For all the scintillating action between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck in the Tour de France, there have been moments during this year’s race when watching paint dry would have been more interesting.
Organizers are well aware of this; throughout the Tour’s 107-year history, they’ve tried to combat spectator and rider boredom with a system of incentives to keep racers working hard long after the yellow jersey, given to the overall winner, is out of reach.
Some of the more ingenuitive include the combativity prize – a daily award of about $2,500 to the stage’s most aggressive rider – and a finishing bonus to teams arriving in Paris with seven or more of their original nine cyclists.
In total, a prize purse of $2.6 million will be shared this year among recipients of the daily and Tour-long competitions.
Most famous is the yellow jersey, which brings along with it a nearly $575,000 paycheck. It's being duked out between Schleck and Contador, who heads into today's Stage 18 with an 8-second lead. Today's 198-km route is a sprint stage that favors the legs of Contador – he cemented his 2009 Tour de France title by winning the time trial on Stage 18 in Annecy. Schleck, though significantly weaker in time trials, is not giving up.
Polka-dotted Super Mario
But there are three other jerseys – the green (for sprinters), polka dot (climbers), and white (best under-26 rider) – that, while less lucrative, are just as fiercely contested during the three-week race.
As Contador and Schleck battled for yellow on the Col du Tourmalet yesterday, Frenchmen Anthony Charteau and Christophe Moreau challenged for the polka dot jersey, also known as King of the Mountains.
This competition, like the sprinter’s jersey, is based on the number of points riders collect throughout the race on designated climbs.
These marked difficultés, as they are called in French, are worth from €200 to €800. But it’s the points that really matter; the rider with the most at the end of the race takes home the big prize.
Charteau had a 15-point lead heading up the Tourmalet – the Tour’s final climb – and when Moreau dropped out of the peloton, he took a victory lap.
“I did the last kilometer all alone,” Charteau said after the stage. “It was really great; people were shouting my name up to the finish.”
With the white jersey squarely on the shoulders of 25-year old Andy Scheck, green is the last prize standing heading into today’s Stage 18.
And now a word from the race sponsors
Since spectators don’t pay admission to watch the Tour, organizers rely heavily on sponsor revenue to drive the event.
“But not everyone can be [French bank] LCL and sponsor the yellow jersey,” says Garmin-Slipstream team manager Jonathan Vaughters.
These other competitions are a way to include more companies who want to advertise.
In exchange for valuable funding, PMU puts their logo on the jersey, worn during the race by the top sprinter. They also have advertising vehicles that drive the stage before the riders come through. And they hang massive banners – featuring the PMU logo – over each sprint on the course.
Super Mario World: Swiss Alps level
When it comes to incentives, the Tour hasn’t broken much new ground lately – the yellow jersey was introduced during the race’s second decade and the concept of the polka-dot, if not the jersey, has been around since just after the race’s inception in 1903.
The Amaury Sports Organization, the race’s owners, have stuck to basics over the years as others in the cycling world have experimented with formats to attract attention.
Some have gone to extremes – in the 1980s, officials at the Tour of Switzerland offered gold bullion coins as a reward to the fastest riders down treacherous mountain descents.
“It was ridiculous – and the prize was at the bottom of the descent,” says Sean Yates, a former Tour de France rider who manages Team Sky. “And of course the guys would go crazy and went crashing into each other.”
Many of these gimmicks recall a bygone era of cycling, when people like Lance Armstrong, who makes nearly $20 million each year in endorsements, didn’t exist.
‘I need to win that sprint so I can pay my mortgage off’
“They would chase these prizes to supplement their income,” says Garmin-Transitions’ Vaughters. “Like, ‘I need to win that sprint so I can pay my mortgage off.’”
The money offered by the Tour is less motivating these days as rider salaries increase across the board. And live television – the race is broadcast in more than 150 countries – has become one of the most powerful impetuses to ride hard.
“The riders want to be out in front on TV,” says Yates. “And if they get in the breakaway they can get their jersey out there for the sponsor.”
This is why some, like Vaughters, think organizers should consider reforming the system. Instead of spreading out the riches, he suggests they reserve a larger chunk for the overall winner.
But it’s clear that some of the lesser competitions still prove popular among fans, which is good news to organizers in a sport that must work hard to draw in the casual fan.
On the top of the Col d’Aubisque during Tuesday’s Stage 16, many people lined the course in red polka-dotted hats and T-shirts with the logo of Carrefour, the climbing jersey’s sponsor.
More were wearing polka-dots, actually, than yellow.