A guide to help you follow and understand the Tour de France race.
Remember this simple fact:
Bike racing is a TEAM sport – not an individual one.
Knowing that one fact will help you understand and enjoy the spectacle that is the Tour de France – the world’s most grueling sporting event. Bike racing may look like a bunch of guys riding for themselves, all trying to win, but that’s not the case in a race like the Tour. I’ll explain more about that later.
This year the 97th Tour de France begins Saturday, July 3rd in Rotterdam and ends in Paris (as it always does) Sunday, July 25th. This year’s Tour will cover 2,263 miles and consist of 21 stages (think of a stage as a one day race – 21 stages = 21 one day races) and 2 rest days. There are 22 teams that will start the 2010 Tour de France.
Each year every team starts the race with a squad of 9 riders, making 198 riders who will begin the Tour. Not all will finish – and you can take that to the bank. Riders drop out of each Tour because of injury, illness, doping, even death, but mostly because the race is just so grueling some riders simply cannot finish.
There is always plenty of excitement and high drama in the Tour de France. And as with most team sports, strategy plays a big role as teams work to get their top rider up in the general classification (the overall race classification), or in competition for the green, polka dot or white jersey.
The Tour will commence with the Prologue, an individual time trial which kicks off the three week race and serves to introduce the riders and teams – before the more grueling racing begins. The rider that wins the Prologue will wear the Malliot Jaune or Yellow Jersey. In each of the race stages the overall race leader rides in the yellow jersey.
Perhaps most important to remember about the jerseys: the Yellow Jersey is worn by the overall leader of the Tour – the rider with the lowest accumulated time for the race (fastest wins). By the end of the Tour the total time for the winning rider will be somewhere around 90 hours. Amazingly, the winner will probably win by just a few minutes over the closest competitor. It is not unusual for the winner to beat the 2nd place rider by less than 1 minute. Incredible when you consider how long they ride and the distance they cover. The smallest margin of time between the winner and the second place cyclist was in 1989 when American Greg Lemond won by a mere 8 seconds.
- Yellow Jersey/Malliot Jaune – Overall race leader
- Green Jersey – Sprinter’s jersey – sprint points leader*
- Polka Dot Jersey (red/white) – King of the Mountains – climbing points leader*
- White Jersey – Best young rider – overall time leader for racers under the age of 26
*During each stage, points for sprinting and/or climbing are awarded at fixed locations on the route. The rider that accumulates the most sprint points, climbing points or young rider points wins the Green, Polka Dot or White jersey, respectively.
Bike Racing Lingo
Peloton – The main group of riders.
Break/Breakaway – a single rider or group of riders who escape the peloton in an attempt to win the state.
Chase – a single rider or group that tries to catch up to the leader or breakaway group.
Domestique – worker bees – the riders on the team that sacrifice personal performance to help the lead rider(s) of the team.
Drafting – Riding closely behind another rider, saving energy. This occurs in the peloton. It is estimated a rider conserves 30% of their energy by drafting.
General Classification (GC) – Overall standing for the Tour.
Time Trial – A race against the clock. Each rider rides individually.
Team Time Trial – A team race against the clock.
Prologue – A short time trial that opens the Tour.
Flat stages – Minimal climbs, typically feature a bunched sprint finish.
Mountain stages – Big climbs, this is where the contenders will fight it out. Climbs are classified in terms of difficulty, Categories range from 4 (easiest) to 1 and *HC* (hors categorie) – beyond category – the most difficult.
Paceline – group of riders working together, each rider takes a pull (turn) at the front of the group and when not pulling, drafts with the rest of group.
Feed zone – the area where riders pick up a mussette (bag) of food and water. Riders don’t stop to eat. They barely stop to *relieve* themselves.
Understanding the Tour de France:
Each of the 21 stages of the Tour de France in actuality is an individual race and for each of the 21 stages there will be a winner. In fact, there could be 21 different winners. Only one rider will win the Tour however, and become the Tour de France champion, capturing the maillot jaune – yellow jersey . Each day of the Tour (minus the two rest days) will feature a stage race that riders will compete fiercely to win, but the competition for the overall race (GC or general classification) is what the serious contenders compete for.
