Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On bicycles and pelotons


Is anyone else staying up into the wee hours to watch the Tour de France?  It’s a fascinating race where individual effort counts but it does not win races.  Instead, the race emphasises team work, support and strategy.  One might think that it is simply a matter of going as fast as one can for as long as one can with the strongest rider winning but that is flawed thinking.

If you do watch the race, you will hear the term peloton used a lot, a word that refers to the main group of riders.  That word sounds a lot classier than the big bunch, the main bunch and the pack, but that is what is referred to. (And yes, I do realise that I finished on a preposition.  And that I started a sentence with the word "And").

Here are some interesting items about the peloton:

·       The literal meaning of the French word, dating from the 15th century, is “little ball”.  By 1616 the French were using the word to refer to a small group of soldiers, with variations of ploton (1572) and plauton (1611) also being used in this context.  By 1637 the term had been borrowed into English in the same context, being written as plotton, which by 1687 had evolved into plotoon.  The modern word platoon derives from plotoon with the modern spelling being in use by the early 18th century. 

·       The term peloton in the context of cycling was already in use in France from 1884 and was in English use by at least 1939, when Cycling magazine used the words “a prominent worker at the head of the peloton throughout the race.” 

·       The reason that the riders cluster in a massed bunch is that by riding close behind others, referred to as drafting or slipstreaming, there is a significant reduction in drag and a consequent saving of energy and exertion.  This reduction in drag can be as high as 40%.  It is typified by the pursuit track races where the various riders of each team take it in turn to lead and then move to the back in a fluid motion. 

·       Watching the Tour de France you will often see a rider or group break away from the peloton but invariably get sucked back into the peloton as it catches up.  This is not just a matter of drag and strength, there are other factors, including strategy and tactics, at work. 

·       The shape of the peloton – cluster, line, narrow, wide – is determined by a host of factors.  Where there is a strong headwind or the peloton is cycling hard or fast, the peloton stretches out, whereas a tailwind or slow race causes the peloton to bunch up.  Side wind forces the peloton into a diagonal formation, known as an echelon. 

·       The “elastic band effect, whereby a change of speed is amplified as it moves back through the peloton (as, for example, traffic moving from a stationary position at traffic lights), means that it is more advantageous to be nearer the front of the peloton.  That positioning also enables quicker responses to attacks, changes, breakaways and sprints.  Importantly it also reduces the risk of a fall, as when a cluster of riders is brought down by one fallen rider, there being less riders to avoid when near the front.  Front riders also control the speed of, and gaps within, the peloton so as to assist a team member who has broken away or who is sprinting.  Check out the sprint at the end of a stage and notice how teams will ride in front of the favoured team rider to reduce the drag as long as possible but still leave a gap for the rider to sprint towards the finish line.

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