The Torqued Wrench: Tour Chaos Theory

Can a tweet in Liége cause a thunderstorm in Paris?

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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The Tour de France is chaos. It is a month in disarray, a 3500-kilometer circus in which hundreds of thousands of people all attempt to occupy the same small spaces at the same time. Factions are in pitched battle for position: press against teams against the organization against police against fans.

And yet there is a flow to it all, albeit an unpredictable one. Within the disorder and confusion lies a sort of Butterfly Effect, a manifestation of the other, more mathematical definition of chaos. In among the madness lies a simple fact: the smallest changes to the routine, the slightest delays, can change the layout of an entire day, or even an entire Tour, in unpredictable ways. Inconsistency is the only constant.

Once that is accepted, it’s quite freeing. Until then, it’s damn frustrating.

Each evening we plan, sitting at the dinner table with the Tour book, our logistical bible. We scope out maps and itineraries for the start, check how long it should take us to get there from tonight’s hotel, figure for traffic and difficulty in accessing the PPO (the beginning of the closed route used by press and teams to access the start area). Escape routes are planned as well — how to get off the highway and back on should traffic flare up, how to get out of town as soon as possible, how to get from the team busses to the start or vice versa.

Do we want to park in Presse Avant (ahead), and leave before the race starts? Or Press Arriere (behind) and work until the last rider has clipped in and shoved off before jetting ourselves out the back? It all depends on vicinity to highways, accessibility of town centers, and about a million other things.

My point, though, is that we have a plan. And, in traveling with outstanding Australian journalist Rupert Guinness and our own Andrew Hood, who have notched well over fifty grand tours between them, it’s safe to say ours is among the most thoughtful in the race.

And yet, it is invariably thrown out the window. Those damn butterflies flap their wings, and unforeseen storms rock our little, brown Dacia Duster.

Chaos Theory dictates that small actions, seemingly insignificant at the time, can create complex reactions. Tiny changes to the initial system are amplified by the Tour’s amplitude. Predicting those outcomes is all but impossible. A few seconds here or there, a miniscule change in input, can make all the difference. Therein lies our problem.

Normally, life is a series of inputs and outputs, where we put in a combination of thoughts and actions and the universe spits back something loosely based on them. You generally get what you pay for; you arrive approximately when Google Maps says you will, you know what’s for lunch and you’re guaranteed dinner. At the Tour, what you give is not what you get. Google Maps is a purveyor of lies and deceit, as is our GPS. We miss a lot of dinners and lunch is always a mystery.

“Hang on guys, I got to tweet this,” turns into 30 extra minutes in traffic. Letting a car into the line in front may mean missing an important morning interview — never trust a spectator or local to do anything but slow you down.

We can wake up early, eat breakfast quickly, pack up with lightning speed; get out the door well before is necessary. We can do everything right. Then, on the way out the door, we stop take a photo of the hotel dog in a cute little yellow jersey. That 90 seconds puts us behind the 20-minute-long publicity caravan, getting to the start later than if we’d hit snooze two more times.

When the power of our own actions to shape the future seems to be so overwhelmed by the power of random interaction with others, there is really only one solution: control what we can control, and forget about the rest. We are but one cell in the great organism that is the Tour, everything in and around it, and I’m pretty sure we’re nowhere near the brain.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.