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A Crash Course on the Tour de France

Updated on July 20, 2012

For those of you who have a significant other who is a cyclist and a fan of the Tour de France here is a short explanation of the event so that you can make some sense of what is going on if you want to join him or her. For one thing the tour lasts 3 weeks in July which could make a long absence from your loved one if you don't join them in front of the TV.

Even though one man wins, the Tour is made up of teams of 9 riders each. The winner will be the rider with the shortest overall time for completing the tour, but without a team to help him it would be an impossible job. Not all teams will have a Tour leader (someone who has a chance to win the Tour). But they will have people who could possibly win stages or other competitions within the Tour. The winner has to be good at time trials, climbs and sprints. It is possible to win the Tour without winning a single stage.

The other competitions consist of points gained during the stages of the Tour for the best sprinter (the green jersey), king of the mountains for the best climber (polka dot jersey, white with red dots) and the best young rider under the age of 26 years (white jersey). These are awarded daily at the end of each stage to whoever has the highest points in the appropriate category for that day. The yellow jersey signifies the overall leader of the Tour. This can change frequently as they battle for first place in the General Classification (GC). Of course the goal in all of these is to be the one who wins the yellow jersey (or green, polka dot or white) at the end of the race.

The entire race covers over 2,000 miles. Many of the stages (daily races) are around 100 miles so there are long periods of what looks like nothing important going on. However, the strategy of each team and rider is going on constantly. The duties of the non-leader team members will be to protect their captain and help him attain whatever the goal is for that day. They will keep him near the front to avoid most of the crashes, and get him in position to either keep or better his overall standing. This is done by riding in front of him to help him conserve energy. Drafting (or riding behind someone's wheel) can conserve up to 30% of a rider's energy. The team will take turns riding in front of their lead rider.

These team riders who sacrifice themselves are called domestiques (or servants). They will use their energy to get their leader in a good position to better their standing, propel them in a sprint, help pull them up a grueling mountain stage or even give up a wheel or bike if the leader has a mechanical problem and the team car is not near. The domestique will also go back to the team car for water bottles for their teammates. Occasionally they may get a chance at a stage win or to show they are capable of more in future races.

On most days there will be a breakaway. This will consist of a small group of riders who will pull ahead of the peloton (this is where the bulk of the riders will be). The breakaway may start early or later in the stage, and most breakaways will be caught up by the peloton before the end of the stage. However, some succeed and some of these riders have a chance to win a stage, so the incentive is great. Breakaways are also used tactically. Any of the overall leaders of the Tour will not chase down a breakaway if there is no one in the breakaway who would be a threat to his GC. However, if another leader or someone who has a lower GC can gain enough time to become a threat to a leader's position then the breakaway will have to be caught. Most of the riders in a breakaway will be from different teams and they will work together to keep from getting caught by the peloton.

About 180 riders start but due to sickness and crashes some will have to abandon the Tour. If a rider can't finish a stage or start the next day then they are out. Some crash injuries, such as road rash, scrapes and bruises, are handled while the rider is moving along side of the team car. The doctor has to lean out the window and dress wounds. This is also how some mechanical problems are solved. Saddles, pedals, etc. are adjusted this way. A rider who wants to stay in the Tour has to be back on the bike and riding as soon as possible after a crash to be able to keep up with the peloton and not lose time.

This is just a short course on the Tour de France which should answer some initial questions. When the riding seems a little slow and boring, stick with it. The sprint finishes, the time trials, the thrilling fast speed descents and the unbelievable climbs are exciting, and the French scenery is well worth the time. The strength and stamina of the riders have to be seen to be appreciated. By the end of the Tour you will be a fan and hooked forever.


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