clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Imagine...If The Tour Had Entered The Second Half Of The 20th Century Like The Rest Of Us


Warning! This is not you average Tour post.

What we got here is an alternative history of cycling, sort of. Plus its long. I just wanted to make that clear so when you start hrumphing like Benjamin Disraeli, you won't be able to say I didn't warn you. But this is an off-day, Chris is gonna be in town in a few hours for dinner, and I got to thinking of the state of cycling and this is where my brain lead me. You can thus blame Chris if you regret the loss of the time you took to read this. So let's look at how the Tour might have been a very different race and how cycling might have been a very different sport. Set the Way-back machine to post World War Two....

The years 1945-1970 saw a huge change in the sporting landscape: the advent of substitutes. Almost every sport saw this change and it revolutionized every sport it touched. At the beginning of this time period, regardless off the sport, a player who started the game or race or match was expected to finish it. This was even true in sports where there were rules for substitutes like baseball: starting pitchers were expected to finish their games for instance.  In other sports like soccer, there were no allowances for subs. A player got hurt and couldn't continue, well too bad: the team plays a man down. In US football, players played on both sides of the ball: defense and offense. Basketball used subs but very sparingly so that the starters tended to coast (i.e., walk) through most of the game conserving their energies. And in cycling a guy who could climb like the angels up Tourmalet, was expected to hammer the cobbles at Paris-Roubaix. It's what was done. It's what was expected. A Champion finished everything.

But then a funny thing happened. All sports everywhere and without coordination began allowing more and more liberal substitution policies and the players and managers began exploiting said policies.  And sports writers, always slow to grasp innovations, slowly warmed up the new fangled ideas. 

Again, this was across all the sporting universe and as such it was part of a cultural trend. As a society we moved away from the conservative individualist archetype into a more socialist direction and sports reflected that trend. In soccer, subs were allowed. US footy players became specialized in their roles as unlimited substitutions were allowed after every down. Baseball took Casey Stengel's and Earl Weaver's innovations and ran wild. Basketball developed specialists and in all sports this allowed defensive strategies to take off since you could put fresh players into the game who could run OR kick OR hit but not necessarily all three (or more). Even such an individual sport like boxing changed. When was the last time you saw a heavyweight 20 round fight? The emphasis went away from Stoic Individuals to Quality Play.

Again, these things didn't happen because of random whim. They happened because things needed to change.The Depression and  WW2 showed that Western civilization was at a cul-de-sac. Things needed to change if we weren't gonna kill ourselves in the next decade. And we did in fact change. Amazing. Social legislation was greatly expanded as the idea that we are all in this together became accepted by almost everybody in the West. In sports it was shown that things needed to change because declining revenues were killing the various sports. Soccer, football, basketball, baseball-all the major sports were being less attended. They needed to innovate if they were to grow-or even survive. Seeing players get stomped on; seeing broken bones and deaths were not actually good for sports.  People turned away because the sports were becoming death marches and we had just seen that in reality and didn't want more. It slowly dawned on the Grand poo-bahs of various sports that fans liked seeing players perform at their top physical form. That was fun. Seeing a guy barely making it through a match, exhausted, run down, hurt, maimed: that's not so much fun-and people wouldn't pay money to see that again.  So, slowly the idea of substitutions creeped into the sports. And people flocked to see the games where that happened. This all happened between roughly 1945 and 1970. By 1970 the changes were established and since then the idea of subs has driven innovation in sports.

Except for the most part in cycling.

Its like cycling was stillborn as it entered the New Era. Two substitute-type changes happened: the first actually pre-dated WWII: teams. And with teams, in time you got specialists of one type of racing or another. Sprinters who couldn't handle mountains, big-assed chronomen, tiny mountain goats with a low top speed, etc. 

But team specialization is the furtherest cycling has gone in the substitution revolution and it stopped there because of the chronic weak organization of pro cycling. It was obvious by the 60's if not the 50's that cycling should start to implement the idea of subs but who was gonna do it? And how? There was no institution or group of people who had the power to make that next step that every other sport was doing at the same time. Cycling was left on the dust, much like track and field. 

And much like track and field,Cycling continued to evolve but it evolved underground, illegally. (Change HAS to happen, one way or another.) Doping grew so sophisticated because with the demands on the riders (and runners) and with the lack of imagination on how to deal with the physical toll by the owners and race organizers, riders resorted to finding their own solutions. And since the riders don't make the rules, their solutions were declared illegal. And so, unlike almost every other sport, cycling stagnated. And stagnant it is to this day, worshiping its past, unable to take advantage of the fact that people worldwide love to bicycle and so can relate to the sport in a way that most other sports can only fantasize about. Sorry if that sounds harsh but its true.  This sport is a shadow of what it could be. Its decadent by definition.


