Comparison of Distances Covered in Every 24 Hours of Le Mans Motor Race and Tour de France Bicycle Race

Another quick line plot comparison. At least it was supposed to be quick. Getting the data into shape took longer than I had anticipated. Regardless, after doing simple line plot comparisons for two famous motor races and a famous running race, I decided to do somewhat of a mashup and compare motor power to human power. Sort of. Specifically, I was curious to find out how the distances covered by the winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race compared to the distances covered by the bicyclists in the Tour de France.

I found the data for Le Mans at Wikipedia, whereas the data for the Tour came from this page at a site called BikeRaceInfo. Both sources list the distance of each race in kilometers, which I used in the figure because...France! As with the line plots for the Boston Marathon, Indy 500, and Daytona 500 that I made before, there are gaps in these line plots due to the absence of races because of World War I (the Tour) and World War II (both the Tour and Le Mans, although the gaps between races were of different lengths for each event). Wikipedia also explained that an additional gap in the Le Mans timeline was due to a workers' strike in 1936. I elected not to mark these gaps on the figures other than to leave breaks in each line. Here is the result.

(click to enlarge)

A few comments about this figure. What in the WORLD were they doing riding nearly 6,000 km in 1926?!? Sure, that race was about a week longer than modern races, which are now 21 days long. But the bikes must have been so heavy and difficult to ride. And the seats. And the clothing. And the ancillary equipment. Heck, even the roads, some of which appear to be unpaved in these pictures of that very race (scroll down the page in the link to the photos). Astonishing.

Beyond the literally incredible distances that Tour de France riders covered way back when, I naively thought that the distances of the Tour would be roughly the same over time as the course is a set distance (even if that distance varies somewhat year to year). If anything, I thought that modern riders with their fancy equipment, scientific training regimens, enhancements (legitimate or otherwise), paved roads, and extensive support systems would be subjected to longer courses than their predecessors. But the opposite is true, with Tour distances steadily decreasing over time.

In contrast and to the surprise of no one, the distances covered by the winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans have been trending upward from the beginning. Unlike the Tour de France, the length of the Le Mans race is set not in terms of distance but in terms of time: 24 hours, to be precise. The winner is the car that travels the farthest distance in those 24 hours. As automotive technology improves and vehicles get both faster and more reliable, the distances covered in the 24 Hours of Le Mans get longer and longer. Based on the figure, the rate at which those distances are increasing has slowed, but it is still edging upward. As with the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, some years the race is subject to delays due to weather and/or crashes. Such delays would account for the bigger drops in the line plot, especially in more recent times.

Lastly, but perhaps my favorite part about this figure, the point at which the lines cross. In 1959 the Tour de France was still longer than the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but only just. A mere 43.1 km was the difference between the length of the two races. Here is the R output showing those numbers, again with Distance in kilometers and the Tour listed first:
> filter(Tour, Year==1959)
  Year Distance
1 1959     4391
> filter(LeMans, Year==1959)
  Year Laps Distance
1 1959  323   4347.9

The next year the distances of the two races were very similar again, with just 44.5 km or so separating them:
> filter(Tour, Year==1960)
  Year Distance
1 1960     4173

> filter(LeMans, Year==1960)
  Year Laps Distance
1 1960  314 4217.527

This time, however, Le Mans was the longer race and stayed so for most of the 1960s. Eight years later, the bicyclist once again surpassed the motorists, this time by just over 39 km:

> filter(Tour, Year==1968)
  Year Distance
1 1968     4492
> filter(LeMans, Year==1968)
  Year Laps Distance
1 1968  331  4452.88

But this was the last hurrah for the bicycles. The cars have kept the bicycles in their rear-view mirrors ever since.


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