Le Tour de France, 2012

June 30, 2012

Every summer, the ultimate cycling race, le Tour de France, takes place on the roads of France and surrounding countries.  The race was first held in 1903, and generally lasts approximately three weeks.   The route goes, very roughly, around the “circumference” of France; the direction is clockwise or counter-clockwise in alternating years.   It always features significant segments in the Pyrenees and the Alps.  Most race days (stages) are point-to-point races involving the whole field; a few days are generally set aside as “time trials”:  riders racing against the clock over a fixed course.  Teams of riders (typically, 8-10 riders in each of ~20 teams) compete for a variety of distinctions.  The overall (general classification, or GC) winner is the rider with the lowest cumulative time.  Recognition is also given to the daily stage winners, and there are special prizes for the best sprinter, and the best climber (“King of the Mountains”).  The current leaders in these categories wear distinctive jerseys, during the Tour as well as at the finish: the yellow jersey (the maillot jaune) for the overall (GC) leader, the green jersey for the best sprinter, and the polka-dot jersey for the King of the Mountains.  In recent years, there has also been a white jersey for the best young (less than 26 years of age) rider in the GC.

This year’s edition of le Tour, the 99th, started today with the 6.4 km prologue in Liege, Belgium, and will end on Sunday, July 22. in Paris.  The race will comprise 20 stages following the prologue, and will cover 3,497 km (2,173 miles).   The stages include:

  • 9 flat stages,
  • 5 mountain stages with 2 summit finishes,
  • 4 medium mountain stages,
  • 2 individual time-trial stages

There are also two rest days included in the program.  This year, there are 22 teams and 198 riders in the Tour.

This year’s route does not have as many mountain stages and summit finishes as some recent Tours.  The mountain stages are often of special interest, since the Tour has frequently been won, or lost, there; it is the most likely place for someone to open up a large time gap.  Less emphasis on climbing means that good all-around riders will have a relative advantage.

Significant climbs on the Tour are ranked in categories, according to difficulty; in order of increasing difficulty, there are Category 4, 3, 2, 1, and HC (Hors Catégorie) ascents.   For example, in the Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyrogudes stage of this year’s race, there is a Category 2 climb, of 8 km (5 miles) at a 5.2% grade, and an HC climb to the finish of 11.7 km (7.2 miles) at a 7.7% grade.  This year’s Tour includes 25 climbs of Category 2 or higher.

The details of the classification system have often been murky, but a few years ago, all was clarified in this USENET post on fr.rec.sport.cyclisme:

Re: Catégories de cols

Ben, c’est assez simple: Tu prends une 2CV. Si celle-ci monte en 4ème, alors c’est un col de 4ème catégorie. Même chose avec la 3ème, 2ème puis 1ère vitesse. Maintenant, si la 2CV ne monte pas, il s’agit du col “hors catégorie”.

A rough translation for those who don’t know French:

Well, it’s quite simple: you take a [Citroën] 2CV. If it climbs in 4th [gear], it’s a 4th category climb. Same thing with 3rd, 2nd and 1st gear. If the 2CV won’t climb at all, it’s a ‘hors catégorie’ col.

The current race leader, following the prologue today, is the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, from Team Radio Shack / Nissan.


Google Bike Maps Revisited

August 16, 2010

Back in March, I posted a note about a new feature of Google Maps: the addition of routes and directions for bicyclists.  This was introduced as a “beta”service, as is customary with Google, but my initial reactions, and some reported later, were mostly favorable.  It is almost a given that any such service would exhibit some early problems, mostly data-related, because the availability of cycling route information is much more limited than for auto routes.  On balance, it seemed like a positive development to have this information available  at all.

This past week’s New York Times had an article with some more recent reactions to Google’s service.  For a beta version just introduced earlier this year, it is a fairy ambitious undertaking:

The beta version for bicyclists is just a few months old, but it is already reshaping how bike enthusiasts travel. Spanning more than 200 cities nationwide — and with plans to roll out bicycle routes internationally — Google Maps relies on a mash-up of data, from publicly available sources like bike maps to user-generated information.

The Google service, or any other service, is not likely to match the knowledge embedded in a locally-produced bike map, augmented by advice from local cyclists.  The quality of the basic data that Google uses varies by city, too.  Some “bike friendly” places, like Portland, Oregon, have extensive data available on local routes and trails.  Still, the quality of the routes should improve as more user data is submitted.