But let's imagine what it would be like if substitution did develop in cycling like it did with almost every other sport. The first step in imagining that is to recognize that substitution wouldn't come into play so much in the one-day races. Its hard to imagine rules where a rider would stop midway through a race and another rider take its place. Only a couple sports have substituting on the fly like that. Besides, Specialization (proto-substitution) has already fixed this problem for the most part. The riders starting a one day race are tuned to the demands of that race. 

No, specialization would be mainly in stage races-which is why I am writing this now and not during cobbles season. The Tour de France would be the first place to implement substitution. There could be two ways subs could be put into the race:

1) Soccer-style: a limited number of subs per race. Let's say three like in soccer. A team gets three subs for whatever reason during the three week Tour to use as it will. As in soccer the cycling DS would have to balance when to put in a rider for a tactical advantage while worrying that if he uses his subs too fast and a rider gets injured then he might not have a sub left to replace him. 

Take Saxo Bank in this Tour for example. You got your starting team: A Schleck, F Schleck, Fuglsang, Breschel, O'Grady, Cancellara, the Sorensens, and Jens!. Then you have a bench of guys like Larsson, Porte, the Haedos, Klostergaard, etc.  Riis might be tempted to actually start say JJ Haedo and play him the first week to contest the sprints and then subbing in C. A. Sorensen on stage 7 so he is fresher for mountain domestique duty in the Alps and Pyrenees. And if Frank breaks a collarbone, Riis can sub in Larsson so the team is not too weak in the mountains. 

So why do this? Does this have any real benefit to cycling in general and to Saxo Bank in particular? Yes, and yes! Look at it this way: In sports that allow for sending off of players without a sub for them, that affected team almost always then implements a conservative strategy to basically run out the clock. If they are already behind then basically the game is over and it gets boring real fast. The same is true in this Tour: with Frank out, Andy and Riis have gotten conservative. We have seen a waiting game ever since the cobbles stage and now its come down to the final mountain stage (and the TT stage following) to decide things. Instead of real racing we've gotten small conservative attacks, polemica and standing still on mountainsides. Maybe you like polemica more than real racing but in the long run, the general public surely doesn't.  The Tour is supposed to be a three-week race, not two or three days. Kinda boring to all but the most fanatical of us.  If we had real racing on every stage or even most stages we wouldn't be concerned with unwritten rules and 15 second chain mishaps.  Andy and Bert would have ripped into each other far more than what we've seen. 

(Another example: Imagine th Giro this year if Caisse d'Epargne could have thrown in subs to help Arroyo and Saxo doing the same to help Porte when they suddenly found themselves atop the standings after that huge breakaway stage. Which subs? Would they have taken a guy like Frank Schleck and thrown him in to protect Richie? Or Soler to help Arroyo? Fans would be bussing what Liquigas would do to counter: should they throw Kreuziger in for emergency last week help?)

Soccer-style subs could allow teams like HTC to be relevant in the mountains and Radio Shack to be interesting on the flats. The more teams that are interesting each day, the more competitive a race it is, the more fans will like it.

2) Unlimited subs like in basketball or US football. Here's where things get, um, steroidal. Imagine the end of each stage as a stoppage in play. In basketball or football, teams can change as many players or riders as they choose when play stops.  Saxo Bank could have a mountains team, a sprinting team, a cobbles package, a chrono group. Some superstar  riders could be in multiple or possibly every stage if they are food enough. The individual stages would be a chess match between the DS's, wherein match-ups between riders assume huge importance. A guy like Chris Horner, able to read and react to developments on the road, would be really, really valuable. 

But wouldn't this destroy us finding out the true champions? Who the truly great riders are? Seriously you are asking this? Look around you! Is Michael Jordan less than he would be if he had to play every minute of every game? Of course not-in fact he's more a superstar because he can rest. Ray Lewis? LeBron James? These guys are bigger names, they are far richer, and their sports are far bigger than cycling could ever dream of because of substitutions than allow them to play shorter periods of time at their physical peak. It would also make the teams something that fans would really relate to because ultimately it would be the team prize that would be the Big Prize. 

We fans look at sport for the spectacular, the things that we can't do. No one looks at the Tour for what the last rider added to Bbox is doing at the back of the peloton struggling to finish. Slogging through the mud, red in tooth and claw: that's a 19th century concept. Get with the times Cycling!