had two minutes, and it just didn't feel right. We had a headwind the whole day. I half expected [Mads] Pedersen to just stop pulling at some point, but he went on the attack, really caught me off guard, and I was kinda watching [Filippo] Ganna...
"We were super stressed the whole day. We were never given any leash, we never slowed down or anything. I didn't have time to talk between getting bottles for myself."
"The whole time we were getting calls on the radio that a different team was riding, and there wasn’t one point where all four sprint teams were riding," Wright said. "We kept plugging away, and the way Quinn Simmons was riding on the climbs, if I was a sprinter I’d be getting dropped at this point. It was when it went to three minutes that I thought it was sorted."
Every time you jump to get in a break, you must think it could succeed surely, otherwise what would be the point in wasting all that energy. Even if you are a B&B Hotels-KTM or TotalEnergies riders on a bunch sprint day, you still must believe in the possibility of success. If not, why try.
On lumpy days where the break probably will succeed, that fight to get into the move is one of the hardest parts of the day. To watch this happen in real time is incredible, as the bunch surges, strings out, tries to control things and fails. There is attack after attack, and sometimes it is down to sheer fortune rather than form.
"It depends a lot on the start," Dombrowski explained. "If you start on a long climb it's a lot more about legs than it is about luck. If it's a flat start on a big road, for sure you need the power, because the speed is going to be high. also there is going to be an element of luck, because you can't go every time.
"When there's a big road the peloton can't block the road, so it can carry on for an hour or two. If it's a day you want to be in a break, the key is to look at VeloViewer. Climbs, places where gaps can be established. It's a little bit of art, a little bit of luck. It depends on the stage.
"What do you have to lose. You spend a lot of energy, if you're tired you drop, and no one cares."
The break might not succeed all the time, but when it does it is special, especially when it's on a day when the peloton don't give up. It gives riders hoping to go up the road later more hope, adds chaos to the race. You've just to keep believing.
Also, remember, whatever you do, keep checking the time on the blackboard. That's a lot of work put into a pointless exercise.
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