Data visualization and Business Intelligence analyze the Tour de France

From Federer to France

The global sport-athon rolls on following Federer’s dominant return to the major winners circle after denying a devastated and distraught hometown demigod – Andy Murray – in a timeless display of irrefutably titillating tennis.

And while Roger has reclaimed his rightful status as the world’s most wondrous racquet wielder, with his seventh Wimbledon win, our attention has been firmly grasped by its scruff with Frank Schleck’s shock exit from the 99th Tour de France following a positive drug test.

From France to Frank

The scandal caps off a tumultuous year for the popular Radioshack-Nissan-Trek rider, with younger brother Andy fracturing his pelvis during the Critérium du Dauphine in June, and a series of bitter public exchanges with team manager, Johan Bruyneel. Additionally, Bruyneel has also been subject to rumormongering and unwanted media attention after he was banned from this year’s tour following charges from the United Sates Anti-Doping Agency for alleged involvement in a suspected doping scandal during his tenure as manager of Lance Armstrong’s now disgraced Tour de France teams.

From Frank to the ill-fated tour defense of Cadel Evans

And while the 2012 tour has been dogged by off-road controversy, the race itself has had its fair share of polemic events with current title holder, BMC’s Cadel Evans, admitting that “It’s pretty much Tour de France over for me” after a brutal 16th stage in the Pyrenees. The Australian was dogged by a “stomach bug” and crumbled under the torturous conditions, conceding an unrecoverable 12 minutes in the mountains aptly nicknamed “the circle of death”.

The hopes of the defending champ now hang by the thinnest of threads, with the cyclist himself admitting that the next stage in the Pyrenees holds his last, and oh-so-faint, hopes of Victory over Sky’s Bradley Wiggins heading into Saturday’s time trail.

The Tour de France: A movable feast

The 2012 tour – consisting of one prologue and 20 stages (including two individual time-trails) – covers a distance of 3,497, with nine flat stages, four medium and five full mountain stages.

With the annual addition of new stages, each Tour de France offers a different combination of distance, terrain and of course stunning scenery. So what affect has this had? Let’s turn to data visualization and Business Intelligence to find out.

Number of stages vs distance (1903 – 2011)

The inaugural 1903 Tour de France was held over six stages, between 1 July to 19 July, and covered 2,428km at an average speed of 25 km/h and over 400km per stage. The modern tour is a markedly different prospect, with 2004’s average stage length roughly 170km.

Interestingly, with the exception of 1924 – 1927 (where the number of stages increased from 15 to the now-more-customary-figure of 24 in an obvious effort to dramatically shorten average stage length), fluctuation in the number of stages invariably matches fluctuation in race distance.

Stage wins by country (1903 – 2011)

Regardless of stage length or number, Frenchmen have raised their fists to the heavens in celebratory salute – aka taken stage victories – many more times than any other nationality.

France has cheered-on homegrown stage victors on 194 occasions (prior to 2012’s race). Belgium occupies a distant second spot on the stage-winners-by-country leaderboard with 83 stage wins, while Luxembourg has enjoyed the sweet taste of triumph 49 times.

Stage wins by rider (1903 – 2011)

But, despite the guise of national pride, and the importance of a strong team or other strategic alliances on the road, the Tour de France is very much about individual glory. So which riders have successfully bowed their heads and thrust out their front wheel the most number of times in the frenetic dash-for-the-line?

Surprisingly, given the aforementioned dominance of French riders, Belgium Eddy Merckx holds the title for most number of stage triumphs (34), followed by Frenchmen Bernard Hinault (28) and Andre Leducq (25). The fallen poster-child of road racing, American Lance Armstrong, is tied for fourth with another French rider, Andre Darrigade (22).

Distance vs speed at the Tour de France (1903 – 2011)

We know that the number of stages clearly impacts the total distance. But how does race distance affect the average speed in which the tour is completed?

Two factors are immediately noticeable. There, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a direct relationship between total race distance and average race speed. The globe’s most decorated and revered bike race has also become increasingly shorter and faster since its inception in 1903. However, the average race speed has increased by more than 60 percent (25 km/h in 1903 and around 40 km/h in 2011), which seems like a lot – even taking into account reduced race length. So what other factors are at play? We think this can be explained via a number of factors; most predominantly the obvious professionalization of the sport, both in terms of riders and equipment.

Average speed vs average distance by Tour de France winning countries (1903 – 2010)

So, there’s clearly a direct relationship between speed and distance. But is there a correlation between nationality and average speed? The below chart has calculated the average speed and average distance of all Tour de France winners and then analyzed the results by country.

For the purpose of this exercise, we’ve still counted Alberto Contador’s (Spain) ‘victories’, as well as the now controversial wins by Lance Armstrong (USA). Additionally, we’ve excluded last year’s winner (Cadel Evans) because, as the first Australian to claim prime position on the podium, deriving meaningful averages based on nationality was moot.

Germany holds the fastest average victory speed at the tour (39.23 km/h), with Denmark holding down an agonizingly close second place (39.22 km/h), and an Armstrong-dominated USA finishing in third (38.59 km/h).

Now, does this mean that Germany, Denmark, USA and Spain can boast the fastest winning riders over the history of the Tour de France? Probably not (well fairly at least anyway), as it’s plainly evident that the relationship between speed and distance is at play here. All four fastest average speeds by nationality match perfectly to the four shortest average distances.

Tour entrants vs finishers in the modern era (1985 – 2011)

However, despite the professionalization of the sport in modern times – categorized by increasing skill and fitness levels in conjunction with significant monetary rewards that allow cyclists to approach their craft doggedly – many participants still fail to complete the tour.

Grueling hill climbs, punishing tempos and frenetic finishes push even the most elite of athletes to the brink of exhaustion and injury. Around a quarter of Tour de France entrants have failed to complete the great race each year between 1985 and 2011. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. In 1998, only around 50 percent – 96 of 189 riders – celebrated the ride through the Champs-Elysees.

However, data with no context can be misleading. On face value, it would be reasonable to assume that the tour circuit was particularly demanding in 1998, leading to a record number of withdrawals and race retirements. A little research reveals a far more sinister factor, with the TVM team decimated and all Spanish contingents pulling out of the race following an infamous doping scandal. The 1998 Tour de France has since been labeled the “Tour du Dopage” (Tour of Doping).

Where to next?

Does it feel like we’re missing something? Well of course it does! What about more metrics on overall tour victories you ask? To quench your remaining data-related Tour de France thirst, check out last year’s blog: GO HERE >

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