The Tour de France has been very exciting so far this year; the projected “winners” are not at the point where they were expected to be, Alberto Contador for example, but that’s not to say they won’t be soon. There have been some great stage winners as well, Tyler Farrar of the USA, winning a stage on The Fourth of July; he is the first American ever to have accomplished that.. So if you have watched the tour in the past you may have a good idea what is going on, if you are new to it, let me see if I can explain a few things to make it a bit easier, and in turn maybe more enjoyable to watch.
First of all a few basics, the tour runs over about 3 weeks, and over 2,000 miles, there are 21 stages, and 2 rest days, a team time trial, which was raced on the second day. You may have noticed some of the riders drop back or completely out of the team time trial. Well, they have a certain role in their team effort which they may have done and then fade out or they may not have been able to keep up the pace. After all, you only need 5 riders to finish the team time trial and the rider with the lowest time is the one on which the time is based. Last is the individual time trial. This is a single rider’s race against the clock; they set out, one after another, at about 2 minute intervals from the lowest place to the highest placed rider. This may sometimes determine the overall winner of the tour.
The basic ground rules
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. This means the overall winner doesn’t have to win a single stage, he just needs to stay close to the leaders and stay out of any crashes or other trouble. The yellow jersey or maillot jaune, indicates this overall leader (the rider with the least accumulated overall time.) This is known as the General Classification or GC. The person who is wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the last stage (in Paris) is considered the “winner” of the Tour.
There are 21 teams in this year’s tour, and each starts out with 9 riders. Some team members have sprinters, some have climbers, and some are the domestiques. They are considered the servants of the team. Their job is to get the water from the team car and to constantly protect their team leader by chasing down any breakaways and riding at the front of the team, providing a draft which the team leader can ride protecting him from the force of the wind.
The race route for the Tour de France always starts out fairly easylky, with a week or more of flat stages, and it starts at a different location every year. These stages are typically won in a field sprint, where a pack of riders of 10-25 specialize in closing out races with an all out sprint (at nearly 40 mph.) They often come off the front of the peloton (this is the main group of riders) in the last kilometer of the stage. Sometimes you will notice a breakaway, when either a single rider or a group of riders sprint away from the peloton with many miles left in the stage. Sometimes they make it to the end to win the stage but more often than not the peloton catches them near the end.
Although the overall winner is an individual, by tradition, the winner’s prize money is split evenly among the entire team.
Sprinters not only compete for stage wins, but for sprint points at certain designated intermediate sprints, usually mid way through a certain stage. The first few riders to reach the sprint line are awarded sprint points. The rider with the most sprint points is awarded a green jersey to wear during the subsequent stage. This makes it easier for other riders, fans, and TV cameras to follow the sprint leader’s moves. Sometimes sprinters can be the early over leaders but they will also drop out of the race when it is time to hit the mountain stages, because they just can’t “hang” and they often will lose a lot of time in the overall leader board. Now it is time for the climbers to take over.
This is when the action moves to the mountains. These are often the most difficult and most interesting stages. The climbers frequently have a race-within-a-race, because they, like the sprinters, have points and a certain jersey to fight for, the polka-dotted climber’s jersey and the title “king of the mountains.” Each climb is categorized, from Category 4 (the easiest) to hors categorie, or beyond categorization, the hardest. The first few riders over the top of each climb are awarded climber’s points.
The white jersey is awarded to the best young rider under the age of 26. Since its inception in 1975, it has been won by 29 different cyclists. Of those 29, five have also won the yellow jersey and three have gone onto to win the general classification.
Basic team strategies
The best and most interesting thing about the tour is that all the teams and even the riders have different objectives. The team whose rider is currently wearing the yellow jersey is always expected to lead the defense of all the teams and riders. This at times may mean chasing down breakaways and often setting the particular day’s stage pace. This is often a lot of work for the yellow jersey team and allowing another team to take the lead might make sense.
There will always be teams that have no real overall contender. These teams will try to focus on winning a stage or even multiple stages, by sending a rider on a solo breakaway. They will also load a group breakaway with many riders from their team, or provide a spectacular leadout for the team’s sprint specialist in a sprint finish.
You will often see teams who don’t think they have a chance at even one stage win. They will send out a rider on a suicide break, one they know can’t possibly keep away from the peloton, or group. This is often done for the press coverage their team will receive from that rider being on TV. After all, the sponsors are paying top dollar in hopes of having their names splashed across television cameras across the world!
This is a basic look into the Tour de France. There is so much more to discuss about this extravagant event; the awarding of points, the monies won, the caravans, the team cars, the feed zones, the signing in before each stage. Yes, each rider must register before each stage or he is fined $85.00. These are all-important facets of the tour, but the basics have remained pretty much the same throughout its storied history.
I hope if you have any questions while watching the tour, this may have cleared up a few. If not, listen to the commentators on Versus TV; Paul Sherwin, Bob Roll and of course, Phil Liggett, who has announced about 38 tours. They will explain things well and you will enjoy your cycling adventure.
Vive le Tour
Matt Walthour, a Marco Island resident since 1985 is a graduate from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and is the owner of Island Bike Shop and Scootertown on Marco Island and Naples. He is also a member of the Marco Island bike path ad-hoc committee.