Tour de France

This international bicycle race takes place each year in France, over three weeks in July. Find out more about the race and its history, how the teams work, the meaning of the various jerseys and the route map for this year...

The Tour: An Overview

The Tour de France is considered by many sports enthusiasts to be the most difficult and challenging athletic event in the world.

The Tour, annually in July, is a three-week cycling race through France that usually dips into neighbouring countries briefly during the race. The route changes every year, and cities and towns benefit from the honour (and tourist money) of the race coming through.

Professional teams of nine compete to ensure a rider from their team (generally the team leader) finishes with the best time at the finish in Paris. The route changes from year to year, but the finish line is always on the Champs d'Elysée in Paris.

Each day during the race is either a race day or a rest day. There are generally only two or three rest days over the course of the race. Each race day is either a long ride of at least 150 Km (90 miles) or a time trial. A time trial is a race purely against the clock. In every Tour, there is always at least one individual time trial and usually a team time trial where five members of a team ride together to get the fastest time as a team.

A Brief History of the Race

In 1903, the race was created by Géo Lefèvre and Henri Desranges as a publicity event for the newspaper, L'Auto (predecessor of L'Équipe). The first race was 2,428 Km (1,508.7 miles) over 19 days with an average speed of 25.7 Km per hour (15.9 miles/hour). Maurice Garin won that first race, while the next fastest finisher trailed behind him by 2 hours and 49 minutes, a record time-gap between the first and second place that still stands today.

The second Tour de France, in 1904, saw a free-for-all as riders desperate to win cheated by taking trains and cars. Some fans placed nails in the road in front of the competition and did what they could to waylay rival riders. Race organisers implemented stricter rules in order to avoid these incidents.

With the advent of clearer and stricter rules, riders were no longer allowed to accept outside assistance and had to finish each stage with everything with which they started. Spare tires, tools, food and shed clothing had to be carried on the rider - a challenging rule, considering that by 1907, the race was nearly 4,500 Km (2650 miles), twice the distance of the inaugural race and about 1,000 Km (600 miles) longer than the modern Tour.

The Basics of the Race

Though every cycling stage race is about there being an individual winner, team strategy plays a vital part in the winner's success. The overall race as well as each stage can be likened to a chess game, with forethought necessary to ensure riders are in good position to take advantage of weaknesses in or mistakes made by other teams. The team director is in charge of understanding each stage and rider and advising the team. During the race, the team director rides in a team car behind the cyclists and conveys advice and information to each rider via two-way radio.

The race winner is decided by time: whomever finishes the race in the least amount of time is the winner.

Jerseys

Different coloured cycling jerseys are awarded at the end of each race day to the riders with the best overall time (yellow jersey), the most sprint points (green jersey) and to the fastest young rider under the age of 25 (white jersey). Once the Tour enters the mountains, a separate tally is kept of points earned by being among the first riders over designated mountain summits (polka dot jersey).

The yellow jersey

The rider with the fastest accrued time in the race is awarded the yellow jersey (le maillot jaune). The yellow jersey helps to identify him amongst the multi-coloured team jerseys in the field (and will likely make him a target for other riders to beat). The first three riders on a standard stage (not a time trial) are awarded a time credit, meaning the number of seconds they are awarded are taken off their overall race time. Time credits are also awarded to the first three riders to reach certain locations along some stages, making it a kind of "race within a race" for these time credits. The rider with the best time at the end of a day gets to wear the prestigious yellow jersey the next day.

The green jersey

A green jersey (le maillot vert) is worn by the sprint leader. A certain number of points are awarded to the first finishers each day- the number of finishers awarded points varies depending on the stage (on a standard stage, the first 25 finishers are awarded points on a descending scale). The rider with the most points at the end of a day get to wear the green sprinters jersey the next day.