Mr. Barth [Dave Barth, Google Maps product manager] says that as Google Maps software becomes more user-generated — it has already been deluged with over 20,000 suggested corrections — bikers will be able to edit the data on a hand-held device as they actually cycle.

Any route-finding service is bound to miss some of the tricks that you find by exploring, and sometimes exploring is half the fun.  But it’s handy to have an easily-accessible resource that you can use when visiting a place for the first time.


WD-40: Canny Marketing

July 17, 2010

Today’s Washington Post has an article about a new social marketing campaign being launched by the WD-40 Company, for its eponymous product.  The product, WD-40, is a familiar sight in many workshops.  It was originally developed as part of “a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry”; according to the product lore, the “WD” stood for Water Displacement, and the formula was supposedly the 40th one tested.  The company has introduced a commemorative “Twin Pack”, with one modern can of WD-40, and one can with a “retro” design from the 1950s, complete with the company’s original name, Rocket Chemical Co. (the product was apparently originally developed for the Atlas Missile program)

WD-40 Twin Pack, courtesy WD-40 Co.

There is even a WD-40 Fan Club at the company’s site, where users are invited to contribute their favorite applications of the product.

Although you will find a can of WD-40 in many serious mechanics’ shops, the product has also acquired the reputation of being, like duct tape and baling wire, a favorite tool of the un-handy handyman.

If you didn’t own or couldn’t identify the right tool for the job, there was always WD-40 and a hammer.

If lawnmowers wore cologne, it would smell like WD-40, the Old Spice of the two-stroke engine.

WD-40 is to bad handymen what cream of mushroom soup is to bad cooks.

It is handy, and often seems a good short-term fix for things like squeaky hinges and stubborn locks.  But the temptation is to overuse it, and in places where it is not the right tool for the job.

Back in the 1990s, when USENET discussion groups were still active, and had not yet been rendered almost entirely useless by spam, I was a frequent participant in the rec.bicycles.tech group.  A question that came up regularly there was whether WD-40 was a good lubricant for bicycle chains.  The consensus answer is no, although it can be useful for cleaning really crappy chains.  In these discussions, it was almost inevitable that various more or less fanciful ideas would be advanced about what was actually in WD-40.  One of these discussions led to my own small contribution to the group’s FAQ:


Subject: 8a.8 WD-40
From: rgibbs@XXXX.com (Rich Gibbs)
Date: Wed, 09 Sep 1998 04:03:00 GMT

There have been many opinions posted here on WD-40's composition, but here is what the Material Safety Data Sheet [MSDS] says (it's from Oct 93, the latest I could find):

50% Stoddard solvent (mineral spirits) [8052-41-3]
25% Liquified petroleum gas (presumably as a propellant) [68476-85-7]
15+% Mineral Oil (light lubricating oil) [64742-65-0]
10-% Inert ingredients

(The numbers in square brackets '[]' are the CAS numbers for the ingredients, as listed in the MSDS.)

Mostly, WD-40 is a solvent, with a bit of light oil mixed in. It doesn't contain wax (except incidentally, since it's not exactly a reagent-grade product).

Personally, I use it sometimes for small cleaning jobs, but it's not a particularly good lubricant for anything that I can think of, offhand.

The composition of the product is still proprietary, although it does seem that it might have changed slightly, looking at the current MSDS [PDF].

Still, there is always a can of WD-40 in my toolbox, because sometimes anything that works is better than unobtainable perfection.


Reactions to Google’s Bike Maps

April 11, 2010

The “Autopia” blog at Wired has an article summarizing some feedback they have collected on the new “bike route” function in Google Maps.  Most of the reaction seems to be pretty consistent with my initial, quick check: on the whole, the system does a pretty good job of finding routes, but sometimes is tripped up by lack of specific local information.  For example, the article cites one Washington DC cyclist who was given a route through the security area between the White House and the Treasury Department.  In general, the system has better “knowledge” of bike trails and other specifically designated bike routes (e.g., bike lanes on streets) than it does of good or bad cycling conditions on roads in general.

The service is still in its early stages, so some problems like this are to be expected.  On the whole, the users interviewed seemed fairly satisfied.  Google does include a “Report a Problem” link on the map pages, and apparently is fairly responsive to suggestions for better routes:

The bottom line is Google Maps for bikes shows great promise. Yeah, it’s a bit rough and there are some bugs, but as Shad Holland of Minnesota noted, “What does ‘beta’ mean? Duh!”

