Commentary: The case for a red ‘combativity’ jersey at the Tour de France

by Gustavo Cinci


The Tour de France, much like the World Cup, is an old sport from the Old World that has captured the hearts of millions, generation after generation. And as an old sport, its structure and arcane ways have been challenged in recent years as attention spans shrink and viewing options expand.

Team managers struggle with sponsorship and often wonder how to monetize the sport. Others attempt to create their own league with signature racing, such as the new Hammer Series assembled by Velon, an organization owned and managed by a collection of teams.

Today’s WorldTour teams shoot short videos that share candid moments in the bus, the pre-race rituals, or take us on rides with them. Technology has done a great job bringing the action and its players close to us. Fans love it. But technology alone can only do so much to gather and retain interest.

Take the second week of this year’s Tour, for example. Looking at the race profiles, I more or less knew what the score was going to be — suicide breakaway heads up the road with a smattering of plucky racers, opens a semi-decent gap, only to be kept leashed by the sprinters’ teams. As such, the break is reeled back in the final kilometers, and if one of the intrepid riders feels particularly frisky, he’ll try another dig to give the viewers the evanescent hope that he might make it to the finish line alone.

Then, as if conducted by a maestro in a hurry, the score gets bumped from presto to prestissimo: The sprint trains wind up and one of the three main sprinters left in the race takes the flowers home.

“Oh, but it’s bike racing,” you say. And I say, “Yes, it is, but we can do better”.

So let’s start with the racing itself, specifically the Tour and its jersey assignments.

Yellow, green, polka-dot and white, in that order, are the flagship jerseys of the Tour. They represent the pinnacle of the sport, and wearing any of those even for a day can be a hallmark moment in a rider’s career.

Donning a prized jersey on the Champs Elysees elicits accolades, perhaps a bonus in pay, and some riders may see their name embroidered on their shoes or saddle — after all, they’ve worked hard to get to this level.

But how about the soldiers who win the breakaway lottery? What of those riders allowed or lucky enough to make the break, those whose sweat cakes on their jerseys into a veritable geographic atlas of pain? What do they get? The sprinters hog the headlines, and the marathon roadie who spent 200km by himself gets a pat in the back, an acrylic trophy, and a red dossard which is worn for a day, until the next day’s “most aggressive” rider is awarded.

Over the last decade, a certain team with a mighty ensemble of stars — riders who, in any other outfit, would be captains or protected leaders — has put its proverbial cleat on the throat of the peloton. The first few times Team Sky displayed its chokehold it was indeed a sight to see. I was impressed with bold displays of strength, cohesion, and craft. After a few years of this formula, I’ve grown tired. Not bored, mind you, but you can only see the same movie over and over before you turn to something else. And herein lies the problem. I don’t want to turn to something else. I need my sporting escapism.

I very much dislike the fait accompli feeling that sets in, the impervious yellow armor that will not be dented, scratched or wrestled away. It’s fair to concede a general malaise when Chris Froome suits up in the yellow jersey. As an athlete and person he is not at fault; he excels in his role and works hard for it. As a personality, he’s not the most dynamic. As a fan, I search for an affinity that is not there.

So let’s add some spice to the Tour, since Froome and his merry band are sticking around for at least another few seasons.

Enter a new jersey competition. Let’s reward the unsung heroes, the breakaway artists, the brave, the lucky, the stupid. The red dossard already exists; Tour organizers ASO should dump it and turn it into a running classification.

How do you bestow a most-aggressive classification? We can start with a calculation of time spent in a breakaway, how far from the finish line the breakaway was caught, how many turns at the front, what kind of stage it was ridden, feats of bravado, plain aggression, cunningness, and a few other variables. It would reward the daring.

Luck favors the brave, or as Romain Bardet has emblazoned on his bike, “Take the risk or lose the chance.”

A most-aggressive classification would spark ingenuity, a quality many critics claim lacks at some high-level races. It would also rewire the brains of young riders, turning them into fearless attacking beasts. The red jersey would become iconic in its raw significance, touching the nerve of even the most casual viewer.

Imagine the competition going from “Hey dude, they want you at the stage to get your red number and Happy Meal toy” to “Looks like you’ll have to ask for a raise after spending a week in red.”

This way spectators would remain interested, lesser known riders would have an opportunity at stardom, and the attention would switch a little bit during transition stages. The race would have more opportunities, more ad revenue, more recognition, and more prominent figures. We can call it the “Prix Thierry Marie de Combativité” (for those under 40, google this guy).

Much of what makes the Tour the Tour cannot be changed. Fans and journalists may lodge complaints, but they cannot change the format to fewer than three weeks, or cap the stages at 160km, or keep Team Sky from buying up all the best talent.

But the current arrangement has become formulaic: Strangle the field, let the sprinters sort themselves out, and if they’re lucky, rookies and climbers might get a chance to shine. As it is, with its distance, difficulty, nervousness, and resulting accidents, a significant part of success at the Tour relies on luck — as Alberto Contador can attest.

A red jersey, by design, would fire up the competition on a daily basis. So imagine a Tour team with its assigned leaders, sprinters, climbers, and attackers. The baroudeurs of the peloton — the Chavanels, the Offredos, the Bodnars, the De Gendts — deserve the same level of respect and recognition. After all, they too spend their lives toiling under sun and sentry to be here. Let’s make them resplendent in red.

About the Author

Gus suffers from a road cycling fever that is not breaking any time soon. Having ridden and raced for the past 30 years, he witnessed the development of the sport, as well as acquiring an understanding of the quirks that make cycling unique. Gus is the former Editor-in-Chief of Embrocation Cycling Journal and currently lives in Watertown, Massachusetts with his wife, two kids, two cats, and many bicycles.

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