Whether it’s the Tour de France or an Olympic road race, you’ll hear the term peloton used pretty often in cycling commentary. So what does it actually mean?
Put simply, a peloton is a large group of riders bunched together on the race route. In the context of the Tour de France, it tends to refer to the main body of cyclists that viewers will follow continuously.
However, there’s a lot more to understand about Tour de France pelotons and how they work than that! In this guide, we’ll be covering:
- What Is The Tour De France Peloton?
- The Peloton: Tour De France Typical Formations
- What Are “Echolons” In The Peloton?
- Which Is The Best Position In The Peloton?
- What Happens When A Group Or Individual “Breaks Away” From The Peloton?
Ready to learn all about the Tour de France peloton?
Let’s get into it!
What Is The Tour de France Peloton?
In cycling, a peloton is a large group of riders bunched together on the race route.
In the context of the Tour de France, it tends to refer to the main body of cyclists that viewers will follow continuously. Riders might “break away” from the peloton if they manage to accelerate ahead of it, or be “dropped” by the peloton if they fall behind the main group.
In French, the word literally means ‘small ball’ or ‘group’ and dates back to the 17th century, when it referred to a small group of soldiers (or ‘platoon’). It’s this latter origin that gave birth to the current sporting definition of the peloton.
The term can also be used to describe a group in a marathon or another sporting event; however, it’s most frequently used to refer to bike races.
So what exactly happens within a peloton? The collective behavior of groups of cyclists can be complex and very interesting to watch. Let’s take a look at how the formations of a Tour de France peloton tend to operate.
The Peloton: Tour de France Typical Formations
You may have watched the Tour de France on TV and wondered exactly what’s going on when competitors swap and shift positions, tussling for top spot and dropping back at other points. How exactly do these formations work?
The peloton travels as an integrated unit, with each rider constantly adjusting their position in relation to the riders around them.
Different formations happen in different situations, but there are essentially two main types of peloton formation:
- Compact, broad-fronted formations
- Single file, high-speed formations
The key difference between the two forms of formation is the transition from peloton cooperative behavior to free-riding behavior. A number of factors influence formation, including fatigue, recovery, and range of peripheral vision.
At the front of the pack, cyclists are far more exposed to wind resistance, so the ride is tougher and they experience much higher fatigue loads.
For that reason, when riders have had a period of time at the front of the group, they will move back and someone else will take their place, giving riders a fair amount of recovery time.
This is an ever-changing process that appears in time-lapse as a kind of fluid cloud. The ways in which the peloton shifts have been likened to bird flock formations, and you can see why.
But it’s not just this kind of rider fluidity that causes changes to the shape or formation of the peloton. A strong headwind can spread out or string riders out into a longer, more narrow formation, sometimes into single file.
In other conditions, for instance if there’s a brisk tailwind, competitors will ride side to side. Elsewhere, two or more groups of riders might compete to gain control of the peloton, leading to several lines forming.
Formation shifts may also occur due to changes in terrain and incline.
What Are “Echelons” in the peloton?
Another term you might have heard in relation to the Tour de France (or other long-distance races) is “echelon“. Within cycling terms, this refers to a formation in which riders position themselves at slight angles alongside each other, creating a kind of diagonal line.
This ensures that competitors get the best protection from a crosswind and are able to preserve energy for later on in the race.
Sometimes, a Tour de France peloton will be made up of a series of echelons. In the same way that the peloton encourages riders to work together to protect against winds and fatigue, echelons are a good example of rider cooperation.
The term “echelon” means “rung of the ladder” in French, and has its background in military use, much like the word peloton. This translation helps emphasize the physical appearance of echelons in a race.
Which Is The Best Position In The Peloton?
As we’ve mentioned already, the riders at the very front of the peloton encounter the most air resistance. Similarly, when there is a strong crosswind, those on the windward side may struggle.
That being said, those positioned behind the first few riders near the front have some key advantages.
Firstly, being close to the front allows riders to view and respond to attacks from competitors and other positional changes without too much effort.
In addition, being close to the front means that when gaps form in the peloton (for instance after a crash), you’re less likely to get caught in the rear group. The further back you fall in the peloton, the more at risk to delay or injury from involvement in crashes you are.
One more thing to consider is the “accordion effect”.
This refers to how a change in speed becomes amplified as it propagates to the back of the peloton. Riders must be able to anticipate changes and be able to brake early to avoid collisions.
If cyclists touch wheels for even a millisecond, a crash will normally occur, and a chain reaction will spread across the densely packed riders. The further back you are, the more at risk you are.
So, cycling teams will usually try to position their team leader (usually their best contender for the overall Tour win) towards the front of the peloton, in the second or third row. This keeps them protected from the worst of the headwind and away from the more dangerous rear of the peloton, while retaining the ability to respond to rivals’ attacks.
What Happens When A Group Or Individual “Breaks Away” From The Peloton?
If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France, you’ll be familiar with the excitement that’s sparked up when a rider of a handful of riders start to gain speed and break away from the pack.
But how do cyclists know when it’s the right time to do this, and crucially, how can we tell whether or not a breakaway will be successful?
These are the key factors that determine whether or not a breakaway group will reach the finish line ahead of chasing groups:
1. Distance remaining in the race
2. The speed of the breakaway group
3. The number of riders in the both breakaway and chasing groups
4. How closely riders draft each other
5. Course gradient and roughness
6. Headwinds and crosswinds (referred to as “demand” factors)
Most small breakaways are doomed due to the fact that it takes a lot more effort than riding in a large group. Therefore, they will often get caught during the last 10km of the race.
However, you’ll usually still see a few strong riders attempt to break away from the main peloton early on, attempting to build such a commanding early lead that the peloton can’t catch up before the finish.
A solid way of gauging how successful a breakaway rider’s bid for glory will be is to simply check the distance between their bike and the peloton. If enough distance is created, a lead can be sustained, although this is difficult.
How Important Is The Tour de France Peloton?
Watching the progress of the peloton can be a fascinating spectacle. Formational shifts can indicate changes in race conditions, while the constantly adjusting positions of cyclists can show us the intentions of certain riders.
As we’ve explored in this article, the Tour de France Peloton is one of the hallmarks of this iconic race. Not only does it provide opportunities for rider cooperation and teamwork, but it also helps give birth to various interesting strategies and tactical ploys.
When the Tour de France rolls around, keep an eye out for the different tactics and strategies associated with the peloton. Understanding this core racing concept is key to expanding your knowledge about how professional cycling operates.