Google sent Holland down a road he didn’t find particularly bike-friendly, so he let them know. The same went for John Kittell, who said he reported a problem and Google fixed it within a couple of days.

As I’ve said before, I am pleased to see Google offer this service. If you do try it, and find places where it needs improvement, please do take the time to help all of us by suggesting improvements.


Cyclists and Pedestrians Exist !

March 20, 2010

At least (and at last), that’s the news from the US Department of Transportation.  The Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, in a policy announcement reported in the “Autopia” blog at Wired, said that the department will aim to give as much weight to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians as it does to the needs of motorists.

In what amounts to a sea change for the Department of Transportation, the automobile will no longer be the prime consideration in federal transportation planning. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the needs of pedestrians and cyclists will be considered along with those of motorists, and he makes it clear that walking and riding are “an important component for livable communities.”

Secretary LaHood has also posted an article about the new policy (announced March 15) at his official blog, “Fast Lane” (shame about that name, though), following his appearance earlier this month at the National Bike Summit in Washington DC.

This change, if it is followed through, is a very welcome one.  Cyclists and pedestrians have been getting the short end of the stick in US transportation planning for decades.  I moved to my present house a couple of years ago, but before that I lived in a relatively quiet residential area here in northern Virginia.  There were no sidewalks or shoulders to the roads.  That was not so bad on the side street where I lived, but to get anywhere you had to go onto a two-lane, winding, hilly road, featuring sub-standard width lanes, heavy traffic, no crosswalks, and a 40 mph speed limit.  Now I have, according to my bicycle’s odometer,  ridden over 50,000 miles in the last ten years or so, and I think that road is very dangerous.  There are many places where the sight distance is less than 100 feet.  And I could  cite many other examples.

The new policy recognizes that making reasonable accommodation for pedestrians and cyclists is not very expensive, in the total scheme of things, and can deliver significant benefits.  As Mr. LaHood puts it in his blog:

Look, bike projects are relatively fast and inexpensive to build and are environmentally sustainable; they reduce travel costs, dramatically improve safety and public health, and reconnect citizens with their communities.

It should hardly be necessary to say that, in this era when obesity is being described as an epidemic, there are some  public health benefits to be had by encouraging human-powered modes of transportation.

Safety is also an important issue.  Many roadways, especially in suburban areas, are incredibly dangerous for pedestrians.  As a cyclist, I am very much a supporter of the vehicular cycling principle elucidated by John Forester in his book, Bicycle Transportation:

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.

(This message was part of our ongoing safety training for participants in the AIDS Rides, for example.)   With certain exceptions (e.g., limited access highways), cyclists have just as much right to use the public roads as motorists.  Yet any experienced cyclist can tell you plenty of horror stories.

Of course, a change in policy will not change the situation “on the ground” overnight.  But I’m hopeful that including the needs of cyclists and pedestrians in the discussion and planning of facilities, rather than treating them as unfortunate impediments to automobile traffic, may make things better over time.


Google Maps Adds Bike Routes

March 10, 2010

In an announcement today on the official Google Blog, the company announced that it was now offering information on bicycling routes, and directions for cyclists, on its popular Google Maps service.  The map data includes information on about 12,000 miles of cycling or multi-use trails, mainly supplied by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, along with data on the availability of bike lanes, and on other routes that are well-suited to cycling, covering 150 cities in the USA.

The directions function works much as the existing functions for auto or pedestrian directions do (“bicycling” is now a choice on the drop-down menu).  The directions are computed using an algorithm that, according to Google, takes into account bike-friendly routes, traffic congestion, and topography.

Biking directions can help you find a convenient and efficient route that makes use of dedicated bike trails or lanes and avoids hills whenever possible. To find biking directions, select “Bicycling” from the drop-down menu when you do a directions search:

It’s probably to be expected that some of the route data may be incomplete, or just wrong, at such an early stage in the product’s life, but Google encourages users to submit feedback.

