The Tour de France - A Quick Guide
Created | Updated Jul 19, 2010
The Tour de France is the biggest sporting event in the world. In terms of spectators, it draws in more fans each year than the Olympics, World Cup football or any motor race. What makes it so special?
History and Basics
At the start of the 20th Century, two of France's leading sports newspapers, Le Vélo and L'Auto-Vélo, were in competition. After a copyright ruling, L'Auto-Vélo had to drop the 'Vélo' from its name, and its editor, former world hour cycling record holder Henri Desgrange, knew he had to do something big to keep its cycling fans interested. He proposed a race visiting major cities in France: from Paris to Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and finally Nantes, before returning to Paris.
1903 saw the first race, masterminded by Desgrange and single-handedly reported, organized and engineered by the newspaper's chief reporter, Georges Lefèvre.
20,000 people saw the winner Maurice Garin arrive in Paris. The resulting publicity saw Le Vélo go out of business and the Tour become established as an annual event.
In the early days the tour avoided the mountains, and when they were finally included (in 1910) their roads were little more than gravel paths. At some points, the early bicycles - without the lightweight alloys and multiple gears of their latter-day counterparts - had to be carried over the riders' shoulders.
Today the race is held over three weeks in July, ending in Paris. The race distance is normally between 3,000 and 4,000km, in around 20 stages. 20 teams, with nine riders in each, compete against each other and the clock. The rider with the shortest overall time is the winner.
The Tour is the most prestigious event in road cycling. Most other countries have their own versions that last from single-day-long races to week-long events. Along with the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia1 and the Vuelta a España2 make up the three Grand Tours; the latter are two-week events with similarly long histories.
The race is not confined to France. It is often routed into neighbouring countries - and a few times has been further afield. In 1987 it began in West Berlin and had to be flown back across the Iron Curtain after the early stages. 1998 saw the race start in Dublin, and it has crossed the English Channel on several occasions. There was a controversial attempt to start the race in Montreal, Canada, but it resulted in the sacking of the race director.
In the Tour, a number of jerseys are given out to mark the leaders in various competitions that run during the race. The jerseys, especially the yellow, mark out the wearer from the rest of the 200 cyclists.
The yellow jersey (or maillot jaune) in the Tour de France is probably the greatest prize in the world of cycling. It was introduced in 1919 by Henri Desgrange to allow spectators and journalists to identify the race leader. It is yellow because that was the colour of the pages of L'Auto - a newspaper that sponsored the race. After each stage, the yellow jersey is awarded to the person who is top of the overall classification; he wears this on the road the next day. The winner of the Tour de France is the yellow jersey holder after the final stage. He also wears the jersey on the first stage of the next tour. Eddy Merckx holds the record for most yellow jerseys worn.
The green jersey is worn by the winner of the secondary competition that is for the most consistent finisher: it generally goes to a sprint specialist. It was been in existence since 1953. Points for this competition are awarded for the top finishers in every stage. The amount of points per stage is dependant on whether the stages are flat, hilly, mountainous or time trials. In the middle of stages there are intermediate sprints that also have points that go towards the green jersey competition.
The King of the Mountains is the third of the major competitions, the leader of which wears a red polka-dot on white jersey. The competition started in 1933, with the jersey coming later, in 1975. At the summits of climbs, points are awarded to first people across: how many points and how many people are awarded them is dependent on the severity of the climb. Normally one or two riders will rack up most of the points from the first flat week of the race, and will lose the jersey to proper climbers in the first day in the mountains.
The Young Rider competition is fairly self-explanatory: the winner is the leading rider under the age of 26 in general classification. The Young Rider wears the white jersey. The competition and the jersey arrived in 1975. Between 1989 and 2000, the white jersey wasn't worn. Since 1996, the competition has been called Souvenir Fabio Casartelli after the late rider who died on the descent of the Col de Portet d'Aspet in 1995.
