There are people at the side of the road cheering me on as I power into the last kilometres of Stage 8 of the Tour de France, Dole to Lausanne.
Well, almost. I really am cycling the closing part of the Tour de France Stage 8 route. And there really are people urging me to allez. But if I’m honest, I’m not so much powering as struggling. For after the breezy descent from the Col du Mollendruz, where I started from, the inclines into Lausanne are proving a little more challenging.
I’m here as a guest of Tissot, official timekeeper of the Tour, which has invited a bunch of international journalists to experience at first-hand what it’s like to pedal the hallowed tarmac of the world’s most famous cycle race. And despite our very average progress – a look at Strava shows a top speed of 63.1km per hour on a downhill, which doesn’t sound too shabby until you consider that the pros have clocked over 120km per hour on downhills in the Tour – I am still chuffed to bits to have had a taste of putting rubber to road along a stage of this incredible competition.
The pros arrive a couple of hours later, and before they do, we are shown the Tissot timing booth that is positioned so that it overlooks the finishing line. It is packed with sophisticated equipment that can determine a photo finish, should it come to that, and in the Tour it can do, with riders separated by not so much as a wheel-rim’s width in the final dash for the line. Where once a human with a handheld stopwatch was the judge, now Tissot employs sensors embedded in the course, transponders fitted to bikes and a computer system to control the whole timing system. At the finish, the high-speed camera can operate at 10,000 frames a second to distinguish who triumphs in a close-fought sprint.
Tissot, which was founded in 1853, has been timing this race since 1988, with a hiatus from 1993 to 2016, after which it returned to the duty. But the Tour itself dates back to 1903, when it was launched as a marketing initiative for the sports newspaper L’Auto (which was succeeded by L’Équipe (the team) after World War II).
The Swiss watchmaker is a natural partner for the race, as it has developed relationships with many cycling disciplines – in 1995 it signed-up with the International Cycling Union, becoming the Official Timekeeper of the Cycling World Championships for road, track, mountain bike and BMX. In addition to this, it is a sponsor of the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse cycle races, and also times the Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta a España, which together with the Tour de France make up cycling’s three main Grand Tours. Tissot is also trusted with the responsibility of being Official Timekeeper for the NBA and FIBA in basketball (the North American National Basketball Association and the Fédération Internationale de Basketball, the International Basketball Federation) and for MotoGP Grand Prix motorcycle racing.
Timing is, of course, crucial to sport in general, and the Tour de France, where nearly 200 riders compete over 3,000 kilometres, is no exception. As cycling champion – three-time Vuelta a España winner, runner up in 2020’s Tour de France and three-time stage winner in the race, and Olympic gold medallist – and Tissot ambassador Primož Roglič says: ‘Time is everything. I try to be in the moment. I give absolutely everything to make the most of that moment.’
If precision is the name of the game here, this is true too of the manufacturing processes that are involved in the making of Tissots. To illustrate this, the day before getting kitted up, mounting the saddle and clipping in for my Stage 8 experience, I was taken on a tour of part of the company’s factory that makes the tiny, slim second hands for Tissot’s timepieces. After following the journey of these from a ribbon of thin brass through a process of meticulous milling, painting, cutting and drilling, it is clear that Tissot watches are made to exacting standards.
Indeed, it is the second hand that is the star of the new series of Tissot T-Race Cycling Special Edition chronographs. Each year, the brand releases a special edition series of watches for cycling’s three Grand Tours. For 2022, they feature a second hand that has a tiny bicycle motif on it. Along with the crowns, the second hands are coloured specifically to denote each Tour: (yellow for the Tour de France, pink for the Giro d’Italia and red for La Vuelta a España).
The design of the T-Race Cycling Special Edition is clearly inspired by the sport. Hands reference wheel spokes; pushers are modelled on break levers; the dial has a black “asphalt” finish to celebrate the road surface; the caseback and crown are a homage to a bicycle’s cassette; and the watch case is in stainless steel 316L with a black PVD coating and a forged carbon-composite ring that surrounds it between the bezel and caseback – carbon fibre is, of course, a material used on racing bikes. Even the black rubber strap is perforated to suggest handlebar grip tape. Finally, the logo of each respective race is engraved on the casebacks.
It’s a handsome sports watch for sure, water-resistant to 100m and equipped with a tachymeter on the dial, and a chronograph function that can measure 10ths of a second. But it is surely the little bicycle at its centre on that oh-so-delicate second hand that really marks it out as a piece that will appeal to enthusiasts and collectors alike.
Tissot T-Race Cycling Special Edition, £470; tissotwatches.com