I’ve tried generating directions for a few trips that I know fairly well, here in the Washington DC area, or in the metro NYC area, and the results are reasonable, if not always ideal.  The algorithm favors routes on trails or roads with bike lanes, and does seem to try to avoid big hills.  On a trip from Piermont NY (on the west bank of the Hudson) to Manhattan, it chose an inland route, rather that the route along Route 9W that is heavily used by cyclists, but that is probably explained by its wishing to avoid the big climb up the Palisades (on Kloster Dock Road, for example).   Similarly, for some trips in northern Virginia it suggested a route along the W&OD Trail — perfectly reasonable, although I probably would have chosen a somewhat shorter route just using roads.  But being comfortable with that choice comes with experience, and I have a fair amount of that.

All in all, though, I am really pleased to see this service introduced.  I have a feeling that there are a fair number of people who might try using a bicycle for some short trips, if they had a bit more confidence that they wouldn’t get into trouble.  Giving them a set of directions may help convince them that cycling is not just for Lycra-clad nut cases like me.

You can try out the service for yourself here.

Update, Wednesday, 10 March, 17:30 EST

The “Autopia” blog at Wired has an article about the introduction.  Rob Pegoraro at the Washington Post also has a post on his “Faster Forward” blog.


Driven to Distraction

January 7, 2010

It’s time again for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which is going on right now in Las Vegas NV.  As usual, there will be many new products announced.  It seems that one focus of attention this year is the development of 3-D television, interest in which has undoubtedly been sparked by the success of the movie Avatar.  I’m somewhat skeptical that being able to watch the same old dreck in 3-D will make my life more fulfilling, but we shall see.

The New York Times has a report on another developing trend that gives me considerably more pause.  These are several vendors that are introducing, or about to introduce, systems that essentially embed an Internet-connected PC in the dashboard.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, the neon-drenched annual trade show here, these companies are demonstrating the breadth of their ambitions, like 10-inch screens above the gearshift showing high-definition videos, 3-D maps and Web pages.

A photo accompanying the article shows a screen, mounted to the right of the steering wheel, displaying an application that lets the driver browse through a selection of music albums.  There are numerous other applications, too:

One system on the way this fall from Audi lets drivers pull up information as they drive. Heading to Madison Square Garden for a basketball game? Pop down the touch pad, finger-scribble the word “Knicks” and get a Wikipedia entry on the arena, photos and reviews of nearby restaurants, and animations of the ways to get there.

As someone who has spent a good deal of time traveling by bicycle, in New York City and elsewhere, the prospect of equipping drivers with additional electronic toys that they can play with instead of paying attention to their driving fills me with horror.  I have long ago lost count of the number of close calls I’ve had with drivers who  were so busy chatting on their cell phones that they forgot to watch where they were going.  I can hardly wait till they’re engrossed in reading the history of Madison Square Garden in Wikipedia.  And there is evidence that this effect is not just my imagination:

Even in 2003, when fewer people were multitasking in cars, researchers at Harvard estimated that motorists talking on cellphones caused 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,000 accidents involving injuries a year.

One thing that I have learned about road safety from cycling (and, believe me, removing the seemingly protective metal shell of the automobile does concentrate the mind wonderfully) is that one needs to devote 100% of one’s attention 100% of the time to riding safely.  Daydreaming about the cute guy or girl you saw at lunch, or otherwise watching a movie inside your head, is the surest way I know to end up as a statistic.

Charlie Klauer, a researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, says motorists face a much greater crash risk when looking at a screen, even if it is just a simple GPS map. She says the overall danger for drivers will rise as screens deliver additional streams of data.

The longer a motorist looks away from the road, “the risk of crash or near crash goes up exponentially — not a linear increase, but exponentially,” Ms. Klauer said. “So when you start introducing things like e-mail, Internet access, restaurant options or anything like that, the risk goes up.”

The manufacturers, of course, claim that their products will include all kinds of features to promote safety.  For example, Audi’s system has a warning to drivers:

A notice that pops up when the Audi system is turned on reads: “Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely.”

Somehow, providing another message for the driver to read does not strike me as the best way to ensure his attention is focused on the road ahead.

I have written before about the current mania for “multi-tasking”, and the research that seems to demonstrate that:

  • People really aren’t very good at it, and
  • The people who think they are best at it actually are the worst.

We have heard a lot of hot air and hyper-ventilation about the risk of terrorism in the last couple of weeks, in the aftermath of the Christmas “Underpants Bomber”.  It is worth remembering that, in 2008, about 37.000 people were killed in auto accidents in the US.  Although this was the lowest death toll since 1961, it still represents more casualties than occurred on 9/11, every month.  We hardly need to make driving any more dangerous than it already is.


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