Norris Lockley is an Englishman who is an articulate, intelligent former builder of racing bikes. He has forgotten way more about the Tour de France than I could ever possibly know. He posted this on the Classic Rendezvous site on July 2nd :
"I must admit that I am not versed in charts and graphs, so I cannot offer any very learned contribution on those grounds to this debate.
However as a spectator of the Tour since my first one in 1953 I can claim to have observed a lot of riders trying their best to ride around France as quickly as possible. There are of course many variable such as the fitness of the riders, the weight of the bikes, the bikes' level of equipment, the sophistication or otherwise of that equipment, the state of the road surfaces, the quality of the nutrition, the quality of the back-up staff etc etc, and the actual length of the Tour itself ..the number of kilometres actually ridden in those three weeks.
I have also watched my fair share of Classics such as the Paris-Roubaix, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege etc and I have come to the general conclusion that although the average speeds have risen over the years, I don't think that the difference is particularly impressive when other improvements in the roads, equipment etc etc are taken into consideration.The 80s decade appears to have had quite a lot of significance in the history of the Tour in that it was during this decade that quantum leaps in the design of equipment and materials took place; I am thinking here, of course, of developments such as the clipless pedal, the carbon-fibre frame, better aerodynamics. It was also in this decade that the Tour started to become truncated, ie the overall length dropped from over 4000 kms into the 3000 + kms bracket.In the early 80s riders such as Hinault increased the average speed considerably, his speed in 1981 being almost 4km faster than Zootemelk's in 1980..and almost 2.5kms faster than his own winning speed in 1979. This improvement could be attributed to the fact that Bernard Tapie and Renault had combined to produce a far more effective racing team and team spirit .. or it could just have been of course, that Hinault, like that other Frenchman, Anquetil, was just naturally very gifted as an individual.By around 1984 until 87, the average speeds slowed down but there again the Tour in each of those years covered more than 4000kms. When Delgado won the 88 Tour he rode over 2kms/hr faster than Roche in 1987, but was this because the Tour was nearly 1000kms shorter or because he had the advantage of a TVT carbon-fibre-tubed frame?Throughout the 80s and into Indurain's reign in the 90s the average speed increased regularly with RIIS in 1996 winning with a speed of 39.229kms..followed by Ulrich with 39.23..and Pantani in 98 with 39.92. Then along came Armstrong ! I am naive enough to think that during the 80s via Hinault. Lemond, Fignon and into the Indurain 90s the significant improvements were down to a combination of natural talent, desire to win, better team management and..better equipment ie carbon-fibre frames. From Indurain onwards ... well we know about Riis, and Pantani..their use of banned substances, possibly Ulrich too.As for the improvements made in the average speeds during the Armstrong years, well, to begin with, the Tour became much shorter in its kilometrage, the methods of riding, ie the Bruneel style of having the Super Team to drag along the Star rider so that the latter does not have to make much of an individual effort, and certainly not attempt to break-away. Witness the boring racing of recent years that have produced a winner in Cavendish..I think that the jury pronounced on the last few years of the 90s and is just about to pass a verdict shortly on the Tour winners of the following decade.Over the years I have been fortunate in meeting up with riders such as Brian Robinson, the British author of the greatest winning margin, Bernard Hinault, Thevenet, Poulidor, Indurain, Fignon, Merckx, Moser, Kelly, Kimmage, Jalabert, Boardman...and I can say without a shadow of regret that I would rather watch Tours of France featuring these riders, even though they might ride more slowly, than any Tour that features the boring massed peloton club-run style racing that Bruneel and others have introduced. The 2012 Tour will the first one that I will not have watched in over thirty years; I have a lot of paint that I would rather watch drying out.Who cares what the average speed is if all it results in is totally boring negative racing and even more boring mass sprint finishes. I hold out some hope that Thomas Voeckler will once again animate the course."Norris LockleySettle UK