In the Team Prize competition, on each day, the times of the first three riders across the line from each team are added up and counted.
The Combativity Award goes to riders who attack regularly throughout the race. They are allowed to wear a white-on-red race number. The award first came into being in 1959. The cyclists who specialise on long attacks on the flat, such as Frenchman Jacky Durand3, normally try to do well here because their attacks usually leave them unable to keep up with the rest of the riders when caught - and finish many minutes behind on the stage. Generally, the more aggressive cyclists will be featured most on the television coverage, so the team sponsor likes to have some among their number.
The rainbow jersey is not a Tour de France award, but is nevertheless another jersey that is likely to be seen. The reigning World Road Race champion is entitled to wear the rainbow jersey rather than his team colours during the road stages. Similarly, it is also worn during the time trials by the reigning World Time Trial champion.4 Former winners of any World Championship title, either on track or road, have the rainbow colours on the sleeves of their normal team jersey.
Like the World Championships, most cycling nations hold a one-off race to determine their National Champion. The winner has the right to wear his national jersey instead of the team colours for the year. In the Tour de France, the National Champions seen most often are the Italians, Dutch, French and Germans - as many others ride for teams that don't get included in the Tour.
The Lanterne Rouge is the mocking title of the last-placed man in the overall classification, named after the red light shown on trains to mark the rearmost carriage.
The red jersey was awarded - in a now defunct competition - to winners of most intermediate sprints. In 1963 only, the green points jersey was actually red to please the sponsor. The competition started in 1971: however, the jersey only lasted from 1984 to 1989.
Another obsolete jersey was multi-coloured, for the person ranked highest across the yellow, green, KOM and red (when it existed) competitions. From 1968 to 1974 the winner got a white jersey. The competition reappeared in 1980 for three years, and then the multi-coloured jersey was awarded between 1985 and 1989.
The Tour de France is divided into a number of daily stages. There are two types of stage: time trial (contre la montre) and road racing. Each person's time for the stage is added up for the overall classification. The winner of each stage is given a prize at the end of the day. A stage win also gets points towards the green jersey and, in some cases, time bonuses in the yellow jersey competition.
The Race of Truth - one man against the clock - is where Tours are won and lost. Bikes here are specially designed for aerodynamics; skin tight body suits are worn and legs are left unshaved:5 anything for more speed. The trials were first held in 1934. Current masters of this format are Germany's Jan Ullrich and the American Lance Armstrong.
The first stage of the Tour de France is the Prologue. This is a short (less than 10km) time trial used to decide the starting positions on the overall classification the next day. A Tour is never won on the Prologue, but in the 1989 Tour, firm favourite Pedro Delgado missed his time slot, didn't make the time back and could only finish third overall. The highest-numbered rider in the tour starts off, eventually followed by last year's winner, wearing the yellow jersey. As of 2004, Chris Boardman of Great Britain holds the three fastest ever Prologue time trials.
Normal Time Trial
The Tour normally has two full-length time trials that go a long way to evaluating the overall winner. The first normally takes place a week into the race: this marks the point when the main contenders become prominent and the yellow jersey stops being swapped between sprinters. The other is usually a few days before the final stage. Sometimes, for added interest, one of the time trials is held on a mountain course. The last-placed rider starts first, followed two minutes later by the next highest, and this carries on until the race leader starts. The average length of a time trial is around 50km. In 2003, David Millar took the record time for a 30km-plus time trial. The fastest ever was the 24km final stage of the 1989 race into Paris, won by Greg LeMond.
LeMond and Fignon in Paris, 1989
1989 saw the closest ever finish to a Tour de France - and one of the few occasions when the race was settled on the last day. When Pedro Delgado, the defending champion and huge favourite, missed his start time for the Prologue, the stage was filled by two former champions. Greg LeMond, in his first Tour since winning in 1986,6 was left to fight it out with champion of 1983 and 1984, Frenchman Laurent Fignon. After three weeks of racing, they came to the last stage: a time trial into Paris. Fignon had a much stronger team with him, and was able to attack LeMond in the mountains to an extent that the latter's team were often left far down the road, LeMond battling on his own.
