Racing a road bike for three weeks around France is an exercise fraught with risk. For riders in pursuit of glory, however, risk can be as much a friend as a foe, its constant presence a catalyst that can prove the difference between winning and losing. The bedfellow of risk is fear, and staring down that fear, defying if not conquering it, allows riders to take the risks required for victory.

Descending a mountain as fast as possible calls for one kind of gamble, just as attacking on a mountain pass needs another – but then rolling the dice is a basic requirement in any sport that wants to get the adrenaline pumping.
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Take bunch sprints, invented to entertain the folks in town centres awaiting the race’s arrival, and which involve dangers that remain palpable, even if nothing goes wrong. It’s why they’re so exciting. One small nudge the wrong way, and not only might a huge effort go unrewarded, it might also result in shredded skin, broken bones and the end of the race for those unlucky enough to be caught up. Mark Cavendish is almost always expected to win at the Tour but this year he has been shut out, twice, by Andre Greipel, his beastly German nemesis. Cav finally got his win on Stage 7, and he did it by using skill and power but also by taking a risk. And his win was all the sweeter as he rode that gossamer-thin line between success and failure, and made it.

Or how about the great escape, the preserve of those riders with the legs – and balls – to strike out on their own. Often, the most memorable of these solo attacks come about through the reckless daring of lesser-known riders. A fine example recently is that of Romain Bardet, on Stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné. Attacking off the top of the penultimate climb, the Col d’Allos, his breakneck descent gave him a 1min20sec lead as he reached the day’s final climb, and it was thrilling to watch as the Frenchman drew on every ounce of energy and willpower to hold off a chasing pack to the finish line. Let’s see if he can do it again this coming Wednesday, when Stage 17 follows exactly the same route.

Lone attacks – échappées – are doomed more often than they are not, undertaken by lesser riders in order to get team sponsors those desperately sought TV minutes. And yet risking looking like an idiot and succeeding to stay away for 100km is what puts the plume in a rider’s cap. Even if you fail at the very last moment, it’s regarded by many as the epitome of panache. The word originates from the French term for a plume of feathers, a musketeer flourish of old-school flair. Giving Lady Luck a tap on the shoulder and asking for her number risks looking foolish, but then nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Whether you’re an amateur or professional, risk is at the heart of the sport. To escape the confines of everyday life and move out of your comfort zone, ride a bike up a mountain or race a circuit, is a thrill. Those who dare, spin.

– Joe Hall is heading to the Pyrenees to risk humiliation in the mountains (and maybe drink pastis).

En Français?

Coup de chacal

Jackal’s trick

A surprise attack in the last few kilometres to hold off the peloton and win alone, the ‘jackal’s trick’ is a piece of opportunistic scavenging befitting the carnivorous critter from which it takes its name. The greatest modern day practitioner of the coup de chacal is Fabian Cancellara, who does it so well that the French also call it a coup de Cancellara.

“When is it dangerous on a bike? Well anytime really. You can fall off at any given moment. When you think about what they do every day, they don’t know every millimetre of this road, when they’re clattering along at 60kph plus around these bends. There’s a lot of risk in it, a lot of gambling.”

– Rod Ellingworth, Head of Performance Operations for Team Sky.

Giant Killer

Formidable. Extraordinaire espoir… C’est très très jolie, bravo, Monsieur Poli.

Leadout man for Mario Cipollini and driver of the autobus (the group of non-climbers riding to make the time-cut in the mountains), Eros Poli was a rouleur of the tallest and heaviest order. 6ft 4ins and 85kg, the Mercatone Uno-Medeghini rider had won the 100km Olympic team time trial as an amateur and was a true diesel engine. So Poli defied logic, expectation and gravity when he won stage 15 of the 1994 Tour de France from Montpellier to Carpentras. Using his ability to time trial on the flat, he attacked after 60km, and left all the lightweight climbers for dust. Poli calculated that a 22-minute gap was enough for him to get up and over Mt. Ventoux and stay out of reach. Having honed his maths as driver of the autobus, figuring out how much time he could afford to lose to make the time limit, all the Italian needed to do was ensure he kept at a requisite speed up the Giant of Provence’s torturous slopes. Poli had a 25 minute lead by the tine he reached the bottom of the climb in Bedouin which meant a minute for every kilometre of climbing plus a buffer to keep him ahead on the descent to Carpentras,

“At the top of the climb, I saw that I had four and a half minutes over Marco Pantani, who’d attacked behind, I knew I could do it.”

His audacious gamble paid off and Poli, defeating riders such as Richard Virenque, Alex Zulle and Pantani, bowed to the crowds as he reached the finish line in Carpentras, throwing away his signature yellow cap with the top cut out.

“I made a gesture of thanks. It was me, in the lead, all alone, the guy who people were applauding, like an actor on the stage. Fantastic. “

The Risk-Averse Racer

Though it may sound inelegant, the ability to ‘drop like a stone’, to descend well, is an art form all its own and an essential weapon in any GC-contender’s arsenal. But for talented Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, a crash in his junior days left him with a crippling fear of the risk associated with descending. He told l’Equipe: “I’m scared of speed like others have a phobia of spiders or snakes.”

At the 2013 Tour, the risk-averse Pinot lost more than 20 minutes during descents in the Pyrenees, dashing his chances of a well-placed finish – it was a weakness that threatened to derail a potentially glittering career.

Fortunately for Pinot, his poor performances hadn’t gone unnoticed. It was a French former rally driver, Max Mamers, who offered to train him in the art of going fast, with a series of sessions piloting a racing car. In December that year, under the watchful eye of Mamers, the cyclist spent time driving down an icy course at Alpe d’Huez.

