Tour de France 101 — How to Follow the Race
The Tour de France is the largest and most popular cycling event in the world — and for good reason. The 21-day annual race covers approximately 3,600 kilometers (2,236 miles) of grueling mountain climbs, high-paced speeds and blistering sprints. Although the route varies from year to year, the Tour has ended in Paris on the Champs-Elysees since 1975.
Because the Tour is one of the few pro cycling events that receives widespread public attention in the U.S., many of the race details are foreign to those not accustomed to following pro cycling. A basic knowledge of stage race fundamentals and a familiarity with bicycle racing terms makes the race easier to understand and more exciting to watch.
Originated in 1903, the Tour de France is a stage race, a multi-day race consisting of a series of separate races, or stages, of various types (flat stages, mountain stages and time trials). Each rider’s finishing time is recorded at the end of each stage. The successive stages in the Tour de France take place over a period of three weeks. The 2011 Tour begins in the Vendee on the west coast of France on Saturday July 2nd and concludes in Paris on Sunday July 24th. It features a prologue (a short, individual race against the clock), which will be followed by 20 days of racing and two rest days. The cyclist with the lowest cumulative time at the completion of the last stage is declared the Tour winner.
This year’s Tour features a field of 22 teams comprised of nine riders each. Teams can be identified by their matching jerseys and shorts (called race kits), which feature the names of their sponsors. In addition to the team jerseys worn by Tour cyclists, five distinctively colored jerseys are worn by selected riders.
It Takes All Kinds
Like other athletes on sports teams, most pro cyclists have specialized skills suited to various disciplines — in the case of cyclists in the Tour, these are time-trials, mountain climbs and sprints. Exceptional riders may excel in all disciplines. These cyclists generally have the best chances of turning in the best overall time and winning the Tour. If you watch the Tour closely, you’ll see that each team employs tactics that take advantage of the different strengths of its riders.
1. Time-Trial Riders specialize in racing at a fast and steady pace. Time-trial stages are generally short, about 8 to 25 miles, and the riders race against the clock. Time-trial specialists are always perceived as good contenders for the overall GC because they have the ability to break away from the main field (the peloton) and build large time gaps in the time-trial events. Their equipment is very aerodynamic, with features including narrow-profile handlebar extensions, disc wheels, and streamlined helmets. Strong time-trial riders have the ability to win individual stages by breaking away from the peloton in small groups, or even solo. They generally don’t win field sprint finishes, but can provide excellent lead-outs for sprint specialists to draft behind and maximize their sprint speeds when they swing out for the finish.
2. Climbers excel in mountainous terrain. Their smaller, lighter physiques provide an advantage when ascending. Climbers can be a factor in the GC and are always contenders for mountain stage wins with their ability to ride away from the peloton in the mountains and put time between themselves and the field. Like time-trial specialists, climbers do not sprint well and are usually not contenders for field sprint finishes.
3. Sprinters are built for speed and have a knack for hitting the finish line first in the flatter finishes. With drafting playing a key role in sprint tactics, look for these riders to swing out from about 5-10 places behind the leader within the final 1/8 - 1/4 mile before the finish line. Although they are threats to winning individual stages, these riders are usually not contenders for the GC because there isn't much of a time gap between the sprint winner and the field. In fact, due to their inability to climb and time-trial well, many sprinters rely on time bonuses just to avoid being dropped from the race (there is a minimum time cut-off for stragglers) because they lose so much time in the mountains.