People had objected that having a time trial as the final stage would ruin the excitement of a traditional sprint finish. What nobody could have predicted was that LeMond would be coming into the final time trial in second position, let alone within a minute of the Frenchman. The American was superior against the clock and so it seemed there would be an interesting finish after all.
With nobody thinking that anybody could claw back the time gap from the great Fignon in just 25km, the pressure was off LeMond. Fignon, over-confident, refused to use the aerodynamic advances that LeMond had pioneered, and was unable to do anything to counter the American who produced a record breaking ride to claim victory in the stage and the Tour itself by just a few seconds.
Team Time Trial
Each team sets off as a group and rides as a group until the finish. The time is taken from the fifth rider to cross the line. As well as the spectacle of the awesome machine-like efficiency of a professional cycling team working together, this highlights the importance of a good combined effort. These are normally slightly longer than the individual time trials, and first began in the Tour in 1954.
Most of the Tour de France is held on flat roads. The sight of 200 hundred riders pedalling together through sunflower fields is its trademark. Villages come and go, seemingly with all the residents lining the streets. Having the Tour visit is a great honour for each place on the route. Flat stages normally end in one of two ways: a bunch sprint or a breakaway.
A breakaway is when one or more riders escape from the front of the field. As well as having a chance of the stage win, these riders provide their sponsors with massive television coverage. Most breakaways fail when the teams without an interest in the breakaway chase them back, hoping for a sprint. The politics of riders in a breakaway has enough detail to make a Guide Entry in itself.
When a breakaway doesn't reach the finish first, a bunch sprint is the general outcome. From three or four kilometres to go, the teams with the big sprinters - powerful, brave (or stupid) men - race through the streets of the destination town, trying to get their man the best possible lead-out for the line. When there is 400m to go, all the lead-out men are gone and it is left to the sprinters to prove who is the best. The speeds are incredible; the bikes weave from side to side under the power of the riders' legs. After as much as 250km of riding the result may come down to just a wheel width at over 60kmh.
Bordeaux is the most visited town on the Tour outside Paris. The race arriving here will almost always mean a sprint finish.
All modern Tours have ended in Paris. The stage is generally not taken too seriously - a flute of champagne on the road or people posing for pictures, for example - and is not normally very long. However, as soon as the race goes into the city, people get down to business. The final part of the Tour comprises eight laps of the Champs Elysées,7 finishing with the sprint that everybody wants to win: first over the line at Paris. The Tour hasn't always used the same finish, previously ending in a stadium for a few years.
Blessed with so many picturesque mountain ranges, the Tour will always race though the Alps and the Pyrenees, as well as occasionally visiting the Massif Central, the Vosges and the Jura.
Climbs are rated in five categories, with four being the smallest, to the steep first and Hors8 category climbs.
The climbers are specialists in the mountains: generally they are lightly built, able to turn gears very quickly, darting off the front, forcing changes of pace on the group that they are with and hoping nobody will respond. Of the recent riders, Marco Pantini was probably the best at this. Most Colombian riders, such as Luis Herrera, are specialist climbers.
One bad day in the mountains can ruin a Tour for anybody, and it is important for the big contenders to be able to cope. The real contenders have the ability to compete with climbers in the mountains. Lance Armstrong, for example, has developed himself to produce the burst of speed that characterises a climber, while men like Jan Ullrich and Miguel Indurain, both much bigger-framed, steadily pump round the pedals on much bigger gears.
What goes up must come down, and once you get up the mountain, it's most likely that you will have to descend the other side. Easily reaching 80kph on a contact patch smaller than the size of a thumbnail, descents are very dangerous - especially as the weather in the mountains can change very quickly.
