Ask Nick: Climbing grades, transponders and Tour hotels

Grade is grade, transponders aren't calibrators, Tour hotels get better and yellow helmets get tossed out

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Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Thursday. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

I’ve seen the climbs categorized in the grand tours and at times I pay attention to the percentage of grade. But the other day it occurred to me that there could be a difference between the slope of a 9-percent grade in meters/kilometers versus feet/mile. What is it?
– T.

No difference. Grade is grade. When expressed as a percentage the formula is 100 times the rise divided by the run. Grade can also be described in an angle (a 10-percent grade is approximately a 5.7-degree angle from horizontal) or a ratio (a road that climbs [rises] 10 meters for every 100 meters traveled [run] has a slope ratio of one in 10). Phil Liggett, the famous cycling commentator, will often speak in ratios as it’s common in the U.K. to use ratios instead of percentages, though that’s changing.

Being the month of July, I’m going to ask the most obvious question. Do you think you could ride the Tour De France?
– Ed

Never been asked that one before. I’m certain that I could never race the Tour de France alongside the pros. But I’m sure that I could ride it. In fact, six amateur female cyclists are riding the entire route one day ahead of the men’s race right now. It’s called the Reve Tour and my girlfriend happens to be one of the team members. It hasn’t been easy, but it is very much possible. So, yeah! I could ride the Tour! You probably could too with enough training and preparation.

What are the small rectangular blue boxes mounted on the chainstay of each bike at the Tour?  My riding buddy says they are electronic chips to monitor the racers for time checks and checkpoints. I think they are weight calibrators so that each person rides the same weighted bike.
— Michael

Your riding buddy has you on this one (but that’s just fuel for your fire the next time you ride with him). They are transponders used for timekeeping and scoring. Each rider has one on his race bike. Spare bikes don’t get them, so if a rider gets a bike change it’s important for the team’s director to check that his rider was scored correctly. Fortunately, bike changes are pretty rare.

Loved your article on the revived tradition of the yellow helmets at the Tour. Noticed today that RadioShack-Nissan took over the team lead and the yellow helmets are no more. Did Giro forget to make a set? Are they doing it to prove some point (rebelling over past fines for wearing alternate uniforms) or did they just forget to read the new Tour rulebook?
— Tim

Thanks for reading. I had the same question myself and did some poking around. It turns out that the yellow helmets for team GC leaders are not mandatory, more a suggestion. It seems that RadioShack-Nissan chose not to bother with helmets until a couple stages ago. They are now wearing Bontrager Oracle helmets with yellow accents (they aren’t sponsored by Giro). It doesn’t sound like the “rule” is hard and fast, requiring solid yellow helmets or yellow helmets of any kind. They are more of an optional honor than a requirement.

Who organizes all of the needed travel accommodations for the Tour? The individual teams? The TdF organization? Also what about all of the accompanying caravans and their staff? And sponsors too? That is undoubtedly an awful lot of people to feed and sleep.
— Dan Filliol

It IS a lot of people. The Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) owns the Tour de France and many other sporting events, like the Dakar Rally. It books the lodging for the publicity caravan, teams and officials at the Tour. Journalists and team sponsors are on their own for arrangements.

The process of assigning teams to hotels is very involved but what I find most interesting is the hotel ranking system that the race uses. After the route is announced, ASO contacts the host towns and starts organizing rooms for everyone. Bear in mind that the Tour revisits the same places over the years and already knows most of the hotels in France. Each hotel is ranked, some amazing, some pretty dank, and assigned a points value.

Using this points system, ASO tries to make sure that, cumulatively, every team receives the same level of hotels at the Tour. So if riders are complaining about a bad hotel, they should know that better ones are on the horizon. In the end, every team is bound to stay in a couple dumps and a couple palaces.

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