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The impact of roundabouts and ‘road furniture’ on the Tour de France

There are more than 3,500 obstacles in this year's Tour de France route—more than one for every kilometer of racing. Each of these impediments represents an opportunity for a crash or a split in the action

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The split in the peloton that formed with about 35 kilometers to go in Monday’s 10th stage of the Tour de France has been credited to a surge at the front of the bunch. Wind, they say, was the reason. But the influence of road furniture cannot be underestimated.

Over the 3,481 kilometers of the 2019 Tour, there are 3,576 ‘obstacles’ the riders need to negotiate: 404 roundabouts, 308 narrowing sections, 28 tight turns, 599 median strips, 334 speed bumps, and 39 level crossings.

On average, it adds up to about one obstacle for every kilometer. And each one of these impediments represents an opportunity for a split in the peloton, or worse, a crash.

The good news is that, in 2019, there are fewer obstacles for the riders to consider than last year when there was a record tally of 3,831 bits of ‘road furniture’ to negotiate.

One of the 3,500 obstacles that are present in this year’s Tour de France route. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

VeloNews contacted a representative of the department of roads to get the statistics about the history of these obstacles on the routes of recent Tours. (The growth is charted in the graphic below, and it’s significant.)

It takes only a few hours of driving (or riding) in France to notice the proliferation of giratoires (ie. roundabouts).

France is famous for these traffic devices; over half of the world’s roundabouts are located here and, in recent times, the tally is said to grow by around 500 per year.

It’s enough to make you dizzy! And it can also influence the results of the Tour. Take a look at the clip below and you see how much of a benefit those who go right rather than left get.

In stage 10, the likes of Thibaut Pinot, Richie Porte and Jakob Fuglsang all suffered significant time losses. They slipped down the GC rankings because of the split that formed on the approach to Albi. There are numerous elements that contributed to this loss: wind, poor positioning at a crucial moment, a lack of team support, etc. The decision made on the approach to the roundabout cannot be underestimated.

It is not always, however, something riders can decide upon. Sometimes they are just swept up in the flow of the peloton. Go one way, you gain time; go the other, you lose time.

Road furniture glossary

Giratoires = roundabouts
Rétrécissements = narrowings
Virages serrés = tight turns
Terrepleins = median strips
Ralentisseurs = speed bumps
Passages à niveau = level crossings

An innovation for 2019

The Tour organizers put in every effort to ensure all possible obstacles are highlighted. There are signs placed on the route highlighting each roundabout, narrowing, central reservation (median strip), speed bump, and even a tight turn.

An image from the Tour de France road book shows the different obstacles in the road. Photo: Rob Arnold

In 2019, there’s also a new innovation: a digital sign board, complete with animation highlighting the options to get through a roundabout: left or right, or both. That’s all well and good, but riders can’t always be positioned where they’d ideally like to be.

Pinot, Porte, Fuglsang et al didn’t choose to go left when they could have gone right, the flow of the peloton dictated their position. By the time they exited the roundabout, some may have dropped back from the top 20 to around 60th place in the bunch. Should that happen at an inopportune time, time losses may be the outcome.

The old adage: ‘Stay up front!’

Offering instructions over the radio from the team is one thing that can help riders make the right choice. The lead vehicle is tuned into the frequency used for Radio Tour and warnings are issued when there’s a nasty turn coming up, or a rough speed bump, or a roundabout.

The message crackles through frequently: ‘ralentisseur très prononcé’, for example. Loosely translated it means: ‘Watch out boys, bloody big speed bump coming up!’

It’s great to be forewarned but that doesn’t always mean a rider can do much about the obstacles. Sometimes, they just may happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then, despite the best laid plans, everything can go awry.

Furthermore, over the course of three weeks, these warnings can often blur into white noise. Radio Tour announces them, and it happens often.

But it doesn’t always mean a sports director will pass on the information to the riders – and, even if that does happen, the rider might not always get the message.

The upshot is quite simple: riders, be vigilant. Always!

Growing list of obstacles

A graph showing the number of obstacles in this year’s Tour route.

As you can see on the above graphic, there is a slight variation in the number of obstacles from one year to the next. This can often relate to where the race goes: a foreign start, like in 2019, means that there are few days in France, and a slight drop in the roundabout tally.

But the general data suggests that, if anything, road furniture is more prevalent in 2019 than ever before. And it’s more extreme in France than anywhere else.

In 1996, when data first started being published, there were just 196 roundabouts on the route of the Tour de France; on average, one every 19,210 meters.

In 2018, the peak of roundabout use at the Tour (and on a significantly shorter course than in 1996) there were 593 giratoires! That’s roughly one every 5,650 meters!

“Be vigilant!” Indeed. It’s easy to say but not always easy to execute.

One roundabout can spoil your whole Tour, but there are plenty more than that to negotiate throughout the three-week race.

Next time you see a split in the peloton, consider the wind by all means. It could be that one team or another puts it in the gutter. Maybe it’s the gradient that creates the damage but, increasingly, there is also the influence of road furniture to consider.