Crowds on mountain stages can be ten deep: people camping for days to get their position on the hill. By the last climb on a big stage, the race can be stretched over 40 minutes on the road, and with the riders climbing at just about running pace it gives people more opportunities to see their heroes.
L'Alpe d'Huez is, without doubt, the most important climb in the Tour. When visited, the Alpe becomes home to tens of thousands of Dutch fans (not having many mountains of their own) and many hundreds of thousands of others who line the 14km of hairpin bends that wind from the village of Bourg d'Oisons to the ski resort at the top. Sitting at a height of 1,850m, it isn't the tallest mountain in the race - but is possibly the most feared. Just as a sprinter wants to win in Paris, a climber wants to be victorious here.
Not part of any major range, Mont Ventoux (Windy Mountain) sits alone, dominating Provence.9 With a lunar rocky landscape, it is stark and foreboding, rising to 1,912m in height. On the climb, the race pays tribute to Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who lost his life there.10
Other Useful Terms
The peloton is the name for the main body of cyclists in the race. Cycling in the peloton saves a lot of energy, with reduced wind resistance. However, cycling in such close proximity to 200 people can be hazardous, especially with limited visibility and obstacles such as road islands and roundabouts.
Different teams can be seen at the front at various times of the stage. The team of the yellow jersey holder or of a leading sprinter normally sets a high pace up front, so as to stop attacks which may lead to the loss of the yellow jersey or stage. If a breakaway attack is in progress, the sprinters' teams may be trying to reel them in. Likewise, if a potential threat to the lead is in the attack, the team of the yellow jersey may be the frontrunners. Often mixed up with them are people from teams that have representatives up front who are trying to break up the rhythm of the chase.
The speed of the peloton can often be judged by its shape: if the riders at the front are spread across the road then it is likely the peloton is not at top speed. If there is a thin snake of riders then the group can be riding at up to 60kmh in pursuit of a break or in the build-up to the big sprint.
There is a time limit for each stage based on the winner's time. In a mountain stage, a lot of the larger riders such as the sprinters have trouble getting up the climbs. In order to not be disqualified these riders form the autobus, a large group of riders riding at a pace that is worked out to keep them just about in the race.
Vehicles with the Race
As well as the riders there are a large number of vehicles that ride along with the race.
All the teams have at least two cars that carry spare bikes, along with the sporting directors of the team. There are also neutral service vehicles - bikes and cars that can offer wheel changes. The race officials ride in red cars, occasionally with distinguished guests on board. A number of motorbikes on the course keep riders informed of time gaps using the tried and tested technology of a chalk-board.
The are three live television bikes feeding pictures to a helicopter above, as well as more carrying numerous still photographers.
Although the Tour saw sponsored teams compete throughout most of its history, in the 1930s it was organised around national teams. One drawback from this was that there was a lot less money coming into the race, so in 1930 the publicity caravan first appeared. Still as much a part of the race as ever, the caravan precedes the riders and consists of a multitude of (often funny-shaped) vehicles giving away product samples. With hundreds of thousands of fans a day lining the route, sponsors pull out all the stops to give the spectators a memorable day.
The longest tour was in 1926, when it was 5,795km.
The shortest were in 1903 and 1904, both lasting 2,428km. The shortest modern-day tour was in 2002 at 3,279km.
Paris has hosted the race more than any other town, followed by Bordeaux, Pau and Bagnères-de-Luchon.
As of 2004, the fastest Tour was the 2003 Tour at an average of just under 41kph.
The longest stage was run twice in 1919 and 1924 from Les Sables d'Olonne to Bayonne: it was 482km long.
The Tour employs its own motorcycle police force.
The tour takes with it a veritable village, with shops, restaurants and a post office for the legions of riders, team staff, journalists and officials. The village is packed up and moved on to the next departure town as soon as the race leaves in the morning. One unique feature11 is that it has the only bank in France that can open on Bastille Day.
Didi Senft, the 'Devil', is a famously obsessed fan who wears a satanic costume and has a big bike.