To give you a better idea of how this all plays out in the actual Tour, let’s look at a rider and his team. You may have heard of a rider by the name of Lance Armstrong. Lance rides on Team Radio Shack this year. He is their lead rider, the captain if you will, the rider that team management feels has the best chance of winning the Tour – no surprise there.
As the leader, every resource of Team Radio Shack is there to support Armstrong and give him the best chance to win or place high in the GC. During the flat stages (sprint stages) teammates will ride around him to shelter him from wind and accidents. They will also get him food, water or anything else he needs. During the flat stages, the goal of the team is to protect him in terms of accidents and weather as well as to make sure at the stage finish he is in the lead peloton (and thus gets the same finish time as the other contenders that are safely tucked away in the peloton with him).
The Tour isn’t won on the flat stages, but as Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (Phil and Paul are the voices of cycling – the Howard Cosell’s of the professional cycling world) like to point out – it can be lost on the flats due to crashes and silly mistakes.
Armstrong will never take a pull at the front or work for another rider as long as he is in contention for the overall race – it’s not his job. The domestiques on the team do that work, as well as get him water or food from the team car that follows behind the peloton. As we move into the mountain stages a different group of teammates (climbers) will support him by setting the pace and allowing him to draft and conserve energy plus protecting him from accidents, etc. Again, a teammate in this group makes sure he has what he needs – water/food. Typically in the tough mountain stages (with the HC or beyond category climbs) Armstrong will end up at some point on the climb alone (with no teammates) competing against the other team’s top climber and contender – mano a mano.
The Tour will be decided either in the high mountains or the individual time trial. To win the Tour de France a rider has to be able to climb and time trial well. Some riders can do one of those well, only a few do both well. Those few are the riders that have a chance to win the Tour de France.
It will be exciting to see how the Tour plays out this year. Barring accidents, drug test failures or other calamities, the winner of the Tour will be decided between 3, maybe 4 riders. Of course, one of those guys crashing, losing a significant chunk of time, or sustaining a significant injury changes everything. And those things happen, so who knows.
The favorite has to be the pistol saluting Alberto Contador; the young Spaniard and winner of the 2009 and 2007 Tours. Contador was Armstrong’s teammate last year (and I use the word teammate loosely – they did not like each other). Contador climbs effortlessly, time trials well and is young. Armstrong could also win. Obviously he climbs well, time trials well, but for a professional cyclists he’s pushing the calendar at age 38. But he is such a competitor, I wouldn’t count him out.
Then there are the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank. Andy finished 2nd in last year’s Tour and he just keeps improving. There is also Cadel Evans, a complete rider who has had a good year, and a new team, so he could be up there – so could Americans Christian Vande Velde and Levi Leipheimer. There are other riders, Bradley Wiggins for one, that have the talent and skill to win the Tour. The odds are it will be Alberto Contador (his team reportedly isn’t that strong but with his youth and skill it may not matter), but Armstrong looked awfully strong in the Tour de Suisse coming in 2nd to Frank Schleck. With a strong team behind the Schleck brothers you can’t count them out either. By the time we get to the difficult mountain stages we should have a good idea of who is in contention to win it all.
To watch more Tour de France coverage than you can imagine tune in to
Versus NBC Sports each day where you can catch Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin commentating and providing the play by play of each stage, as well as Bob Roll on back-up and color (and he does *color* like no one else), and Craig Hummer serves as the ringmaster. These guys are at times as entertaining as the race.
The best way to understand the Tour de France is just to watch the daily coverage. There are plenty of resources online for Tour coverage as well. The more you come to understand the sport of bike racing the more you will find an appreciation for what is a beautiful sport.
*Update 7/4/2016 – Although much of this post/guide is dated as far as the riders and commentators, the information about the Tour and bike racing in general is still true and still applies. Hope it helps you to enjoy the Tour ~Susan
For good information about the Tour and current standings:
And of course check back here for daily updates and race analysis here on For the Love of Bikes.
Vive le Tour!