Six months later, at the 2014 Tour, the FDJ rider was able to take more risks on the descents, securing a third-position finish, the first podium by a Frenchman – alongside compatriot Jean-Christophe Peraud, who came second – at the Tour since 1997.

How a brand new Rapha Road Race Aerosuit was developed for Chris Froome and Team Sky’s tilt at the Tour de France.

The bicycles of the peloton are streamlined machines, engineered to glide through the air. Aerodynamic wonders, all of them. Yet the cyclists who sit atop them are entirely the opposite: great lumps of mass slowing everything down. To make sure that the bikes’ aero gains don’t go to waste, the cyclists’ clothing should at least be streamlined too.

In a sport as traditionally stubborn as cycling, however, wearing a skinsuit has long been taboo and the stretchy suits were only ever considered wearable in time trials. Yet with proven free speed on offer, nowadays even the most hardened roadmen are slipping into their all-in-ones. It’s purely logical: at this year’s Tour de France, the 41.8 kilometres of time trialling make up only 1% of the entire route. So why not wear aerodynamic clothing for the other 99% too?
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This insight was behind Rapha’s decision to invest the majority of its recent performance-wear research clout into a road race skinsuit, rather than a time trial one. Team Sky wanted lighter, faster products and Rapha believed that by convincing their cyclists to wear skinsuits during the road stages, they would be lighter and faster, all of the time. After 18 months of development and testing, the Rapha Road Race Aerosuit is currently being worn by Chris Froome and his eight teammates at this year’s Tour de France.

Aerodynamics is an extremely complex concept to get right. From dirty air, to laminar and turbulent flow, there is so much more swirling around a moving cyclist than one could ever imagine, and it is fairly under researched in relation to cycle clothing. Most of the skinsuits you see in the peloton are as simplistic as a tight jersey and bib shorts stitched together.

It is those stitches, on seams, which are behind the gains in Rapha’s latest aerodynamic product. As air hits the body, it should ideally go up, over and behind. But when air hits a seam, it deflects sideways, creating drag, which slows a cyclist down. The Rapha Road Race Aerosuit has almost every seam moved out of the way onto the back, and is constructed from a variety of textures on different parts of the body, including a special mesh fabric on the ‘cylinders’ of the body, the arms, to encourage the wind to cling on longer, resulting in less drag. In addition to this, the suit’s fabric has coldblack®, wicking and anti-bacterial treatments, as well as a two-way zip for easy access when nature calls. With a built-in radio pocket on the inside back and loops for the headphones cords, it is as thoughtful as it is technical.

All of this accrued knowledge will cross over to Rapha’s commercially available Pro Team Aerosuit in early 2016. Performance gains are as relevant at world-class level as at amateur. In June, Geraint Thomas lost the Tour de Suisse by five seconds, a sliver of time that he would probably have saved had he been wearing the Aerosuit. At sportives, at the local hill climb, or even during the midweek chaingang ride, it’s the same: in a skinsuit you can go faster with less effort. It could be the difference between stepping up from category 3 to 2, or an age-group podium placing or not.

The garment being worn at the Tour was fine-tuned after wind-tunnel testing over 15 different prototypes with an aerodynamics expert in February. The definitive assessment remained – at the races – and Team Sky’s Italian duo Elia Viviani and Salvatore Puccio were the two enthusiastic test pilots. On Stage 2, the first day they wore it, Puccio helped lead out Viviani to a stunning sprint victory. It was a dream debut, and a winning margin of half a wheel proved that challenging the tiny margins of victory is always worth it. With the suit holding up under the duress of three weeks’ racing, and after some helpful feedback from the two Italians, the product was given one final tune-up and was ready to be worn at the greatest race in the world.

Each of Team Sky’s nine-man Tour squad has two of the Rapha Road Race Aerosuits with him in France, tailored exactly to his body shape. In the weeks preceding the Grand Départ, Rapha travelled from the Alps to Monaco and back to London via Manchester to take the measurements. The project is already paying off though, as the boys in black and blue have been wearing the Aerosuits during their impressive riding so far. Chris Froome wore his while leading up the Mur de Huy to take the yellow jersey and Geraint Thomas’s mesh sleeves on the front of the peloton have been a common sight.

Team Sky are renowned for pioneering new approaches to the sport, which are then adopted by the rest of the peloton. Rapha believes that by going aero everyday, it won’t be long before everyone else follows suit.

After three transition days ripe for showdown between the breakaway artists and the sprinters’ teams, the riders will enjoy a much needed rest day before the race heads towards its mountainous climax in the Alps.

The Côte de la Croix Neuve, where today’s stage ends, is also known as the Monté Laurent Jalabert, named in homage to the Frenchman who took one of the most celebrated French victories at the Tour on Bastille Day in 1995. Expect the peloton’s risk-takers to try their hand today.

If the sprinters and lead out trains can regroup over the rolling climbs of today’s stage, they will be rewarded with a long and partially downhill dash for the finish in Valence, where Le Midi commences.The flat final 50km might make a breakaway’s chance of staying away too slim.

Announcing the race’s arrival in the Alps, a 201km stage concludes in the arrondissement of Gap, the highest prefecture in France. A long finishing straight will tempt the sprinters, but they’ll have to get over the category 2 Cold de Manse first. Daring descenders could risk a flyer before the rest day.

As with the first rest day, today serves as a moment of calm before the mountains. And with no transfer, teams will be afforded the luxury of a full day to recover. They daren’t relax too much though, the Alps await.

Featured in stage 5 of this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, the Col d’Allos was the scene of a dicey manoeuvre that paid off for the young Frenchman Romain Bardet, as he attacked the group and descended alone for the stage win. Can he repeat the trick?

Back to Gap, but not to rest. Many historic days in the moun- tains have departed from here, and today should prove no different: seven categorised climbs face riders today, including the ominous Col de la Morte.