The polka dot jersey

The polka dot jersey (le maillot à pois rouges) is worn by the best mountain finisher, also known as the "King of the Mountains". Points are awarded to the first riders to reach the summit of certain climbs on a stage, the number of riders awarded points varies depending on the difficulty of the climb. Climbs are classified into five categories: Category 1-4 (with Cat 4 climbs being less steep and long than Cat 1 climbs) and Hors Catégories (climbs that are so difficult they are beyond categorisation). The rider with the most mountain points gets to wear the polka dot jersey the next day.

The white jersey

The white jersey (le maillot blanc) is awarded to the best-placed young rider (under 25 years old as of 1 January of that year) of the day.

Tactics and Techniques

Though the race is won by an individual, the tactics of that individual's team are vital to his success. Each rider is chosen for their individual strengths: one is chosen as team leader, some are sprinters, some are steady for long distances, some are climbers. The job of these doméstiques is to ensure their team leader does well and is protected from dangerous situations.

As cycling is done at high speeds, crashes are a relatively common occurrence. Teams will try to place their leader in a position within the peloton (main group of riders) that will keep him out of harm's way. Team directors must anticipate dangerous situations and advise the team.

Aerodynamics is an extremely important aspect of cycling. Bikes, clothing and equipment are designed to have as little "drag" as possible, much like an aeroplane, meaning that as they move through the air there is as little wind resistance as possible. Along these same lines, drafting is used extensively in cycling. If two riders are riding one in front of the other, the rider in front will use much more energy (up to 40 percent more) than the rider in back due to wind resistance. This means that the rider in back will have more energy to use later, such as in a sprint situation or when climbing up a mountain. The domestiques work to protect the team leader (who is a good all-around rider), so he can conserve his energy for the right moment.

An objective of every team is to get another team to do as much work as possible, while conserving their own energy for when it's needed.

In team time trials, the entire team shares the workload. They ride in a single-file line and the first rider peels off the front at certain intervals and slowly falls back to the end of the line. Throughout the course of the time trial, this rotation happens over and over again.

Race Etiquette

Although this is a race, certain unofficial courtesies are followed by most riders.

It is considered unsportsmanlike to attack in the following situations:

  • When food and drinks are being picked up in designated feed zones
  • While a rider is relieving himself
  • When a leading rider has a mechanical problem and must stop to exchange bikes or change a tire

When the stage comes through a rider's hometown, the rest of the peloton will generally allow that rider to lead as the race comes through. The peloton will also generally allow a rider to lead the race for a short time on his birthday.

On the final stage into Paris, there are often some ceremonious attacks, but it is generally considered in bad taste to attack the clear leader of the race.

Attending the Race

The official Tour de France website publishes a map and schedule for each stage. The map indicates the stage start time and the estimated time the cyclists will arrive at various locations on the route, including the finish.

Many spectators bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the side of the road as they wait for the cyclists to ride through. The roads the riders will take will be closed anywhere from one day to a few hours before the race comes through, therefore it is important to get situated for viewing well in advance.

  • The Tour de France website has schedules
  • Road closure information is available from the local tourist office
  • As the race is in July it is recommended to bring adequate water, food and sun protection
  • It is very important to stay well clear of the roadway as riders come through so as not interfere with their movement (riders have had their careers ended by injury and spectators in the road have been killed in collisions with cyclists)

Before every stage, a publicity caravan travels approximately 90 minutes ahead of the cyclists. The caravan is a parade of decorated vehicles that represent the sponsors of that stage. Seeing the publicity caravan is considered by many to be an exciting part of the day as most of the vehicles are outlandishly decorated and distribute free merchandise to spectators, such as food, toys and Tour clothing.

Interesting Notes

  • The Tour has only been cancelled due to the World Wars
  • In earlier Tours, riders were known to stop for a cigarette and whiskey in a pub to refresh themselves during a stage
  • In 1975, Belgian rider Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx (considered by many to be the greatest cyclist of all time) was physically attacked and beaten by the French fan of a rival rider. Merckx remounted his bike and went on to finish the stage
  • In 1986, Greg Lemond was the first American to win the Tour. He would go on to win two more times (even after recovering from a nearly-fatal shotgun wound)

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