For most of us cycling fans, whether amateur or enthusiasts, we have all heard of the Tour de France. But, if you’re like me, you’ve never fully understood the complexity of this event. There are teams, individual winners, jerseys that change each day, and French cycling lingo that make this a truly monumental annual occurrence captivating sports fanatics from all over the globe. Well… that is if you know what you’re watching!
Another Tour is here and this blog inspired me to do a little research. Let’s call it the Tour de France for Rookies, or maybe, the “Tour de France for People Who Could Never Wear That Much Spandex.” Based on my readings, I’ve compiled the need-to-know information for understanding this event.
The Tour de France is like the Super Bowl of bicycle racing. However, the level of strategy, roles of the riders, and volatile conditions make it so much more than just a race. This three-week battle stretches the course of more than 2,000 miles through France and contains both mountainous and flat terrain. Riders compete in rain and shine, receiving only 2 rest days. There are usually 20 to 22 teams, nine riders on each, and team managers and mechanics who follow in cars.
This year, the race is made up of one prologue and 20 stages (about 100 miles each). The prologue is similar to a time trial and is less than 5 miles. Winners of the prologue get to lead the first opening stage of the tour that occurs the next day. This gives viewers a first performance look at the overall favorites in the Tour. The stage winner is the first person to cross the finish line that day or the time trial rider with the lowest time. All riders compete for the overall race title, awarded to the rider with the lowest time over all the stages. Which means, the winner of the Tour de France doesn’t have to win a single stage; they just have to perform consistently throughout the race.
Jerseys, and Mountains and Flats, OH MY!
The first week of the race consists mostly of the flat or rolling stages that finish in towns. The less strenuous nature of the flat stages allows riders to travel at much quicker speeds but can result in crashes due to the narrow and tight turns. Riders who specialize in finishing very fast, almost 40 mph, win these stages in a sprint. This smaller group of cyclists will break-off from the large mass of riders called the peloton, in the last mile or less of that stage. Sprinters will compete for wins during these stages and acquire points. The rider with the most sprint points is awarded a green jersey to wear during the following stage. There is also an overall sprint winner announced at the end of the Tour.
Mountain stages are made up of climbs categorized by number ranking, 4 (the easiest) to 1 (the hardest) and often include France’s famous peaks like the French Alps and Pyrenees. The best mountain climbers also race amongst themselves for a polka-dot jersey and acquire points for being the first few over the top of each climb.
A yellow jersey is reserved for the current race leader, and the white jersey signifies the highest ranked young rider in the overall competition, age 25 or younger.
Individual and team time trials are also intermixed throughout the race. These allow for riders to display their specific racing strengths (sprinters for the flat stages and climbers that ride best on mountains) and help the teams form their own unique strategy. During team trials and even throughout the race, cyclists rotate positions, taking turns being in the front of the group to draft. This allows the riders to conserve energy, but even if one person falls out of pace, it can create a devastating crash involving the entire team.
I think one of the most interesting things about the race is the different objectives of the riders and teams. Some teammates will compete for individual stage wins, while others serve mainly to protect the strongest rider: drafting, forming a protective moving wall, and carrying water and supplies for the leader. A team without a strong contender for the yellow jersey (rider with the lowest time overall) will send a team member on a breakaway or “suicide break” just to increase the pace, gain publicity, or set a clear path for specialist sprinter, perhaps winning the other riders time for the next day.
The course changes every year, but always finishes in Paris. 2012 marks the 99th Tour de France and began Saturday, June 30th and will end Sunday July 22th 2012.
- Twice the Tour has been won by a racer that never wore the yellow jersey until after the race was over
- The youngest Tour de France winner was Henri Cornet, age 19 in 1904
- About 11 million publicity items have been distributed by advertisers, each person in the caravan will give out 3,000 to 5,000 items a day
- The first Tour de France was staged in 1903
- Riders burn about 124,000 calories during the course of the tour
- The Tour de France inspired the lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury, to write the song “Bicycle Race” in 1978