The Physics of the Tour de France

Credit: Amaury Sport Organisation (A.S.O.)

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About This Episode

Playing with Science hosts Chuck Nice and Gary O’Reilly set their sights on the world’s most famous, most grueling cycling event: the Tour de France. It’s 21 days of extreme physical exertion, covering roughly 2,500 miles through city streets and up and down mountains including the Pyrenees and the Alps. To help them explore the science that makes the difference between winning and losing, Chuck and Gary welcome back physicist John Eric Goff, a major cycling fan who models the outcomes of each and every Tour de France, and who has written the book about physics in sports, Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports. But that’s not all. Neil deGrasse Tyson is back, too, and he’s brought with him the legendary, and controversial, cyclist who won the race 7 times, Lance Armstrong. This episode is suffused with science, from aerodynamics and Newton’s Laws, to how drafting works to reduce energy output. You’ll learn about air flow and air resistance, or skin friction, drag reduction, and turbulence. Gary, Chuck, and their guests take us through team strategy, nutrition, power-to-weight ratios, and the dangers of fan participation during the Tour. They even touch a little on cycling frame and helmet technology, although we’re saving most of that discussion for an upcoming episode, just like we’re planning an entire episode on the science of doping, which figures heavily in the history of the race.

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can watch or listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: The Physics of the Tour de France.

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  • Eugene Chan

    Officially Lance Armstrong has won 0 tours, not 7.

  • M0381U5

    Unfortunately I will be boycotting this episode, this man is irredeemable in my books

  • Nick

    The entusiasm Chuck shows over doping, even as a joke, is out of place. Especially for an athlete who worked hard all hes/hers life and didn’t cheat. Other than that interesting show.

  • Gladiator2000

    Great episode! It was well presented with education about the sport and the TdF along with the science.
    I remember being ridiculed by cyclists about my “funny looking bars” (time trial or triathlon bars) until Greg Lemond won the TdF with them. I guess many throughout history have been scoffed at with scientific/new ideas until tested through the scientific method. Hooray for science!

  • jard9

    Why, why, why??
    As someone passionate about cycling and science I was looking forward to listen to this episode until I realized who was the guest. I boycotted it too. If it were an episode about doping, then sure, you could hardly find a more knowledgeable guest and I would have listen with interest, but on the science of cycling you could have interviewed any other of hundredths of possible guests.

  • Brendon

    I recently found this podcast and am struggling to listen. The science content related to sport is what is compelling, but Chuck drives me crazy! My daughter was in the car listening and said it sounded like you guys are trying way too hard to be like NPR’s “Click & Clack on Car Talk.”

    I agree with the trying way too hard, but the real frustration comes from Chuck talking over everybody else. He’s like the socially awkward kid trying to squeeze into an ongoing conversation. Please Chuck, chill out and let people talk. You don’t have to laugh at everything and since you guys are talking to US, not each other, you don’t have to make little agreeing sounds every few seconds. Just wait for those times you have good questions or comments to offer… because you do. Hopefully things improve as you get more experience — listen to “Stuff you should know” or “Stuff you missed in history class” to see how pros interact on a podcast.

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